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Isaac Newton/Early life and achievements

This is a sub-page of the Isaac Newton article, and discusses his life and work from his birth in 1642 until the start of his Professorship in 1670. See the talk page for information on sources and editing style.

Birth and Schooling

Sir Isaac Newton (16421727), English physicist, was born on December 25, 1642 (o.s.), at Woolsthorpe, a hamlet in the parish of Colsterworth[?], Lincolnshire, about 6 miles from Grantham[?]. His father (also Isaac Newton) who farmed a small freehold property of his own, died before his son's birth, a few months after his marriage to Hannah Ayscough[?], a daughter of James Ayscough[?] of Market-Overton[?]. When Newton was little more than two years old his mother married Barnabas Smith[?], rector of North Witham[?]. Of this marriage there was issue, Benjamin, Mary and Hannah Smith, and to their children Sir Isaac Newton subsequently left the greater part of his property.

After having acquired the rudiments of education at two small schools in hamlets close to Woolsthorpe, Newton was sent at the age of twelve to the grammar school of Grantham. While attending Grantham school Newton lived in the house of Mr Clark, an apothecary of that town. According to his own confession he was far from industrious, and stood very low in his class. An unprovoked attack from the boy next above him led to a fight, which Newton won. This success seems to have led him to greater exertions, and he rose to be the head boy of the school. He displayed very early a taste and an aptitude for mechanical contrivances. He made windmills, water-clocks[?], kites and dials, and he is said to have invented a four-wheeled carriage which was to be moved by the rider.

In 1656 his stepfather Mr Smith died, and Newton's mother came back with her three children to Woolsthorpe. Newton was then fifteen years old, and, since his mother very likely intended him to be a farmer, he was taken away from school. He was frequently sent on market days to Grantham with an old and trusty servant, who made all the purchases, while Newton spent his time among the books in Mr Clark's house. It soon became apparent to Newton's relatives that they were making a great mistake in attempting to turn him into a farmer, and he was therefore sent back again to school at Grantham.

Undergraduate Studies at Trinity College

Newton's mother's brother, William Ayscough, the rector of Burton Coggles, the next parish, was a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, and when he found that Newton's mind was wholly devoted to mechanical and mathematical problems, he urged upon Mrs Smith the desirability of sending her son to his own college. He was accordingly admitted a member of Trinity College on June 5, 1661, as a subsizar[?], and was matriculated on July 8. We have scarcely any information as to his attainments when he commenced residence, and very little as to his studies as an undergraduate. It is known that while still at Woolsthorpe, he read Sanderson[?]'s Logic[?]. His tutor found that he knew the material well enough to be excused from a course of lectures on that subject.

Newton tells us himself that, when be had purchased a book on astrology at Stourbridge[?] fair, a fair held close to Cambridge, he was unable, on account of his ignorance of trigonometry, to understand a figure of the heavens which was drawn in this book. He therefore bought an English edition of Euclid with an index of propositions at the end of it, and, having turned to two or three which he thought might be helpful, he found them so obvious that dismissed Euclid "as a trifling book," and applied himself to the study of Descartes's Geometry. It is reported that in his examination for a scholarship at Trinity, to which he was elected on April 28, 1664, he was examined in Euclid by Dr Isaac Barrow, who was disappointed in Newton's lack of knowledge on the subject. Newton was convinced to read the Elements again with care, and thereby to form a more favourable estimate of Euclid's merits.

The study of Descartes's Geometry seems to have inspired Newton with a love of the subject, and to have introduced him to the higher mathematics. In a small commonplace book, bearing on the seventh page the date of January 1664, there are several articles on angular sections[?], and the squaring of curves[?] and "crooked lines that may be squared," several calculations about musical notes, geometrical propositions from Francis Vieta[?] and Frans van Schooten, annotations out of Wallis's Arithmetic of Infinities, together with observations on refraction, on the grinding of "spherical optic glasses," on the errors of lenses and the method of rectifying them, and on the extraction of all kinds of roots, particularly those "in affected powers." And in this same commonplace book the following entry made by Newton himself, many years afterwards, gives a further account of the nature of his work during the period when he was an undergraduate:

"July 4, 1699. By consulting an account of my expenses at Cambridge, in the years 1663 and 1664, I find that, in the year 1664 a little before Christmas, I, being then Senior Sophister, bought Schooten's Miscellanies and Cartes' Geometry (having read this Geometry and Oughtred's Clavis clean over half a year before), and borrowed Wallis's works, and by consequence made these annotations out of Schooten and Wallis, in winter between the years 1664 and 1665. At such time I found the method of Infinite Series; and in summer 1665, being forced from Cambridge by the plague, I computed the area of the Hyperbola at Boothby[?], in Lincolnshire, to two and fifty figures by the same method."

