Isaac Newton: Outline Biography
Created | Updated Aug 8, 2013
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No man understands me... what will become of me... I know not what to do.
- Isaac Newton, age 16
Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day 1642 in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire. He was a sickly baby, possibly born very prematurely and not expected to live. His father died before he was born, and his mother remarried and moved away while he was still very young, leaving him with his grandparents and the family's servants. He was bright but not exceptional at school, and what skill he did have seemed to be practical - he was noted for his working wooden toys: carts and such.
We have few direct records of Newton's childhood. We must rely on his own notebooks from the period. These often consist of word lists, astronomical charts or 'quack' remedies. This may not be the ideal material, but it's what we have to work with, tempting many biographers into elaborate psychological speculations.
We also have the reminiscences of Newton himself, and of those who knew him. These were collected by early biographers, such as William Stukely (author of Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton's Life) but have a tendency to reflect the reputation that Newton developed during his lifetime. Few show him in a negative light, and many are contradictory (there are no less than four different versions of the famous apple story).
His schooling was initially academically undistinguished. Yet he was clearly bright, and seems to have caught the eye of some family connections, who began grooming him for University, much against his mother's wishes. When he did turn the corner in terms of test results, it was quite sudden - Newton claimed it was due to a fight with another boy.
In 1661, Newton entered Cambridge university. His mother, although wealthy in her own right, still did not entirely approve of this career choice, and gave him a rather miserly £10 annual allowance. Even added to the £10-15 per annum fees she also would have paid for him, this was hardly a dent in her roughly £700 yearly income at the time, but left Newton uncomfortably short in his day-to-day living. He was forced to work as a servant to other scholars, a sizar.
This continued until the Great Plague of 1665 forced the closure of Cambridge University. Newton returned to Woolsthorpe, and embarked upon his anni mirabili, the 'miraculous years' in which he laid the foundations of much of his life's scientific work. When he returned to Cambridge, he not only had read all the standard texts on mathematics, but had taken his knowledge of the subject beyond that of anyone else alive at the time. Yet, always secretive, he revealed his new knowledge only to his closest confidants.
Also around this time Newton had become a religious heretic, an Arian. One of the ancient branches of Christianity, dominant in Spain until the Muslim conquest, Arians believed that Jesus was created by God. This put them in conflict with the Catholic and Protestant mainstreams, who believed Jesus to be an equal, uncreated part of God. Throughout his life, Newton struggled to keep secret both his heretical faith and his interest in the illegal and disreputable art of alchemy.
By 1667, Cambridge was clear of the plague (the Great Fire of London in 1666 had accelerated the disease's decline in England by eliminating a good proportion of the nation's filth and rats) and Newton could return, in search of an MA and a Fellowship. Events (and the patronage of Humphrey Babington) conspired to help him here; no new fellows had been appointed during the plague years, and with the heavy toll that plague and alcohol had taken on the academics, there were several vacancies. After a gruelling four days of exams (three days oral and one day written), he became a Minor Fellow, on the princely stipend of £2 per annum. Shortly thereafter, he passed his MA to become a Major Fellow, on £2.13s.4d. On top of that, he could rake in £25 from the college endowments and £80 from his various properties. Added to the allowance he still received from his mother, this gave Newton a comfortable and secure income - though not so comfortable that he didn't claim the allowances for board and robes, and he bumped his income up still further by sub-letting his rooms, according to his meticulously-kept accounts.
Having finally established himself as a permanent fixture in academia, Newton did what any self-respecting graduate would do. Those same accounts tell us that - for almost the only time in his life - Newton indulged in recreational drinking and gambling. He even decorated his rooms in frivolously gaudy crimson. Yet this seems to have been the extent of his carnal passions; later acquaintances report no hobby more strenuous or controversial than taking walks in his garden and an apparent interest in brewing cider. As a test of the honesty of his servants, he kept a box of guineas unguarded by his window. Even more telling of his more usual character, he seems to have abruptly broken off his budding friendship with a chemist called Vigami when the latter made the mistake of telling a 'blue' joke in Newton's presence - hardly a social faux pas in Cambridge society at the time.
A few years later, in 1669, Mercator (of map projection fame) published a book called Logarithmotechnia. In it, he independently came up with identical results to some part of Newton's work. Newton seems to have been a little shocked by this - he regarded himself as an almost divine messenger, and to see someone else equally capable would be a threat to him throughout his life. On this first occasion, however, he almost shrugged the matter off. Mercator had no way of knowing of Newton's work, and had clearly not progressed as far. Newton set his own techniques down in a short essay, De Analysi per Aequationes Numeri Terminorum Infinitas, which he dispatched to his contact in London, Isaac Barrow. Barrow was immediately impressed, and pushed Newton to allow him to publish it. Ever secretive, Newton refused.
Barrow was an influential friend to have, the first Lucasian Professor and an early member of the Royal Society. He seems to have become something of a mentor to Newton - as a mathematician, Puritan and alchemist, he may have had a lot in common with the younger man. Barrow was ambitious, and had set his sights on rising above a mere professorship. So when he was offered the chance to become personal Chaplain to Charles II, he leapt at it. Of course, this meant resigning his Chair, which in turn meant deciding who his successor should be. And right at the front of his mind was the 26-year old prodigy, Isaac Newton. Newton had recently been voted into the Royal Society, on 11 January, 1672, on the basis of his invention of the reflecting telescope; he had presented his first example of the telescope to the Society the previous year. Perhaps more significantly, the February 1672 edition of the Society journal, the Philosophical Transactions, contained Newton's paper on the Theory of Light and Colours - the first time that experimental evidence had been used to alter a traditional theory. Barrow seems to have had no hesitation in recommending Newton as flavour of the month.
