When you come into any fresh company, observe their humours. Suit your own
carriage thereto, by which insinuation you will make their converse more
free and open. Let your discourse be more in querys and doubtings than
peremptory assertions or disputings, it being the designe of travelers to
learne, not to teach. Besides, it will persuade your acquaintance that you
have the greater esteem of them, and soe make them more ready to
communicate what they know to you; whereas nothing sooner occasions
disrespect and quarrels than peremptorinesse. You will find little or no
advantage in seeming wiser, or much more ignorant than your company.
Seldom discommend anything though never so bad, or doe it but moderately,
lest you bee unexpectedly forced to an unhansom retraction. It is safer to
commend any thing more than is due, than to discommend a thing soe much as
it deserves; for commendations meet not soe often with oppositions, or, at
least, are not usually soe ill resented by men that think otherwise, as
discommendations; and you will insinuate into men's favour by nothing
sooner than seeming to approve and commend what they like; but beware of
doing it by a comparison.
—Sir Isaac Newton to one of his pupils
SIR ISAAC NEWTON
An honest farmer, neither rich nor poor, was Isaac Newton. He was married
to Harriet Ayscough in February, Sixteen Hundred Forty-two.
Both were strong, intelligent and full of hope. Neither had any education
to speak of; they belonged to England's middle class—that oft-despised and
much ridiculed middle class which is the hope of the world. Accounts still
in existence show that their income was thirty pounds a year. It was for
them to toil all the week, go to church on Sunday, and twice or thrice in
a year attend the village fairs or indulge in a holiday where hard cider
played an important part.
Isaac had served his two years in the army, taken a turn at sea, and got
his discharge-papers. Now he had married the lass of his choice, and
settled down in the little house on an estate in Lincolnshire where his
father was born and died.
Spring came and the roses clambered over the stone walls; the bobolinks
played hide-and-seek in the waving grass of the meadows; the skylarks sang
and poised and soared; the hedgerows grew white with hawthorn-blossoms and
musical with the chirp of sparrows; the cattle ranged through the fragrant
clover "knee-deep[Pg 12] in June."
Oftentimes the young wife worked with her husband in the fields, or went
with him to market. Great plans were laid as to what they would do next
year, and the year after, and how they would provide for coming age and
grow old together, here among the oaks and the peace and plenty of
In such a country, with such a climate, it seems as if one could almost
make repair equal waste, and thus keep death indefinitely at bay. But all
men, even the strongest, are living under a death sentence, with but an
indefinite reprieve. And even yet, with all of our science and health, we
can not fully account for those diseases which seemingly pick the very
best flower of sinew and strength.
Isaac Newton, the strong and rugged farmer, sickened and died in a week.
"The result of a cold caught when sweaty and standing in a draft," the
surgeon explained. "The act of God to warn us all of the vanity of life."
Acute pneumonia, perhaps, is what we would call it—a fever that burned out
the bellows in a week.
In such cases the very strength of the man seems to supply fuel for the
flames. And so just as the Autumn came with changing leaves, the young
wife was left to fight the battle of life alone—alone, save for the old,
old miracle that her life supported another. A wife, a widow, a mother—all
within a year!
On Christmas-Day the babe was born—born where[Pg 13] most men die: in
obscurity. He was so weak and frail that none but the mother believed he
The doctor quoted a line from "Richard the Third," "Sent before my time
into this breathing world scarce half made up," and gave the infant into
the keeping of an old nurse with an ominous shake of the head, and went
his way, absolved. His time was too valuable to waste on such a useless
The persistent words of the mother that the child should not, must not
die, possibly had something to do with keeping the breath of life in the
puny man-child. The fond mother had given him the name of his father, even
before birth! He was to live to do the work that the man now dead had
hoped to do; that is, live a long and honest life, and leave the fair
acres more valuable than he found them.
Such was the inauspicious beginning of what Herbert Spencer declared was
the greatest life since Aristotle studied the starry universe.[Pg 14]
utside of India the lot of widows is not especially to be pitied. A widow
has beautiful dreams, while the married woman copes with the stern
Then, no phase of life is really difficult when you accept it; and the
memory of a great love lost is always a blessing and a benediction to the
one who endures the first cruel shock.
The young widow looked after her little estate, and with perhaps some
small assistance from her parents, lived comfortably and as happily as one
has a right to in this vale of tears. Her baby boy had grown strong and
well: by the time he was two years old he was quite the equal of most
babies—and his mother thought, beyond them.