That Newton must have begun early to make careful observations of natural phenomena is sufficiently testified by the following remarks about halos, which appear in his Optics, book ii. part iv. obs. 13:

"The like Crowns appear sometimes about the moon; for in the beginning of the Year 1664, February 19th, at night, I saw two such Crowns about her. The Diameter of the first or innermost was about three Degrees, and that of the second about five Degrees and an half. Next about the moon was a Circle of white, and next about that the inner Crown, which was of a bluish green within next the white, and of a yellow and red without, and next about these Colours were blue and green on the inside of the Outward Crown, and red on the outside of it. At the same time there appeared a Halo about 22 Degrees 35' distant from the centre of the moon. It was elliptical, and its long Diameter was perpendicular to the Horizon, verging below farthest from the moon."

Early Work as a Graduate

In January 1665 Newton took the degree of B.A. The persons appointed (in conjunction with the proctors, John Slade[?] of Catharine Hall[?], and Benjamin Pulleyn[?] of Trinity College, Newton's tutor) to examine the questionists were John Eachard[?] of Catharine Hall and Thomas Gipps[?] of Trinity College. It is a curious accident that we have no information about the respective merits of the candidates for a degree in this year, since the "ordo senioritatis" of the bachelors of arts for the year is omitted in the "Grace Book."

It is supposed that it was in 1665 that the method of fluxións (his word for "derivatives") first occurred to Newton's mind. There are several papers still existing in Newton's handwriting bearing dates 1665 and 1666 in which the method is described, in some of which dotted or dashed letters are used to represent fluxions, and in some of which the method is explained without the use of dotted letters.

Both in 1665 and in 1666 Trinity College was dismissed on account of the plague. On each occasion it was agreed, as appears by entries in the "Conclusion Book" of the college, dated August 7, 1665, and June 22, 1666, and signed by the master of the college, Dr Pearson, that all fellows and scholars who were dismissed on account of the pestilence be allowed one month's commons. Newton must have left college before August 1665, as his name does not appear in the list of those who received extra commons on that occasion, and he tells us himself in the extract from his commonplace book already quoted that he was "forced from Cambridge by the plague" in the summer of that year.

He was elected a fellow of his college on the October 1, 1667. There were nine vacancies, one of which was caused by the death of Abraham Cowley[?] in the previous summer, and the nine successful candidates were all of the same academic standing. A few weeks after his election to a fellowship Newton went to Lincolnshire, and did not return to Cambridge till the February following. In March 1668 he took his degree of M.A.

During the years 1666 to 1669 Newton's studies were very diverse. It is known that he bought prisms and lenses on two or three occasions, and also chemicals and a furnace, apparently for chemical experiments; but he also employed part of his time on the theory of fluxions and other branches of pure mathematics. He wrote a paper, Analysu per Equationes Numero Terminorum Infinitas, which he put, probably in June 1669, into the hands of Isaac Barrow (then Lucasian professor of mathematics), at the same time giving him permission to communicate its contents to their common friend John Collins[?] (16241683), a mathematician of no mean order. Barrow did this on July 31, 1669, but kept the name of the author a secret, and merely told Collins that he was a friend staying at Cambridge, who had a powerful genius for such matters. In a subsequent letter on August 20, Barrow expressed his pleasure at hearing the favourable opinion which Collins had formed of the paper, and added, "the name of the author is Newton, a fellow of our college, and a young man, who is only in his second year since he took the degree of master of arts, and who, with an unparalleled genius (exitnio quo est acumine), has made very great progress in this branch of mathematics." Shortly afterwards Barrow resigned his chair, and was instrumental in securing Newton's election as his successor.

Next: The first 15 years as Lucasian professor

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