BBC Sir Isaac Newton
Who Was the First Person to Discover Gravity?
By Laura Gee; Updated April 30, 2018
Isaac Newton published a comprehensive theory of gravity in 1687. Though others had thought about it before him, Newton was the first to create a theory that applied to all objects, large and small, using mathematics that was ahead of its time. Newton’s theory was successful for hundreds of years – until Einstein came along and turned it on its head.
Sir Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton was born in England in 1643. As a young man he went to Trinity College in Cambridge, enrolling first as a student and eventually staying on as a fellow. During this period he developed the first versions of his three laws of motion, including the law of gravity. During his career, he also made significant advances in the field of optics and the understanding of centrifugal force. He eventually became the first English scientist to be knighted for his work.
The Discovery of Gravity
A popular story says that Newton came up with the theory of gravity instantly, when an apple fell from a tree and hit him on the head. Actually, Newton saw an apple falling from a tree, and it got him to thinking about the mysterious force that pulls objects to the ground. He compared the straight path of the apple to the curved path of a fired cannonball. He wondered what would happen if the cannonball went faster and faster, and realized it would eventually “fall” around the curve of the Earth forever, and never hit the ground. This “forever falling” motion describes the movement of the Moon around the Earth, and the Earth around the Sun.
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The Importance of Gravity
Gravity pulls falling objects to the ground, but people already knew intuitively that something like that was going on. The really groundbreaking thing about the law of gravity was that it applied to objects of all sizes, stating that the more mass an object had, the more it attracted other objects. At the time of Newton’s discovery, people didn’t have much of an idea of how the orbits of moons and planets worked. The new discovery explained a lot about that, in particular why orbiting objects don’t just fly off into space.
Before and After Newton
In 1589, Galileo conducted experiments with gravity, such as dropping balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa; he discovered that they hit the ground at the same time despite having different weights. Newton’s work, 100 years later, put together a picture of gravity good enough to last another two centuries. However, although Newton’s theory described how objects attracted each other, it didn’t explain why. In 1915, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity described gravity as mass warping time and space. It also describes the way that even light bends when passing near stars and other extremely massive objects. Still, despite this more recent tweaking, Newton’s original theory explains a great deal of the behavior of objects throughout the universe.
- Sir Isaac Newton
- Sir Isaac Newton – The Universal Law of Gravitation
- The History of Gravity
- University of Rochester: Sir Isaac Newton
About the Author
Laura Gee has a B.A. in history and anthropology, but now spends more time blogging and producing web content. She has worked and/or trained as an illustrator, crafter, caterer, yoga teacher, child-care provider and massage therapist, and she loves to travel when she gets a chance.
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A genius with dark secrets
Isaac Newton changed the way we understand the Universe. Revered in his own lifetime, he discovered the laws of gravity and motion and invented calculus. He helped to shape our rational world view.
But Newton’s story is also one of a monstrous ego who believed that he alone was able to understand God’s creation. His private life was far from rational – consumed by petty jealousies, bitter rivalries and a ruthless quest for reputation.
25 December 1642
Not expected to survive the day
How Newton’s early years marked him for life. Clip from Isaac Newton: The Last Magician (BBC Two).
Newton was born prematurely on Christmas morning, in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire. He was a tiny baby, given little chance of survival.
The country he was born into was chaotic and turbulent. England was being torn apart by civil war. Plague was an ever-present threat. Many believed the end of the world was imminent. But the hamlet of Woolsthorpe was a quiet community, little touched by either war or plague, which respected Puritan values of sobriety, simple worship and hard work.
Natural philosophers: The first scientists What did Puritans believe? The English Civil War
A lonely boy who hated his stepfather
Newton’s childhood home of Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire.
Newton’s father had died before he was born. When Isaac was three, his mother left him with his grandmother and married a man from a nearby village.
This turbulent start scarred Newton for life. He felt rejected by his family. He hated his stepfather and threatened to burn his house down. At Grantham school, Newton sought solace in books. He was unmoved by literature and poetry but loved mechanics and technology, inventing an elaborate system of sundials which was accurate to the minute. While his mother hoped he would run the family farm, his uncle and his headmaster realised Newton was destined for an intellectual life.
The early life of Isaac Newton
Making pies on Sunday night… punching my sister… threatening my Father and Mother Smith to burn them and the house over them.
A mathematical mentor
What did Newton’s professors teach him – and why did he reject it? Clip from Isaac Newton: The Last Magician (BBC Two).
Newton enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge. Here he found a father figure who set him on the road to important discoveries.