It is quite often stoutly declared by callow folks that mother-love is the
strongest and most enduring love in the world, but the wise waste no words
on such an idle proposition. Mother-love retires into the shadow when the
other kind appears.
When the Reverend Barnabas Smith began, unconsciously, to make eyes at the
Widow Newton over his prayer-book, the good old dames whose business it is
to look after these things, and perform them vicariously, made prophecies
on the way home from church as to how soon the wedding would occur.
People go to church to watch and pray, but a man I know says that women go
to church to watch. Young[Pg 15] clergymen fall an easy prey to designing
widows, he avers. I can discover no proof, however, that the Widow Newton
made any original designs; she was below the young clergyman in social
standing, and when the good man began to pay special attentions to her
baby boy she never imagined that the sundry pats and caresses were meant
Little Isaac Newton was just three years old when the wedding occurred,
and was not troubled about it. The bride went to live with her husband at
the rectory, a mile away, and the little boy in dresses, with long yellow
curls, was taken to the home of his grandmother. The Reverend Barnabas
Smith didn't like babies as well as he had at first thought. Grandparents
are inclined to be lax in their discipline. And anyway it is no particular
difference if they are: a scarcity of discipline is better than too much.
More boys have been ruined by the rod than saved by it—love is a good
substitute for a cat-'o-nine-tails.
There were several children born to the Reverend Barnabas Smith and his
wife, and all were disciplined for their own good. Isaac, a few miles
away, snuggled in the arms of his old grandmother when he was bad and went
Many years after, Sir Isaac Newton, in an address on education at
Cambridge, playfully referred to the fact that in his boyhood he did not
have to prevaricate to escape punishment, his grandmother being[Pg 16]
always willing to lie for him. His grandmother was his first teacher and
his best friend as long as she lived.
When he was twelve years old he was sent to the village school at
Grantham, eight miles away. There he boarded with a family by the name of
Clark, and at odd times helped in the apothecary-shop of Mr. Clark,
cleaning bottles and making pills. He himself has told us that the working
with mortar and pestle, cutting the pills in exact cubes, and then rolling
one in each hand between thumb and finger, did him a lot of good, whether
the patients were benefited or not.
The genial apothecary also explained that pills were for those who made
and sold them, and that if they did no harm to those who swallowed them,
the whole transaction was then one of benefit. All of which proves to us
that men had the essence of wisdom two hundred years ago, quite as much as
The master of the school at Grantham was one Mr. Stokes, a man of genuine
insight and tact—two things rather rare in the pedagogic equipment at that
time. The Newton boy was small and stood low in his class, perhaps because
book-learning had not been the bent of his grandmother. The fact that
Isaac was neither strong nor smart, nor even smartly dressed, caused him
to serve in the capacity of a butt for the bullies.
One big boy in particular made it his business to punch, kick and cuff him
on all occasions, in class or[Pg 17] out. This continued for a month, when
one day the little boy invited the big one out into the churchyard and
there fell upon him tooth and claw. The big boy had strength, but the
little one had right on his side.
The schoolmaster looked over the wall and shouted, "Thrice armed is he who
knows his cause is just!" In two minutes the bully was beaten, but the
schoolmaster's son, who stood by as master of ceremonies, suggested that
the big boy have his nose rubbed against the wall of the church for luck.
This was accordingly done, not o'er-gently, and when Isaac returned to the
schoolroom, the master, who was supposed to know nothing officially of the
fighting, prophesied, "Young Mr. Newton will yet beat any boy in this
school in his studies."
It has been suggested that this prophecy was made after its fulfilment,
but even so, we know that Mr. Stokes lived long enough to take great pride
in the Newton boy, and to grow reminiscent concerning his great
Our hearts surely go out to the late Mr. Stokes, schoolmaster at
here is surely something in that old idea of Indians that when they killed
an enemy the strength of the fallen adversary entered into themselves.
This encounter of little Isaac with the school bully was a pivotal point
in his career. He had vanquished the rogue physically, and he now set to
work to do as much mentally for the whole school. He had it in him—it was
just a matter of application.
Once, in after-life, in speaking of those who had benefited him most, he
placed this unnamed chucklehead first, and added with a smile, "Our
enemies are quite as necessary to us as our friends."
