Newton's life can be divided into three quite distinct periods. The first is his boyhood days from 1643 up to his graduation in
1669. The second period from 1669 to 1687 was the highly productive period in which he was Lucasian professor at
Cambridge. The third period (nearly as long as the other two combined) saw Newton as a highly paid government official in
London with little further interest in mathematics.
Isaac Newton was born in the manor house of Woolsthorpe, near Grantham in Lincolnshire. Although he was born on
Christmas Day 1642, the date given on this card is the Gregorian calendar date. (The Gregorian calendar was not adopted in
England until 1752.) Newton came from a family of farmers but never knew his father who died before he was born. His
mother remarried, moved to a nearby village, and left him in the care of his grandmother. Upon the death of his stepfather in
1656, Newton's mother removed him from grammar school in Grantham where he had shown little promise in academic work.
His school reports described him as 'idle' and 'inattentive'. An uncle decided that he should be prepared for the university, and
he entered his uncle's old College, Trinity College, Cambridge, in June 1661.
Newton's aim at Cambridge was a law degree. Instruction at Cambridge was dominated by the philosophy of Aristotle but
some freedom of study was allowed in the third year of the course. Newton studied the philosophy of Descartes, Gassendi, and
Boyle. The new algebra and analytical geometry of Viète, Descartes, and Wallis; and the mechanics of the Copernican
astronomy of Galileo attracted him. Newton's talent began to emerge on the arrival of Barrow to the Lucasian chair at
His scientific genius emerged suddenly when the plague closed the University in the summer of 1665 and he had to return to
Lincolnshire. There, in a period of less than two years, while Newton was still under 25 years old, he began revolutionary
advances in mathematics, optics, physics, and astronomy.
While Newton remained at home he laid the foundation for differential and integral calculus, several years before its
independent discovery by Leibniz. The 'method of fluxions', as he termed it, was based on his crucial insight that the integration
of a function is merely the inverse procedure to differentiating it. Taking differentiation as the basic operation, Newton produced
simple analytical methods that unified many separate techniques previously developed to solve apparently unrelated problems
such as finding areas, tangents, the lengths of curves and the maxima and minima of functions. Newton's De Methodis
Serierum et Fluxionum was written in 1671 but Newton failed to get it published and it did not appear in print until John
Colson produced an English translation in 1736.
Barrow resigned the Lucasian chair in 1669 recommending that Newton (still only 27 years old) be appointed in his place.
Newton's first work as Lucasian Professor was on optics. He had reached the conclusion during the two plague years that
white light is not a simple entity. Every scientist since Aristotle had believed that white light was a basic single entity, but the
chromatic aberration in a telescope lens convinced Newton otherwise. When he passed a thin beam of sunlight through a glass
prism Newton noted the spectrum of colours that was formed.
Newton argued that white light is really a mixture of many different types of rays which are refracted at slightly different angles,
and that each different type of ray produces a different spectral colour. Newton was led by this reasoning to the erroneous
conclusion that telescopes using refracting lenses would always suffer chromatic aberration. He therefore proposed and
constructed a reflecting telescope.
Newton was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1672 after donating a reflecting telescope. Also in 1672 Newton
published his first scientific paper on light and colour in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society .
Newton's paper was well received but Hooke and Huygens objected to Newton's attempt to prove, by experiment alone, that
light consists of the motion of small particles rather than waves. Perhaps because of Newton's already high reputation his
corpuscular theory reigned until the wave theory was revived in the 19th C.
Newton's relations with Hooke deteriorated and he turned in on himself and away from the Royal Society. He delayed the
publication of a full account of his optical researches until after the death of Hooke in 1703. Newton's Opticks appeared in
1704. It dealt with the theory of light and colour and with (i) investigations of the colours of thin sheets (ii) 'Newton's rings' and
(iii) diffraction of light.
To explain some of his observations he had to use a wave theory of light in conjunction to his corpuscular theory.
Newton's greatest achievement was his work in physics and celestial mechanics, which culminated in the theory of universal
gravitation. By 1666 Newton had early versions of his three laws of motion. He had also discovered the law giving the
centrifugal force on a body moving uniformly in a circular path. However he did not have a correct understanding of the
mechanics of circular motion.
Newton's novel idea of 1666 was to imagine that the Earth's gravity influenced the Moon, counter- balancing its centrifugal
force. From his law of centrifugal force and Kepler's third law of planetary motion, Newton deduced the inverse- square law.
In 1679 Newton applied his mathematical skill to proving a conjecture of Hooke's, showing that if a body obeys Kepler's
second law then the body is being acted upon by a centripetal force. This discovery showed the physical significance of
Kepler's second law.
In 1684 Halley, tired of Hooke's boasting, asked Newton whether he could prove Hooke's conjecture and was told that
Newton had solved the problem five years before but had now mislaid the paper. At Halley's urging Newton reproduced the
proofs and expanded them into a paper on the laws of motion and problems of orbital mechanics.
Halley persuaded Newton to write a full treatment of his new physics and its application to astronomy. Over a year later (1687)
Newton published the Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica or Principia as it is always known.
The Principia is recognised as the greatest scientific book ever written. Newton analysed the motion of bodies in resisting and
non resisting media under the action of centripetal forces. The results were applied to orbiting bodies, projectiles, pendulums,
and free-fall near the Earth. He further demonstrated that the planets were attracted toward the Sun by a force varying as the
inverse square of the distance and generalised that all heavenly bodies mutually attract one another.
Further generalisation led Newton to the law of universal gravitation:
all matter attracts all other matter with a force proportional to the product of their masses and inversely
proportional to the square of the distance between them.
Newton explained a wide range of previously unrelated phenomena:- the eccentric orbits of comets; the tides and their
variations; the precession of the Earth's axis; and motion of the Moon as perturbed by the gravity of the Sun.
After suffering a nervous breakdown in 1693, Newton retired from research to take up a government position in London
becoming Warden of the Royal Mint (1696) and Master(1699).
In 1703 he was elected president of the Royal Society and was re-elected each year until his death. He was knighted in 1708
by Queen Anne, the first scientist to be so honoured for his work.
His assistant Whiston said
Newton was of the most fearful, cautious and suspicious temper that I ever knew.