Isaac Barrow, Cambridge’s first professor of mathematics, steered Newton away from the standard undergraduate texts and towards the big unsolved mathematical problems of the day, such as calculus – a way of describing how things change. Calculus would later be crucial for explaining the universe in mathematical terms. Newton also hunted out new works by men such as Descartes, who argued that the Universe was governed by mechanical laws.
Browse Newton’s Trinity College notebook Who was Isaac Barrow? Portrait of Isaac Barrow
Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my best friend is truth.
Newton’s productive plague years
See some of the remarkable ideas Newton conceived during this period of isolation. Clip from Isaac Newton: The Last Magician (BBC Two).
When Cambridge University was closed because of the plague, Newton was forced to return home. This was the most productive period of his life.
Newton was driven by the belief that the path to true knowledge lay in making observations rather than reading books. For example, rather than trust texts on optics, he experimented by sticking a bodkin – a blunt needle – in his eye to see its effect. He laid the groundwork for his theories of calculus and laws of motion that would later make him famous. But, naturally secretive, he kept his ideas to himself.
The Great Plague of 1665
New ideas lead to a revolutionary new telescope
Watch this clip to find out how Newton’s telescope works. Clip from Isaac Newton: The Last Magician (BBC Two).
Newton continued to experiment in his laboratory. This mix of theory and practice led him to many different kinds of discoveries.
His theory of optics made him reconsider the design of the telescope, which up until this point was a large, cumbersome instrument. By using mirrors instead of lenses, Newton was able to create a more powerful instrument, 10 times smaller than traditional telescopes. When the Royal Society heard about Newton’s telescope they were impressed. This gave Newton the courage to tell them what he described as a ‘crucial experiment’ about light and colours.
How refracting and reflecting telescopes work
Taking criticism badly
The Royal Society met at Crane Court. It was a newly formed organisation for men of learning to discuss their ideas.
The Royal Society was an elite group who met to share and critique each other’s work. They encouraged Newton to share his ideas.
But Newton’s theories about light did not go down well. Other members of the Royal Society could not reproduce his results – partly because Newton had described his experiment in an obscure manner. Newton did not take the criticism well. When Robert Hooke challenged Newton’s letters on light and colours, he made a lifelong enemy. Newton had an ugly temper and an unshakable conviction that he was right. With his pride dented, he began to withdraw from intellectual life.
A history of the Royal Society Who was Robert Hooke?
I believe you would think him a man of strange and unsociable temper.
A self-imposed exile
In the 17th Century, alchemists searched for the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life, and attempted to turn ordinary metals into gold.
Smarting from criticism, Newton isolated himself from other natural philosophers and dedicated himself to radical religious and alchemical work.
With his mother on her deathbed, he returned home to Woolsthorpe and embarked on a period of solitary study. He became absorbed in alchemy, a secretive study of the nature of life and the medieval forerunner of chemistry. Some argue that these ideas, while not scientific in the sense that we understand them now, helped him think radical thoughts that shaped his most important work, including his theories of gravity.
In Our Time: What is alchemy?
Newton’s greatest rivalry begins
Gottfried Leibniz was one of the leading philosophers in Europe and quickly made an enemy in Newton.
When German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz published an important mathematical paper, it was the beginning of a lifelong feud between the two men.
Leibniz, one of Europe’s most prominent philosophers, had set his mind to one of the trickiest problems in mathematics – the way equations could describe the physical world. Like Newton, he created a new theory of calculus. However, Newton claimed he’d done the same work 20 years before and that Leibniz had stolen his ideas. But the secretive Newton hadn’t published his work and had to hastily return to his old notes so the world could see his workings .
Who was Gottfried Leibniz? Liebniz invented the language of computing In Our Time: The calculus dispute
In a young and suddenly fertile field like Mathematics… discoveries had lain waiting to be found again and again by different people.
The Principia Mathematica: A foundation of modern science
Find out the reaction to the publication of Newton’s Principia. Clip from Isaac Newton: The Last Magician, (BBC Two).
Challenged by Robert Hooke to prove his theories about planetary orbits, Newton produced what is considered the foundation for physics as we know it.
The Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica took Newton two years to write. It was the culmination of more than 20 years of thinking. It outlined his own theory of calculus, the three laws of motion and the first rigorous account of his theory of universal gravitation. Together, this provided a revolutionary new mathematical description of the Universe. The work cemented his reputation and contains much of what he is remembered for today.
In Our Time: Newton’s Laws of Motion Bitesize: Revise Newton’s Laws
Newton enters the world of politics
The coronation of James II at Westminster Hall: Newton fought the new king over religious reforms at Cambridge University.
