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Isaac Newton/Later life -- the Mint and the Royal Society

This is a sub-page of the Isaac Newton article, dealing with his time at the Mint and his presidency of the Royal Society. See the talk page for information on sources and editing style.

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Appointment to the Mint

During his residence in London Newton had made the acquaintance of John Locke. Locke had taken a very great interest in the new theories of the Principia. He was one of a number of Newton's friends who began to be uneasy and dissatisfied at seeing the most eminent scientific man of his age left to depend upon the meagre remuneration of a college fellowship and a professorship.

At one time Newton's friends had nearly succeeded in getting him appointed provost of King's College, Cambridge, but the college offered a successful resistance on the ground that the appointment would be illegal, as the statutes required that the provost should be in priest's orders. Charles Montagu, who was afterwards earl of Halifax, was a fellow of Trinity College, and was a very intimate friend of Newton; and it was on his influence that Newton relied in the main for promotion to some honourable and lucrative post. His hopes, however, were spoiled by long delay. In one of his letters to Locke at the beginning of 1692, when Montagu, Lord Monmouth and Locke were exerting themselves to obtain some appointment for him, Newton wrote that he was "fully convinced that Mr Montagu, upon an old grudge which he thought had been worn out, was false to him."

Newton was now 55 years old, and whilst those of his own standing at the university had been appointed to high posts in church or state, he still remained without any mark of national gratitude. But this blot upon the English name was at last removed by Montagu in 1694, when he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. He had previously consulted Newton upon the subject of the recoinage, and on the opportunity occurring he appointed Newton to the post of warden of the mint. In a letter to Newton announcing the news, Montagu writes: "I am very glad that at last I can give you a good proof of my friendship, and the esteem the king has of your merits. Mr Overton, the warden of the mint, is made one of the Commissioners of Customs, and the king has promised me to make Mr Newton warden of the mint. The office is the most proper for you. 'Tis the chief office in the mint: 'tis worth five or six hundred pounds per annum, and has not too much business to require more attendance than you can spare."

This letter must have convinced Newton of the sincerity of Montagu's good intentions towards him; we find them living as friends on the most intimate terms until Halifax's death in 1715.

Newton's chemical and mathematical knowledge proved of great use in carrying out the recoinage. This was completed in about two years. In 1697 Newton was appointed to the mastership of the mint, a post worth between £1200 and £1500 per annum. While he held this office, Newton drew up a very extensive table of assays of foreign coins, and composed an official report on the coinage.


Up to the time of the publication of the Principia in 1687 the method of fluxions which had been invented by Newton, and had been of great assistance to him in his mathematical investigations, was still, except to Newton and his friends, a secret. One of the most important rules of the method forms the second lemma of the second book of the Principia. Though this new and powerful method was of great help to Newton in his work, he did not exhibit it in the results. He was aware that the well known geometrical methods of the ancients would make his new creations seem less strange and uncouth to those not familiar with the new method. The Principia gives no information on the subject of the notation adopted in the new calculus, and it was not until 1693 that it was communicated to the scientific world in the second volume of John Wallis's works.

Newton's admirers in the Netherlands informed Dr Wallis that Newton's method of fluxions passed there under the name of Leibnitz's Calculus Differentials. It was therefore thought necessary that an early opportunity should be taken of asserting Newton's claim to be the inventor of the method of fluxions, and this was the reason for this method first appearing in Wallis's works. A further account of the method was given in the first edition of Newton's Optics, which appeared in 1704.

To this work were added two treatises, entitled Accedunt tractatus duo ejusdem authoris de speciebus & magnitudine figurarum curvilinearum, the one bearing the title Introductio ad Quadratura Curvarum, and the other Enumeratio linearum tertii ordinis. The first contains an explanation of the doctrine of fluxions, and of its application to the quadrature of curves; the second, a classification of 72 curves of the third order, with an account of their properties.

The reason for publishing these two tracts in his Optics, from the subsequent editions of which they were omitted, is thus stated in the advertisement: "In a letter written to Leibnitz in the year 1679, and published by Dr Wallis, I mentioned a method by which I had found some general theorems about squaring curvilinear figures on comparing them with the conic sections, or other the simplest figures with which they might be compared. And some years ago I lent out a manuscript containing such theorems; and having since met with some things copied out of it, I have on this occasion made it public, prefixing to it an introduction, and joining a Scholium concerning that method. And I have joined with it another small tract concerning the curvilinear figures of the second kind, which was also written many years ago, and made known to some friends, who have solicited the, making it public."

In 1707 William Whiston published the algebra lectures which Newton had delivered at Cambridge, under the title of Arithmetica Universalis, sive de Corn positione et Resolutione Arithmetica Liber [OCR error - title may be wrong]. We are not accurately informed how Whiston obtained possession of this work, but it is stated by one of the editors of the English edition "that Mr Whiston, thinking it a pity that so noble and useful a work should be doomed to a college confinement, obtained leave to make it public." It was soon afterwards translated into English by Raphson; and a second edition of it, with improvements by the author, was published at London in 1712, by Dr Machin, secretary to the Royal Society. With the view of stimulating mathematicians to write annotations on this admirable work, 's Gravesande[?] published a tract, entitled Specimen Commentarii in Arithmetican Universalem; and Maclaurin's Algebra seems to have been drawn up in consequence of this appeal.