This was a major step up for Newton. He was now guaranteed an income of £100 per annum for life. The post was an academically prestigious one. He had developed such a reputation in Cambridge that he was on one occasion asked (and gave) his advice on continental travel - this from a Newton whose peregrinations amounted to a single journey to London. His obligations were cursory at most - he had to give a single series of lectures each term (in fact he never gave more than one series per year), transcripts of which were to be deposited in the university library. Since these lectures were not on the syllabus, they were frequently not attended by any students, and Newton would often speak for 15 or 30 minutes to an empty room.
Barrow would go on to be Master of Trinity College and founder of Trinity library.
Newton now had a solid reputation among his peers. Yet to the world at large, he remained unknown.
Remembrances of Newton from his Cambridge room-mates reflect the image of the otherworldly genius. A French mathematician, on reading the Principia, is said to have cried out 'Does he eat and drink and sleep? Is he like other men?' In point of fact, it seems that the answer was pretty much 'no'. For most of his working life, Newton stayed up until 3 or 4 in the morning, sleeping for just 4 hours. He would eat standing up, or forget to eat at all. Contempories noted Newton's habits of working until the small hours and of going to the Great Hall at mealtimes and then forgetting to eat as he became engrossed in making notes and calculations on a serviette. Eating in his chambers was no better; 'His cat grew fat', said one man who knew him, 'on the meals he forgot to eat.' He is even recorded as having attended the wrong church when particularly distracted on the journey.
Fame found Newton with the publication of the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. Although few could understand the dense and complex Latin work, word quickly spread of its importance and Newton found himself fêted. From what we know of his personality, he would have considered this no less than his due. Newton was also becoming a controversial figure, arguing very publically with Robert Hooke (a noted physicist in his own right, and Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society).
Newton formed a close relationship with a young Swiss mathematician called Nicolas Fatio de Duilier. The intensity and brevity of this, combined with Fatio's later apparent homosexual tendencies, have led some to speculate that Newton and Fatio may have been involved romantically.
In 1693, Newton suffered some form of breakdown. What caused this is not clear - it may have been overwork, or the stress of long hours, or even the breakup of an intense romance with Fatio. What is clear is that Newton wrote a series of bizarre letters to his close friends Samuel Pepys and John Locke, accusing them of plotting to embroil him with 'woemen' (adding further weight to the theory of a romantic relationship with Duilier). Within two months, Pepys wrote a diplomatic letter back to Newton with an innocuous problem on gaming theory. Newton's reply was calm, and he apologised for his previous letter, the contents of which he claimed no longer to remember.
Although Newton's recovery was rapid and complete, rumours continued to circulate for up to two years that he was now a helpless madman.
He became embroiled in public life, initially reluctantly. He served as MP for Cambridge University on two occasions, helping to ratify the Glorious Revolution. As a reward, he was handed the post of Warden (and later Master) of the Royal Mint, and promptly set about one of the most radical overhauls of English (and, after the Act of Union in 1707, Scottish) currency in history.
Simultaneously, he took control of the Royal Society, and probably saved it from collapse, turning it into his personal fiefdom in the process. His private life was now dominated by a series of acrimonious feuds with other scientists, notably including Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz, who claimed priority in the invention of calculus, and Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed.
Newton became Sir Isaac in 1705. By this stage, he was living in wealthy semi-retirement in London. He had a carriage, a sedan chair, 6 servants, and enough crockery to entertain 40.
In old age, he seems to have become more interested in his family. He invested in the South Seas Company1, but astutely spotted that its share price could not carry on rising forever and took his money out at a sizeable profit. However, as the stocks continued to rise, he became caught up in the national craze and once again invested heavily. When the South Sea Bubble burst, Newton was among the big losers - the £20,000 he lost was a huge blow, although unlike some others he was not altogether wiped out.
Newton was by now living with his niece, Catherine Barton, a beautiful socialite who conducted an affair with Newton's patron Baron Halifax, then after Halifax died married John Conduitt, a wealthy banker and later a biographer (some would say hagiographer) of Newton (and Newton's successor as Master of the Mint).
By 1722, Newton's health was failing. He suffered from kidney stones and incontinence, and was forced to use a bath chair. Gout eventually forced him to move to Kensington (then a rather rural suburb).
In later life, it was Newton's Biblical chronology that dominated his life. An abridged version was 'leaked' in France in 1724 with - horror of horrors - a list of corrections to Newton's workings. What time he spent on science was unproductive, seeking a unified theory that would explain all of science, and a mechanism for gravity (both problems that remain largely unsolved to this day). His religious views continued to diverge further from the mainstream - he concluded that Jesus had a 'spiritual body' that was somehow connected to the idea of an 'ether'. Jesus and the ether were, in this view, the means by which God interacted with the world.
In 1727, becoming increasingly frail, he burned a box full of his papers.
Sir Isaac Newton died in 1727, on 30 March, at the age of 84. His estate of £32,000 was divided between his eight nephews and nieces. Having outlived most of his rivals, he had carefully nurtured his image and reputation in later life. Despite refusing the last rites, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Nature and nature's laws lay hid in nightNewton sketch supplied by the Library of Congress
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light
- Alexander Pope