Having made his name as a natural philosopher, Newton was attracted to a new life as a politician and public figure.
Profoundly religious, Newton could not sit by while James II attempted to re-Catholicise Cambridge University – even if it meant nailing his own religious colours to the mast. He successfully fought James’s reforms and got himself elected as a Member of Parliament. However, he made little impact in the Commons and appears on record only to ask for a window to be closed.
Exhaustion and breakdown
Somewhere around his 50th birthday, Newton suffered what we would now term a severe nervous breakdown.
In mid-1693, Newton suffered a mental collapse when he suspected that his friends were conspiring against him.
After working five nights in a row, Newton suffered what we might describe as a nervous breakdown. He later apologised to the philosopher John Locke and to the MP Samuel Pepys for having wished them dead, though whether he actually wished this is unclear. Yet Newton’s fragile mental health did not dent his public reputation. He was soon offered an important new post.
What do we know about Newton’s personal life?
Newton saves Britain’s currency
In the 18th Century, the Royal Mint was located within the Tower of London. Newton was master for nearly 30 years.
As warden of the Royal Mint, Newton found a new calling. He attempted to make Britain’s currency the most stable in the world.
In the 17th Century, Britain’s finances were in crisis. One in every 10 coins was forged, and often the metal in a coin was worth more than the face value of the coin itself. Newton oversaw a huge project to recall the old currency, and issue a more reliable one. Always methodical, Newton kept a database of counterfeiters, and prosecuted them with a puritanical fury. He was appointed Master of the Mint in 1700 and held the post for the rest of his life.
The History of the Royal Mint England’s great recoinage of 1696
By fire, by water, by touch or by weight, or by all or by any of them.
Newton elected president of the Royal Society
How did Newton use his power to cement his reputation? Clip from Isaac Newton: The Last Magician, (BBC Two).
As the leading figure in British natural philosophy, Newton had completed his most important work. Now he set about securing his reputation.
Newton was an imposing leader, obsessed by power and reputation. Though he continued to publish his own work, he also worked to make and break the reputations of other men. He tried to write Hooke out of history and began another bitter dispute with astronomer John Flamsteed by publishing Flamsteed’s catalogue of stars without his consent. Newton remained an influential figure, surrounded by a new generation of students brought up on his ideas.
Your Paintings: Newton on canvas
If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
Newton re-writes history in his favour
Newton (left) and Leibniz (right) were lifelong enemies.
Newton and Leibniz had quarrelled over who invented calculus. Now Newton saw a way to triumph over his intellectual nemesis.
In 1713, the Royal Society formed a committee to decide once and for all who invented calculus. It found that Newton had beaten Leibniz by many years. However, the secret author of the Royal Society report was none other than Newton himself. Leibniz refused to concede defeat, and the feud only ended once both men were dead. Today, it is accepted that both men arrived at the calculus independently.
In Our Time: The Feud between Newton and Leibniz
I seem to have been only like a boy… finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered.
Newton creates a legend
The story of the falling apple has became part of the mythology that surrounds Newton, as Robert Hannah’s 19th Century portrait shows.
At the very end of his life, Newton told a story which has become one of the most enduring legends in the history of science.
Dining with fellow Royal Society member William Stukeley, Newton remembered that he had been sitting beneath an apple tree at his family home of Woolsthorpe, and a falling apple had prompted him to think about gravity. The story was also told by other people who knew Newton, including his niece Catherine who cared for him in his later years. However, the myth that Newton was hit on the head by the apple was a later invention.
What is the real story of Newton and the apple?
Newton cleverly honed this anecdote over time. The story was certainly true, but let’s say it got better with the telling.
20th March 1727
“Here lies that which was mortal of Isaac Newton”: the Newton memorial at Westminster Abbey.
Newton died aged 84, and was buried with full honours in Westminster Abbey. As a celebrated natural philosopher, he was a new kind of national hero.
Newton laid the foundations for our scientific age. His laws of motion and theory of gravity underpin much of modern physics and engineering. Yet he had believed he was put on Earth to decode the word of God, by studying both the scriptures and the book of nature. For him, theology and mathematics were part of one project to discover a single system of the world.
The Newton memorial at Westminster Abbey
He was intellectually daring… His achievements were so momentous that that term ‘scientific genius’ was invented to describe him.
Charles Darwin: The man who rewrote the human story
A brief history of Stephen Hawking
Your Paintings: Isaac Newton on canvas
The Newton Project: Newton’s notebooks online
Newton’s birthplace: Woolsthorpe Manor
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