He is remembered as a key figure in the scientific revolution and his supposed encounter with an apple as a young adult is frequently alluded to. But how did Isaac Newton’s childhood and early ideas lay the foundation for his later breakthroughs in science, making him, arguably, our greatest ever scientist?
All children enjoy play. It’s how they learn. But young Isaac Newton’s ideas on play were never of the rough-and-tumble variety that most youngsters enjoy.
Born a gentleman-farmer’s posthumous son in 1642, he had the countryside of seventeenth-century rural Lincolnshire as his playground. Despite this there are no references to him climbing trees, exploring woods and paddling in streams like other children.
He may have done these things, but he would probably have been solitary. His grandmother – his early-years guardian – was aware of the family’s social standing as minor gentry and the local lads were considered unsuitable as Isaac’s playmates. Throughout his life, these early deprivations of peer friendship made Newton a loner.
He later recorded in his notes that, while attending the Grammar School in Grantham in the 1650s, he tried to involve his school fellows in what he called ‘philosophical play’ but they weren’t interested. Mental games suited Newton but physical activities, like chasing and wrestling, were more their style.
Newton wasn’t sedentary, however, and wrote about performing some wind-assisted jumping experiments – testing how much the strength of the wind enhanced or impeded the distance jumped.
Of course, he had no means of accurately gauging this, although it’s thought he made a basic anemometer to measure the wind’s force, whether lighter or stronger, if not its precise speed. Lengths of string could be used to show relative distances jumped, but only he could guesstimate whether the effort he put into each jump was identical so that the wind was the only variable.
Whatever the shortcomings of these first experiments, they demonstrate how the mechanics of the natural world intrigued him from childhood. His enthusiasm to explore them would remain throughout his long life.
Newton’s school fellows were fascinated by some of the toys he made, if not by the intricacies of manufacture. Lanterns that hung from kites, looking like ghosts in the dark, frightened the locals.
When a new windmill was under construction in Grantham, Newton observed and built his own working model, powered by a mouse running in a sort of hamster wheel. Newton complained that as often as not, ‘Mr Miller’, as he called the creature, ate the grain he was supposed to be grinding but the model was a considerable achievement, with hand-carved gears and axels.
Newton also made dolls house furniture for the Clarke girls while lodging at William Clarke’s apothecary shop in Grantham, and a wheeled cart that he used like a skateboard along the corridors of the Clarke house. Maybe these speeding antics seeded his later ideas on motion and inertia.
The sources of Newton’s undeniable manual dexterity are difficult to track down. He obviously had some inborn talent but perhaps a servant at his home, Woolsthorpe Manor, showed him some basic carpentry skills and the use of tools.
William Clarke may have taught him woodworking, metalworking and how to handle glass. We know that Clarke showed him how to mix and distil medicinal remedies – knowledge that he later developed and refined in his alchemical studies and experimentation.
In 1660, aged seventeen, Newton went up to Cambridge University. In those days, the nearby Stourbridge Fair, held annually in September, was the seventeenth-century’s version of e-bay, where almost anything could be purchased, from ink to ironmongery, spices to spectacles. Newton bought a prism there and, possibly, other glass objects such as lenses and mirrors.
At first, he played with the prism, admiring the pretty rainbows, but that was not enough of a wonder for him.
He had to know how and where the colours came from when colourless daylight shone through colourless glass. Others argued it was the effect of the glass creating the colours which were thought to consist of degrees of light and shade.
Newton disproved this with his ‘crucial experiment’, showing the colours are there, combined in the white light, and can be separated and made visible when the glass refracts them by differing degrees.
Newton taught himself how to grind lenses and polish mirrors to perfection. Combining these skills with his knowledge of metalwork and carpentry enabled him to make his small but remarkably efficient refracting telescope. This beautiful instrument earned him membership of the Royal Society of London in 1672.
Newton isn’t renowned for his work as an astronomer, using his telescope simply to observe planets, stars and moons for pleasure or scientific study. Others could do that.
Rather, he wanted to know how and why heavenly bodies kept their places and moved in the way they did. The certainty that ‘something’ kept the stars in position led to his theory of gravity – an invisible force that applied throughout the universe.
This was an unpopular concept at a time when science was abandoning mystical ideas in favour of demonstrable truths. The possibility that the moon’s gravitation pull influenced the tides on earth was something he worked to quantify all his life.
Before other scientists, Newton realised the planetary movements, their orbits, obeyed the inverse square law. While his fellows at the Royal Society suspected it might be the case, he had already worked out the mathematical equations to prove it was so. By this means, he advanced mathematics into the new discipline of ‘fluxions’, or calculus, as it is known today.
These were a few of Isaac Newton’s early ideas and the foundations for his later work. However, his entire life in science was always a work-in-progress. He was rarely content with the finished piece; theories could be improved, mathematical equations checked and rechecked.
He was still endeavouring to perfect his work, learning and evolving ideas until his death at the age of eighty-four. Perhaps it was his never-ending quest to get it right that made him our greatest ever scientist.
The World of Isaac Newton by Toni Mount is published by Amberley Publishing on 15 October 2020. Toni is a writer, history teacher and speaker with thirty years of personal and academic study. Her first career was in science before spending many years teaching. This latest study, The World of Isaac Newton, sees her return to her first love, science, with the chance to take a fresh look at one of the world’s most famous characters.