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Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton
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Sir Isaac Newton

Born: 4 Jan 1643 in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England

Died: 31 March 1727 in London, England

Isaac Newton's life can be divided into three quite distinct periods. The first is his boyhood days from 1643 up to his appointment to a chair 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 mathematical research.

Isaac Newton was born in the manor house of Woolsthorpe, near Grantham in Lincolnshire. Although by the calendar in use at the time of his birth he was born on Christmas Day 1642, we give the date of 4 January 1643 in this biography which is the "corrected" Gregorian calendar date bringing it into line with our present calendar. (The Gregorian calendar was not adopted in England until 1752.) Isaac Newton came from a family of farmers but never knew his father, also named Isaac Newton, who died in October 1642, three months before his son was born. Although Isaac's father owned property and animals which made him quite a wealthy man, he was completely uneducated and could not sign his own name.

You can see a picture of Woolsthorpe Manor as it is now.

Isaac's mother Hannah Ayscough remarried Barnabas Smith the minister of the church at North Witham, a nearby village, when Isaac was two years old. The young child was then left in the care of his grandmother Margery Ayscough at Woolsthorpe. Basically treated as an orphan, Isaac did not have a happy childhood. His grandfather James Ayscough was never mentioned by Isaac in later life and the fact that James left nothing to Isaac in his will, made when the boy was ten years old, suggests that there was no love lost between the two. There is no doubt that Isaac felt very bitter towards his mother and his step-father Barnabas Smith. When examining his sins at age nineteen, Isaac listed:-

Threatening my father and mother Smith to burn them and the house over them.

Upon the death of his stepfather in 1653, Newton lived in an extended family consisting of his mother, his grandmother, one half-brother, and two half-sisters. From shortly after this time Isaac began attending the Free Grammar School in Grantham. Although this was only five miles from his home, Isaac lodged with the Clark family at Grantham. However he seems to have shown little promise in academic work. His school reports described him as 'idle' and 'inattentive'. His mother, by now a lady of reasonable wealth and property, thought that her eldest son was the right person to manage her affairs and her estate. Isaac was taken away from school but soon showed that he had no talent, or interest, in managing an estate.

An uncle, William Ayscough, decided that Isaac should prepare for entering university and, having persuaded his mother that this was the right thing to do, Isaac was allowed to return to the Free Grammar School in Grantham in 1660 to complete his school education. This time he lodged with Stokes, who was the headmaster of the school, and it would appear that, despite suggestions that he had previously shown no academic promise, Isaac must have convinced some of those around him that he had academic promise. Some evidence points to Stokes also persuading Isaac's mother to let him enter university, so it is likely that Isaac had shown more promise in his first spell at the school than the school reports suggest. Another piece of evidence comes from Isaac's list of sins referred to above. He lists one of his sins as:-

... setting my heart on money, learning, and pleasure more than Thee ...

which tells us that Isaac must have had a passion for learning.

We know nothing about what Isaac learnt in preparation for university, but Stokes was an able man and almost certainly gave Isaac private coaching and a good grounding. There is no evidence that he learnt any mathematics, but we cannot rule out Stokes introducing him to Euclid's Elements which he was well capable of teaching (although there is evidence mentioned below that Newton did not read Euclid before 1663). Anecdotes abound about a mechanical ability which Isaac displayed at the school and stories are told of his skill in making models of machines, in particular of clocks and windmills. However, when biographers seek information about famous people there is always a tendency for people to report what they think is expected of them, and these anecdotes may simply be made up later by those who felt that the most famous scientist in the world ought to have had these skills at school.

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