Bernoulli's Mathematical Challenge

Newton's solution of the celebrated problems proposed by John Bernoulli[?] and Leibnitz deserves mention among his mathematical works. In June 1696 Bernoulli addressed a letter to the mathematicians of Europe challenging them to solve two problems—(1) to determine the brachistochrone[?] between two given points not in the same vertical line, (2) to determine a curve such that, if a straight line drawn through a fixed point A meet it in two points P1, P2, then AP1m+AP2m [OCR garbled] will be constant. This challenge was first made in the Ada Lipsiensia for June 1696.

Six months were allowed by Bernoulli for the solution of the problem, and in the event of none being sent to him he promised to publish his own. The six months elapsed without any solution being produced; but he received a letter from Leibnitz, stating that he had "cut the knot of the most beautiful of these problems," and requesting that the period for their solution should be extended to Christmas next; that the French and Italian mathematicians might have no reason to complain of the shortness of the period. Bernoulli adopted the suggestion, and publicly announced the postponement for the information of those who might not see the Ada Lipsiensia.

On January 29, 1697 Newton received from France two copies of the printed paper containing the problems, and on the following day he sent a solution of them to Montague, then president of the Royal Society. He announced that the curve required in the first problem must be a cycloid, and he gave a method of determining it. He solved also the second problem, and he showed that by the same method other curves might be found which shall cut off three or more segments having the like properties. Solutions were also obtained from Leibnitz and the Marquis de L'Hôpital[?]; and, although that of Newton was anonymous, yet Bernoulli recognized the author in his disguise; "tanquam," says he, "cx ungue leonem."

In 1699 Newton's position as a mathematician and natural philosopher was recognized by the French Academy of Sciences[?]. In that year the Academy was remodelled, and eight foreign associates were created. Leibnitz, Domenico Guglielmini[?] (1655—1710), Hartsoeker[?], and E. W. Tschirnhausen were appointed on February 4, James Bernoulli and John Bernoulli[?] on February 14, and Newton and Ole Rømer on February 21.

End of the Professorship and Presidency of the Society

While Newton held the office of warden of the mint, he retained his chair of mathematics at Cambridge, and discharged the duties of the post, but shortly after he was promoted to be master of the mint he appointed Whiston his deputy with "the full profits of the place." Whiston began his astronomical lectures as Newton's deputy in January 1701. On December 10, 1701 Newton resigned his professorship, thereby at the same time resigning his fellowship at Trinity, which he had held with the Lucasian professorship since 1675 by virtue of the royal mandate. Whiston's claims to succeed Newton in the Lucasian chair were successfully supported by Newton himself.

On November 26, 1701 Newton was again elected one of the representatives of the university in parliament, but he retained his seat only until the dissolution in the following July. Newton does not seem to have been a candidate at this election, but at the next dissolution in 1705 he was again a candidate for the representation of the university. He was warmly supported by the residents, but being a Whig, he was opposed by the non-residents, and beaten by a large majority.

In the autumn of 1703 Lord Somers retired from the presidency of the Royal Society, and on November 30, 1703 Newton was elected to succeed him. Newton was annually re-elected to this honourable post during the remainder of his life. He held the office for 25 years, the longest term of office for any Royal Society president since except Sir Joseph Banks (at the time of writing, 2002). As president Newton was brought into close association with Prince George of Denmark, the queen's husband, who had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society. The prince had offered, on Newton's recommendation, to cover the expense of printing Flamsteed's observations—especially his catalogue of the stars. It was natural that the queen should form a high opinion of one whose merits had made such a deep impression on her husband. In April 1705, when the queen, the prince and the court were staying at the royal residence at Newmarket, they paid a visit to Cambridge, where they were the guests of Dr Bentley, the master of Trinity. Her Majesty went in state to the Regent House, where a congregation of the senate was held, and a number of honorary degrees conferred. Afterwards the queen held a court at Trinity Lodge, where (April 16, 1705) she conferred the order of knighthood upon Sir Isaac Newton.

Second Edition of the Principia

As soon as the first edition of the Principia was published Newton began to prepare for a second edition. He was anxious to improve the work by additions to the theory of the motion of the moon and the planets. Dr Edleston, in his preface to Newton's correspondence with Cotes, justly remarks: "If Flamsteed the Astronomer-Royal had cordially co-operated with him in the humble capacity of an observer in the way that Newton pointed out and requested Of him... the lunar theory would, if its creator did not overrate his own powers, have been completely investigated, so far as he could do it, in the first few months of 1695, and a second edition of the Principia would probably have followed the execution of the task at no long interval."

Newton, however, could not get the information he wanted from Flamsteed, and after the spring of 1696 his time was much occupied by his duties at the mint. Rumours, however, of his work, and of a new edition, were heard from time to time. In February 1700 Leibnitz writes of Newton, "J'ai appris aussi (je ne scai oct) qu'il donnera encore quelque chose sur le mouvement de la lune: et on m'a dit aussi qu'il y auraune nouvelle edition de ses principes de la nature." [translation anyone?]