In a few months Isaac stood at the head of the class. In mathematics he
especially excelled, and the Master, who prided himself on being able to
give problems no one could solve but himself, found that he was put to the
strait of giving a problem nobody could solve. He was somewhat taken aback
when little Isaac declined to work on it, and coolly pointed out the
fallacy involved. The only thing for the teacher to do was to say he had
purposely given the proposition to see if any one would detect the
fallacy. This he gracefully did, and again made a prophecy to the effect
that Isaac Newton would some day take his own place and be master of
In the year Sixteen Hundred Fifty-six the schooldays of Isaac Newton were
cut short by the death of his[Pg 19] stepfather.
His mother, twice a widow, moved back to "Woolsthorpe," a big name for a
very small estate. Isaac was made the man of the house. The ambition of
his mother was that he should become a farmer and stock-raiser.
It seems that the boy entered upon his farm duties with an alacrity that
was not to last. His heart was not in the work, but the desire to please
his mother spurred him forward.
On one occasion, being sent with a load of produce to Grantham, he stopped
to visit his old school, and during his call struck a bargain with one of
the boys for a copy of Descartes' Geometry. The purchase exhausted his
finances, so that he was unable to buy the articles his mother had sent
him for, but when he got home he explained that one might get along
without such luxuries as clothing, but a good Geometry was a family
necessity. About this time he made a water-clock, and also that sundial
which can be seen today, carved into the stone on the corner of the house.
He still continued his making of kites which had been begun at Grantham;
and gave the superstitious neighbors a thrill by flying kites at night
with lighted lanterns made from paper, attached to the tails. He made
water-wheels and windmills, and once constructed a miniature mill that he
ran by placing a mouse in a treadmill inside.
In the meantime the cows got into the corn, and the weeds in the garden
improved each shining hour. The[Pg 20] fond mother was now sorely
disappointed in her boy, and made remarks to the effect that if she had
looked after his bringing up instead of entrusting him to an indulgent
grandmother, affairs at this time would not be in their present state.
Parents are apt to be fussy: they can not wait.
Matters reached a climax when the sheep that Isaac had been sent to watch,
overran the garden and demolished everything but the purslane and ragweed,
while all the time the young man was under the hedge working out
mathematical problems from his Descartes.
At this stage the mother called in her brother, the Reverend Mr. Ayscough,
and he advised that a boy who was so bound to study should be allowed to
And the good man offered to pay the wages of a man to take Isaac's place
on the farm.
So, greatly to the surprise and pleasure of Mr. Stokes of Grantham, Isaac
one fine day returned with his books, just as if he had only been gone a
day instead of a year.
At the home of the apothecary the lad was thrice welcome. He had endeared
himself to the women of the household especially. He did not play with
other boys—their games and sports were absolutely outside of his orbit. He
was silent and so self-contained that he won from his schoolfellows the
sobriquet of "Old Coldfeet." Nothing surprised him; he never lost his
temper; he laughed so seldom that the incident was[Pg 21] noted and told
to the neighbors; his attitude was one of abstraction, and when he spoke
it was like a judge charging a jury with soda-water.
All his spare time was given up to whittling, pounding, sawing, and making
Not all of his inventions were toys, for among other things he constructed
a horseless carriage which was run by a crank and pumping device, by the
The idea of the horseless carriage is a matter that has long been in the
minds of inventors.
Several men, supremely great, have tried their hands and head at it.
Leibnitz worked at it; Swedenborg prophesied the automobile, and made a
carriage, placing the horse inside, and did not give up the scheme until
the horse ran away with himself and demolished a year's work. The
government here interfered and placed an injunction against "the making of
any more such diabolical contrivances for the disturbance of the public
peace." All of which makes us believe that if either Edison or Marconi had
lived two hundred years ago, the bailiffs would have looked after them
with the butt end of the law for the regulation of wizards and
witches—wizards at Menlo Park being as bad as witches at Salem.
Newton's horseless carriage later came to grief in a similar way to
Swedenborg's invention—it worked so well and so fast that it turned a
complete somersault into a ditch, and its manipulation was declared to be
a[Pg 22] pastime more dangerous than football.
Not all the things produced by Isaac about this time were failures. For
instance, among other things he made a table, a chair and a cupboard for a
young woman who was a fellow-boarder at the apothecary's. The excellence
of young Newton's handiwork was shown in that the articles just mentioned
outlasted both owner and maker.[Pg 23]
uch of the reminiscence concerning the Grantham days of Sir Isaac Newton
comes from the fortunate owner of that historic old table, chair and
cupboard. This was Mary Story, who was later Mrs. Vincent.
