In the 300 years since Sir Isaac Newton died, his legend as one of the finest minds in history has kept growing. Newton is perhaps best known for discovering the laws of gravity, as illustrated by the apple falling from a tree. He also advanced knowledge about light and motion, and contributed to calculus – to the delight and despair of countless students ever since. Newton was so famous in his own lifetime that he was buried at Westminster Abbey, the first scientist to receive the honour. 

But was Sir Isaac a thoroughly decent chap at the same time? Let’s do the maths. 

Newton was a weak child, who used to scribble on walls and paid little attention in class. One of his first inventions was a tiny functioning mill that ran on mouse power. The boy was bullied, until he eventually snapped and smashed his aggressor’s head into the wall of a church. The bullying stopped. 

He kept a detailed diary, which revealed some odd habits, such as planning how to make birds drunk and flawed magic tricks that would have fooled nobody. Highly religious, Newton noted a list of his sins in code, which ranged from making pies on a Sunday and stealing an apple – and then denying he did so – to missing chapel, punching his sister and wishing death on his enemies. 

Newton had a ‘good plague’ between 1665-67, spending the time on his family farm reading the works of visionaries such as Galileo and Kepler. “In those days I was in my prime age for invention and minded mathematics and philosophy more than at any time since,” which is something you don’t hear a lot from today’s 22-year-olds. 

Patronising, moi? 

The mythical apple is believed to have dropped on his head during this period, although the reality is somewhat different. In fact, the apple metaphor stemmed from an encounter with the French philosopher Voltaire, many years later, who had asked Newton to explain his breakthroughs on gravity. Newton thought Voltaire was an idiot and used a falling apple as a condescending example, as though talking to a child. We’ve been eating it ever since. Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

Newton was certainly prepared to the hard yards for his craft. For example, he stuck bodkins behind his eyeball to see how the colours changed as he wiggled the pins. He stared at the sun, blinding himself for three days, in an experiment on eye repair. As a university don, he was so boring that students avoided his classes, leaving the stubborn Newton to lecture to an empty room. 

And, boy, could he hold a grudge. For 30 years, Newton sparred with fellow mastermind Robert Hooke, who he looked down upon as the first paid researcher in England. To Newton, science was a calling, not a profession. The rivals disagreed bitterly on whether light was made of waves (Hooke) or particles (Newton). 

Newton’s famous quote:

I saw further because I stood on the shoulders of giants

was a not-so-subtle dig at Hooke, who was a short man with a hunchback. After Hooke died, Newton became President of the Royal Society and promptly removed the only portrait of his nemesis. This was cancel culture in the 18th Century. 

Mind your privilege 

Hooke was just one of several eminent scientists who feuded with Newton – and lost. Gottfried Leibniz, the German mathematician, squabbled until his dying breath over who had invented calculus. Newton again used his status in the Royal Society to push his version of events. The astronomer John Flamsteed grumbled that he was given scant credit for his contribution to Newton’s Principia, which laid out the great man’s theories on gravitation. Newton waited until Flamsteed died, then removed every reference to him in the second edition. 

A slave to his experiments, Newton rarely ate or slept, leaving his laboratory half-dressed and wild-haired, often forgetting why he left and then hurrying back to the comfort of his instruments. His friend and biographer William Stukeley said that he heard Newton laugh only once. The joke? Somebody questioned the use of reading the Greek mathematician Euclid. Newton found this hilarious, unable to comprehend why anyone could doubt the value of Euclid’s teachings. 

Newton did find time to become a Member of Parliament, twice, although the sum total of his entries in Hansard is recorded as “Close the window, I can feel the draft”. 

In his later life, Newton became absorbed in occult studies, using his vast intellect to test the boundaries of alchemy. He tried to develop the elixir of everlasting life and discover the Philosopher’s Stone which would turn materials into gold, long before Harry Potter entered Hogwarts. Perhaps these experiments led to the mercury poisoning that contributed to his death at the age of 84 in 1727. 

So, who was this Sir Isaac Newton? A genius? Absolutely. An important historical figure? Undoubtedly. Good company? Almost certainly not. The wrong person to cross? You better believe it. 


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About the author

Kay Field

Digital Marketing Officer

Kay is the Digital Marketing Officer at the WEA.