Dr Bentley, the master of Trinity College, had for a long time urged Newton to give his consent to the republication of the Principia. In the middle of 1708 Newton's consent was obtained, but it was not till the spring of 1709 that he was prevailed upon to entrust the superintendence of it to a young mathematician of great promise, Roger Cotes, fellow of Trinity College, who bad been recently appointed the first Plumian professor of astronomy and experimental philosophy. On May 21, 1709, after having been that day with Newton, Bentley announced this arrangement to Cotes: "Sir Isaac Newton," he said, "will be glad to see you in June, and then put into your hands one part of his book corrected for the press." About the middle of July Cotes went to London, no doubt expecting to bring down with him to Cambridge the corrected portion of the Principia. Although Cotes was impatient to begin his work, it was nearly the end of September before the corrected copy was given to him.

During the printing of this edition a correspondence went on continuously between Newton and Cotes. On the 31st of March 1713, when the edition was nearly ready for publication, Newton wrote to Cotes: "I hear that Mr Bernoulli has sent a paper of 40 pages to be published in the Ada Leipsica relating to what I have written upon the curve lines described by projectiles in resisting mediums. And therein he partly makes observations upon what I have written & partly improves it. To prevent being blamed by him or others for any disingenuity in not acknowledging my oversights or slips in the first edition, I believe it will not be amiss to print next after the old Praefatio ad Lectorem, the following account of this new Edition.

"In hac secunda Principiorum Editione, multa sparsim emendantur & nonnulla adjiciuntur. In Libri primi Sect. ii Inventio viriuni quibus corpora in Orbibus datis revolvi possint, facilior redditur et amplior. In Libri secundi Sect. vii. Theoria resistentiac fluidorum accuratius investigatur & novis experimentis confirmatur. In Libro tertio Theoria Lunae & Praecessio Aequinoctiorum ex Principiis suis plenius deducuntur, et Theoria Cometarum pluribus et accuratius computatis Orbium exemplis confirmatur.

"28 Mar, 1713. I. N.

"If you write any further preface, I must not see it, for I find that I shall be examined about it. The cuts for ye Comet of 1680 & 1681 are printed off and will be sent to Dr Bently this week by the Carrier."

Newton's desire to have no hand in writing the preface seems to have come from a knowledge that Cotes was considering alluding to the dispute about the invention of fluxions. At last, about midsummer 1713, was published the long and impatiently expected second edition of the Principia, and; on July 27, Newton waited on the queen to present her with a copy of the new edition.

The Longitude Problem

In 1714 the question of finding the longitude at sea, which had been looked upon as an important one for several years, was brought into prominence by a petition presented to the House of Commons by a number of captains of Her Majesty's ships and merchant ships and of London merchants. The petition was referred to a committee of the House, who called witnesses. Newton appeared before them and gave evidence. He stated that for determining the longitude at sea there bad been several projects, true in theory but difficult to execute. He mentioned four: (1) by a watch to keep time exactly, (2) by the eclipses of Jupiter's satellites, (3) by the place of the moon, (4) by a new method proposed by Mr Ditton. Newton criticized all the methods, pointing out their weak points, and it is due mainly to his evidence that the committee brought in the report which was accepted by the House, and shortly afterwards was converted into a Bill, passed both Houses, and received the royal assent. The report ran "that it is the opinion of this committee that a reward be settled by parliament upon such person or persons as shall discover a more certain and practicable method of ascertaining the longitude than any yet in practice; and the said reward be proportioned to the degree of exactness to which the said method shall reach."

Sir Isaac Newton was a very popular visitor at the court of George I. The princess of Wales, afterwards Queen Caroline, wife of George II, took every opportunity of conversing with him. Having one day been told by Sir Isaac that he had composed a new system of chronology while he was still resident at Cambridge, she requested him to give her a copy. He accordingly drew up an abstract of the system from his papers, and sent it to the princess for her own private use; but he afterwards allowed a copy to be made for the Abbé Conti on the express understanding that it should not be communicated to any other person. The abbé, however, lent his copy to M Fréret, an antiquary at Paris, who translated it, and endeavoured to refute it. The translation was printed under the title Abrege de chronologie de M le Chevallier Newton, fait par lui-même et traduit sur le manuscrit anglais. Upon receiving a copy of this work, Sir Isaac Newton printed, in the Philosophical Transactions for 1725, a paper entitled "Remarks on the observations made on a Chronological Index of Sir Isaac Newton, translated into French by the observator, and published at Paris." In these remarks Sir Isaac charged the abbé with a breach of promise, and gave a triumphant answer to the objections which Fréret had urged against his system. Father Souciet entered the field in defence of Fréret; and in consequence of this controversy Sir Isaac was induced to prepare his larger work, which was published in 1728, after his death, and entitled Tile Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms amended, to which is prefixed a short Chronicle from the First Memory of Kings in Europe to the Conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great.

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