Miss Story was the same age as Isaac. She was just eighteen when the
furniture was made roycroftie—she was a young lady, grown, and wore a
dress with a train; moreover, she had been to London and had been courted
by a widower, while Isaac Newton was only a lad in roundabouts.
Age counts for little—it is experience and temperament that weigh in the
scale. Isaac was only a little boy, and Mary Story treated him like one.
And here seems a good place to quote what Doctor Charcot said, "In
arranging the formula for a great man, make sure you delay adolescence:
rareripes rot early."
Isaac and Mary became very good chums, and used to ramble the woods
together hand in hand, in a way that must have frightened them both had
they been on the same psychic plane. Isaac had about the same regard for
her that he might have had for a dear maiden aunt who would mend his old
socks and listen patiently, pretending to be interested when he talked of
parallelograms and prismatic spectra. But evidently Mary Story thought of
him with a thrill, for she stoutly resented the boys calling him "Coldfeet."
In due time Isaac gravitated to Cambridge. Mary[Pg 24] mooed a wee, but
soon consoled herself with a sure-enough lover, and was married to Mr.
Vincent, a worthy man and true, but one who had not sufficient
soul-caloric to make her forget her Isaac.
This friendship with Mary Story is often spoken of as the one love-affair
in the life of Sir Isaac Newton. It was all prosily Platonic on his part,
but as Mary lived out her life at Grantham, and Sir Isaac Newton used to
go there occasionally, and when he did, always called upon her, the
relationship was certainly noteworthy.
The only break in that lifelong friendship occurred when each was past
Sir Isaac Newton was paying his little yearly call at Grantham; and was
seated in a rustic arbor by the side of Mrs. Vincent, now grown gray, and
the mother of a goodly brood, well grown up. As they thus sat talking of
days agone, his thoughts wandered off upon quadratic equations, and to aid
his mind in following the thread, he absent-mindedly lighted his pipe, and
smoked in silence. As the tobacco died low, he gazed about for a
convenient utensil to use in pushing the ashes down in the bowl of his
pipe. Looking down he saw the lady's hand resting upon his knee, and he
straightway utilized the forefinger of his vis-a-vis. A suppressed
feminine screech followed, but the fires of friendship were not quenched
by so slight an incident, which Mrs. Vincent knew grew out of
temperament,[Pg 25] and not from wrong intent.
She lived to be eighty-five, and to the day of her death caressed the
scar—the cicatrice of a love-wound. All of which seems to prove that old
women can be quite as absurd as young ones—goodness me![Pg 26]
hen Isaac was eighteen, Master Stokes was so well impressed with his star
scholar that he called in the young lad's uncle, the Reverend Mr. Ayscough,
and insisted that the boy be sent to Cambridge. The uncle being a
Cambridge man himself thought this the proper thing to do.
On June Fifth, Sixteen Hundred Sixty-one, Isaac presented his credentials
from his uncle and Mr. Stokes, and was duly entered in Trinity College as
a subsizar, which means that he was admitted on suspicion. A part of the
duties of a subsizar was to clean boots, scrub floors and perform various
other delightful tasks which everybody else evaded.
To be at Trinity College in any capacity was paradise for this boy. He
thirsted for knowledge: to know, to do, to perform—these things were his
desire. He had been brought up to work, anyway, and to a country boy toil
is no punishment. "I knew that if worse came to worst I could get work in
the town making furniture and earn a man's wage," he said.
In a month he had passed his first examinations and was made a sizar.
Before this he had been fag to everybody, but now he was fag to the
Seniors only. He not only made their beds and cleaned their rooms, but
also worked their examples in mathematics, and thus commanded their
Once, being called upon in class to recite from Euclid, he declined and
shocked the professor by saying, "It[Pg 27] is a trifling book—I have
mastered it and thrown it aside." And it was no idle boast—he knew the
book as the professor did not. When he arrived at Cambridge, he carried in
his box a copy of Sanderson's Logic presented to him by his uncle—the
uncle having no use for it. It happened to be one of the textbooks in use
at Trinity. When Isaac heard lectures on Sanderson he found he knew the
book a deal better than the tutor, a thing the tutor shortly acknowledged
before the class. This caused young Mr. Newton to stand out as a prodigy.
Usually students have to rap for admittance to the higher classes, but now
the teachers came and sought him out. One professor told him he was about
to take up Kepler's Optics with some post-graduate students—would young
Mr. Newton come in? Isaac begged to be excused until he could examine the
book. The volume was loaned to him. He tore the vitals out of it and
digested them. When the lectures began, he declined to go because he had
mastered the subject as far as Kepler carried it.
Genius seems to consist in the ability to concentrate your rays and focus
them on one point. Isaac Newton could do it. "On a Winter day I took a
small glass and so centered the sun's rays that I burned a hole in my
coat," he wrote in his subsizar journal.
The youth possessed an imperturbable coolness: he talked little, but when
he spoke it was very frankly and honestly. From any other his words would
have[Pg 28] had a presumptuous and boastful sound. As it was he was
respected and beloved. At Cambridge his face and features commended him:
he looked like another Cambridge man, one Milton—John Milton—only his face
was a little more stern in its expression than that of the author of
In two years' time Isaac Newton was a scholar of whom all Cambridge knew.
He had prepared able essays on the squaring of curved and crooked lines,
on errors in grinding lenses and the methods of rectifying them, and in
the extraction of roots where the cubes were imperfect: he had done things
never before attempted by his teachers. When they called upon him to
recite, it was only for the purpose of explaining truths which they had
In Sixteen Hundred Sixty-four, being in his twenty-second year, Isaac
Newton was voted a free scholarship, which provided for board, books and
tuition. On this occasion he was examined in Euclid by Doctor Barrow, the
Head Master of Trinity.
Newton could solve every problem, but could not explain why or how. His
methods were empirical—those of his own.
Many men with a modicum of mathematical genius work in this way, and in
practical life the plan may serve all right. But now it was shown to
Newton that a schoolman must not only know how to work out great problems,
but also why he goes at it in a certain[Pg 29] way; otherwise, colleges
are vain—we must be able to pass our knowledge along. The really great man
is one who knows the rules and then forgets them, just as the painter of
supreme merit must be a realist before he evolves into an impressionist.
Newton now acknowledged his mistake in reference to Euclid, and set to
work to master the rules. This graciousness in accepting advice, and the
willingness to admit his lapse, if he had been hasty, won for him not only
the scholarship, but also the love of his superiors. Milton was a radical
who made enemies, but Newton was a radical who made friends. He avoided
iconoclasm, left all matters of theology to the specialists, and accepted
the Church as a necessary part of society. His care not to offend fixed
his place in Cambridge for life.
It was Cambridge that fostered and encouraged his first budding
experiments; it was there he was sustained in his mightiest hazards; and
it was within her walls that the ripe fruit of his genius was garnered and
gathered. When his fame had become national and he was called to higher
offices than Cambridge supplied, Cambridge watched his career with the
loving interest of a mother, and the debt of love he fully paid, for it
was very largely through his name and fame that Cambridge first took her
place as one of the great schools of the world.[Pg 30]
ewton took his degree of Bachelor of Arts at Cambridge, in January, in the
year Sixteen Hundred Sixty-five. The faculty of Trinity would not even
consider his leaving the college: he was as valuable to them as he would
be now if he were a famous football-player. Besides the scholarship, there
were ways provided so he could earn money by private tutoring and giving
lectures in the absence of the professors.
He had written his essay on fluxions, described their application to
fluents and tangents, and devised a plan for finding the radius of curvity
in crooked lines. In August of the same year that Newton was given his
degree, the college was dismissed on account of an epidemic, and Newton
went home to Woolsthorpe to kill time. In September, Sixteen Hundred
Sixty-five, he then being twenty-three, while seated in his mother's
garden, Newton saw that storied apple fall. What pulled it down? Some
force tugging at it, surely!
Galileo had experimented with falling bodies, and had proved that the
weight and size of a falling body had nothing to do with its velocity,
save as its size and shape might be affected by the friction of the
atmosphere. The first person to put into print the story of the falling
apple was Voltaire, whose sketch of Newton is a little classic which the
world could ill afford to lose. Adam, William Tell and Isaac Newton each
had his little affair with an apple, but with different[Pg 31] results.
The falling apple suggested to Newton that there was some power in the
ground that was constantly pulling things toward the center of the earth.
This power extended straight down into the earth—he knew it—he had dropped
a stone into a mine, and had also dropped things from steeples. He dropped
apples from kites by an ingenious device of two strings, and he concluded
that an apple taken a hundred miles up in the air would return to earth.
He then began to speculate as to just what a body would do a thousand or
ten thousand miles from the earth. So high as we could go, or as deep as
we could dig, this drawing power was always present. The Law of
If a cannon-ball was fired in a straight line at a distant target, the
gunner had to elevate the aim if he would hit the target, for the ball
described a curve and would keep dropping to the earth until it struck the
ground. Something was pulling it down: what was it? The Law of
The moon was attracted toward us and would surely fall into us, but for
the fact that there were other attractions drawing her toward them. The
movements of the planets were owing to the fact that they were obeying
attractions. They were moving in curves, just like cannon-balls in motion.
They had two movements, also, like the cannon-ball.
Newton had noticed that the stars within a certain[Pg 32] territory all
moved in similar directions, and so must be acted upon by the same
influences. The Law of Gravitation!
It is held by many people in East Aurora and elsewhere that Newton's
invention is a devilish device originated for the benefit of surgeons and
crockery-dealers. But this is not wholly true.
Without this Law of Gravitation the Earth could not retain her spherical
shape: only through this constant drawing in toward the center could she
The other planets, too, must be round or they could not exist, and so they
also had this same quality of gravity in common with the Earth—a drawing
in of everything toward the center. Here was clearly a positive
discovery—this similarity of the heavenly bodies!
Every one of the heavenly bodies was exerting a constant attraction toward
all other heavenly bodies, and this attractive power must be in proportion
to the distance they were from the object acted upon. Thus were their
movements and orbits accounted for.
At this time Newton was perfectly familiar with Kepler's Law, that the
squares of the periodic times of a planet were as the cubes of its
distance from the sun. And from this, he inferred that the attraction
varied as the square of the planet's distance from the sun.
Here he was working on territory that had never been[Pg 33] surveyed. At
first, in his exuberance, he thought to figure out the size and weight of
each planet quickly by measuring its attractive power. He did not realize
that he had cut out for himself work that would require many men and
several centuries to cover, but surely he was on the right scent—a finite
man keen upon the secrets of the Infinite!
He was still at his mother's old home in the country, without scientific
apparatus or the stimulus of colleagues, when we find by a record in his
journal that antique groan because there were only twenty-four hours in a
day, and that eight were required for sleep and eight more for recreation!
A subject a little nearer home than planetary attraction had now switched
him off from measuring and weighing the stars. He was hard at work in his
mother's little sitting-room, with the windows darkened, much to that good
By shutting out all light from the windows and allowing the sun's rays to
enter by a little, circular aperture, he had gotten the sunlight captured
and tamed where he could study it. This ray of light he examined with a
small hand-glass he himself had made. In looking at the ray, quite
accidentally, he found it could be deflected and sent off at will in
various directions. When thrown on the wall, instead of being simply white
light it had seven distinct colors beginning with violet and running down
to red. So white light[Pg 34] was not a single element: it was made up of
various rays which had to be united in order to give us sunlight.
Eureka! He had found the secret of the rainbow—the sun's rays broken up
and separated by the refracting agency of clouds!
Well does Darwin declare that the separation of sunlight into its
component parts, and the invention of the spectrum, have marked an advance
in man's achievement such as the world had not seen since the time of
wonder-working Archimedes.[Pg 35]
he Cambridge University was closed until October, year of Sixteen Hundred
Sixty-seven. Most of the intervening time Newton spent at the home of his
mother, but from accounts of his we can see that the College people kept
their eagle-eye upon him, for they sent remittances to him regularly for
When he returned to Cambridge he was assigned to the "spiritual chamber,"
which was a room next to the chapel, that had formerly been reserved as a
guest-room for visiting dignitaries.
In March, Sixteen Hundred Sixty-eight, he was given the degree of Master
of Arts. His studies now were of a very varied kind. He was required to
give one lecture a week on any subject of his own choosing. Needless to
say his themes were all mathematical or scientific. Just what they were
can best be inferred by consulting his cashbook, since the lectures
themselves were not written out and all memoranda concerning them have
disappeared. This account-book shows that his expenditures were for a
Gunter's Book (he who invented the Gunter's Chain), a magnet and a
compass, glue, bulbs, putty, antimony, vinegar, white lead, salts of
tartar, and lenses.
And in addition there are a few interesting items such as one sees in the
Diary of George Washington: "Lost at cards, five shillings." "Treating at
tavern, ten shillings." "Binding my Bible, three shillings."[Pg 36] "Spent
on my cousin, one pound, two." "Expenses for wetting my degree, sixteen
The last item shows that times have changed but little: this scientist and
philosopher par excellence had to moisten his diploma at the tavern for
the benefit of good fellows who little guessed with whom they drank.
He also had "poor relations" come to visit him; and it is significant that
while there are various items showing where he lost money at cards, there
are no references to any money won at the same business, from which we
infer that while there was no one at Cambridge who could follow him in his
studies, there yet were those who could deal themselves better hands when
it came to the pasteboards.
Evidently he got discouraged at playing cards, for after the year Sixteen
Hundred Sixty-eight, there are no more items of "treating at the tavern"
or "lost at cards." The boys had tried to educate him, but had not
succeeded. In card exploitations he fell a victim of arrested development.
I suppose it will not cause any one a shock to be told that "the greatest
thinker of all time" was not exactly a perfect man.
So let the truth be known that throughout his life Newton had a
well-defined strain of superstitious belief running through his character.
He never quite relinquished the idea of transmutation of metals,[Pg 37]
and at times astrology was quite as interesting to him as astronomy.
In writing to a friend who was about to pay a long visit to the mines of
Hungary, he says, "Examine most carefully and ascertain just how and under
what conditions Nature transforms iron into copper and copper into silver
In his laboratory he had specimens of iron ore that contained copper, and
also samples of copper ore that contained gold, and from this he argued
that these metals were transmutable, and really in the act of
transmutation when the process was interfered with by the miner's pick.
He had transformed a liquid into a mass of solid crystals instantly, and
all of the changes possible in light, which he had discovered, had
enlarged his faith to a point where he declared, "Nothing is impossible."
It is somewhat curious that Isaac Newton, who had no soft sex-sentiment in
his nature, quite unlike Galileo, still believed in alchemy and astrology,
while Galileo's cold intellect at once perceived the fallacy of these
Galileo also saw at once that for the sun to stand still at Joshua's
command would really mean that the Earth must cease her motion, since the
object desired was to prolong the day. Sir Isaac Newton, who discovered
the Law of Gravitation, yet believed that at the command of a barbaric
chieftain, this Law was arrested,[Pg 38] and that all planetary attraction
was made to cease while he fought the Philistines for the possession of
pasture-land to which he had no title.
Galileo did not know as much as Newton about planetary attraction, but
very early in his career he perceived that the Bible was not a book that
could be relied upon technically.
With Newton the Bible presented no difficulties. He regularly attended
church and took part in the ritual. Religion was one thing and his daily
work another. He kept his religion as completely separate from his life as
did Gladstone, who believed the Mosaic account of Creation was literally
true, and yet had a clear, cool, calculating head for facts.
The greatest financial exploiter in America today is an Orthodox
Christian, taking an active part in missionary work and the spread of the
In his family he is gentle, kind and tender; he is a good neighbor, a
punctilious churchgoer, a leader in Sunday-School, and a considerate
teacher of little children.
In business relations he is as conscienceless as Tamerlane, who built a
mountain of skulls as a monument to himself. He is cold, calculating, and
if opposed, vindictive. On occasion he is absolutely without heart:
compassion, mercy or generosity are not then in his make-up.
The best lawyers procurable are paid princely sums to study for him the
penal code, and legislatures have[Pg 39] even revised it for his benefit.
Eviction, destruction, suicide and insanity have even trod in his train. A
picture of him makes you think of that dark and gloomy canvas where Cćsar,
Alexander and Napoleon ride slowly side by side through a sea of stiffened
corpses. Bribery, coercion, violence and even murder have been this man's
weapons. He is the richest man in America. And yet, as I said in the
beginning, all this represents only one side of his nature: he reads his
chapter in the Bible each evening by his family fireside, and tenderly
kisses his grandchildren good-night.
The individual who imagines that embezzlers are all riotous in nature, and
by habit are spendthrifts, does not know humanity. The embezzler is one
man; the model citizen another, and yet both souls reside in the one body.
Nero had a passion for pet pigeons, and the birds used to come at his
call, perch on his shoulder and take dainty crumbs from his lips.
The natures of some men are divided up into water-tight compartments. Sir
Isaac Newton kept his religion in one compartment, and his science in
another—they never got together.
Voltaire has said, "When Sir Isaac Newton discovered the Law of
Gravitation he excited the envy of the learned men of the world; but they
more than got even with him when he wrote a book on the prophecies of the
hen Newton was only twenty-seven years old he was elected the Lucasian
Professor of Mathematics at Trinity, an office that carried with it a
goodly salary and also very much honor. Never before had so young a man
held this chair.
Newton was a pioneer in announcing the physical properties of light.
Every village photographer now fully understands this, but when Newton
first proclaimed it he created a whirlwind of disapproval.
When a man at that time put forth an unusual thought, it was regarded as a
challenge. Teachers and professors all over Great Britain, and also in
Germany and France, at once set about to show the fallacy of Newton's
Newton had issued a pamphlet with diagrams showing how to study light, and
the apparatus was so simple and cheap that the "Newton experiments" were
tried everywhere in schoolrooms.
People always combat a new idea when first presented, and so Newton found
himself overwhelmed with correspondence.
Cheap arguments were fired into Cambridge in volleys. These were backed up
by quibbling men—Pro Bono Publico, Veritas and Old Subscriber—men
incapable of following Newton's scientific mind. In his great good-nature
and patience Newton replied to his oppo[Pg 41]nents at length.
His explanations were construed into proof that he was not sure of his
ground. One man challenged him to debate the matter publicly, and we hear
of his going up to London, king that he was, to argue with a commoner.
Such terms as "falsifier," "upstart," "pretender," were freely used, and
poor Newton for a time was almost in despair.
He had thought that the world was anxious for truth! Some of his
fellow-professors now touched their foreheads and shook their heads
ominously as he passed. He had gone so far beyond them that the cries of
"whoa!" were unnoticed.
It is here worth noting that the universal fame of Sir Isaac Newton was
brought about by his rancorous enemies, and not by his loving friends.
Gentle, honest, simple and direct as was his nature, he experienced
notoriety before he knew fame.
To the world at large he was a "wizard" and a "juggler" before he was
acknowledged a teacher of truth—a man of science.
When the dust of conflict concerning Newton's announcement of the
qualities of light had somewhat subsided, he turned to his former
discovery, the Law of Gravitation, and bent his mighty mind upon it. The
influence of the moon upon the Earth, the tilt of the Earth, the
flattening of the poles, the recurring tides, the size, weight and
distance of the planets, now[Pg 42] occupied Newton's attention. And to
study these phenomena properly, he had to construct special and peculiar
In Sixteen Hundred Eighty-seven the results of his discoveries were
brought together in one great book, the "Principia." Newton was forty-five
years old then.
He was still the Cambridge professor, but was well known in political
circles in London on account of having been sent there at various times to
represent the University in a legal way.
His diplomatic success led to his being elected a member of Parliament.
Among other great men whom he met in London was Samuel Pepys, who kept a
diary and therein recorded various important nothings about "Mr. Isaac
Newton of Cambridge—a schoolteacher of degree, with a great dignity of
manner and pleasing Countenance." It seems Newton thought so well of Pepys
that he wrote him several letters, from which Samuel gives us quotations.
Pepys really claimed the honor of introducing Newton into good society.
Among others with whom Newton made friends in Parliament was Mr. Montague,
who shortly afterward became Secretary of the Exchequer. Montague made his
friend Newton a Warden of the Mint, with pay about double that which he
had received while at Cambridge.
In this public work Newton brought such talent and diligence to bear that
in Sixteen Hundred Ninety-[Pg 43]seven he was made Master of the Mint, at
a salary of fifteen hundred pounds a year—a princely sum in those days.
There is no doubt that the fact that Newton was a devout Churchman and an
upholder of the Established Order was a great, although perhaps
unconscious, diplomatic move.
His delightful personality—gracious, suave, dignified and silent—won for
him admiration wherever he would go. In argument his fine reserve and
excellent temper were most convincing. Had he turned his attention to the
law he would have become Chief Justice of England.
In Seventeen Hundred Three he was elected President of the Royal Society,
an office he held continuously for twenty-five years, and which tenure was
only terminated by his death.
In Seventeen Hundred Five the Queen visited Cambridge, and there with much
pageantry bestowed the honor of Knighthood which changed Professor Newton
into Sir Isaac Newton.
But the man himself was still the simple, modest gentleman. The title did
not spoil him—he was a noble man from boyhood.
His duties as Master of the Mint did not interfere with his studies and
scientific investigations. He revised and rewrote his "Principia," and in
Seventeen Hundred Thirteen the new edition was issued. One copy was most
sumptuously bound, and Sir Isaac, who was a[Pg 44] special favorite at
Court, presented it in person to the Queen. Those who are interested in
such things may, by applying to the Curator of the British Museum, see and
turn the leaves of this book, reading the gracious inscription of the
author, while a solemn man in brass buttons stands behind.
Newton died March Twentieth, Seventeen Hundred Twenty-seven, at the age of
eighty-five, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
The verdict of humanity concerning Sir Isaac Newton has been summed up for
us thus by Laplace: "His work was pre-eminent above all other products of
the human intellect."[Pg 45]