Grantham Civic Society column: Celebrating Newton’s ‘Year of Wonders’

Woolsthorpe Manor
Woolsthorpe Manor
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The Bubonic Plague spread from the dockyards along the Thames, in early spring 1665.

By midsummer it had reached Cambridge, and turned the city into a ghost town. Newton had already left before the payment was made in early August of a stipend to students by Trinity College.

Many of the students continued their studies by moving out with their tutors but Newton returned to Woolsthorpe Manor alone, to continue independently with his own researches.

He found the official curriculum in Cambridge, with its focus on the classical Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, long out of date. The tutors were continuing to teach traditional lessons established many years previously. There was little active research or even apparent enthusiasm.

Newton discovered books by recent and contemporary authors, which he read avidly. The common language of scholars was Latin, which enabled him to study works from across Europe. His mind was stimulated into new ways of thinking, yet his reading was critical, raising queries and objections directed to the authors he studied. In his notebook he listed a series of “Quaestiones”, and later a list of “Problems” both of which became the basis of future studies.

Newton arrived at his childhood home. Here at Woolsthorpe he had honed his skills of craftsmanship by making toys for his half- siblings and his landlord’s children in Grantham. For himself he carved sundials and made a water clock. Models of working mills, driven by wind, water, and even mouse-in-a-wheel power, had demonstrated motion and forces. In later years he showed pride in his making of a telescope. He flew kites, sometimes with a candle attached, no doubt to the consternation of his neighbours. By jumping with the aid of the wind behind him, he was able to devise his own scale for measuring wind speeds.

Lodging as a schoolboy with an apothecary in Grantham, he watched his landlord make medicines, ointments and household products. His landlord also used his own coinage which Newton surely remembered later when he became Warden of the Mint. He drew pictures, diagrams and portraits all over the walls of his room in Grantham, and etchings relating to his interests have been uncovered on the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor.

What a rich and diverse childhood this was. Though frequently at odds with his mother’s ideas of his future as a farmer and lord of the manor, the pull of curiosity, reading and experimenting strengthened his resolve not to work on the land.

Newton’s maternal uncle, together with his Grantham headmaster, must have recognised his potential abilities. They persuaded his mother, albeit reluctantly, to release him from his home obligations and let him go to Cambridge University. Even so she refused to pay for his studies, and he became a sub-sizar (servant) to the fee paying students.

Now he had worked his way upwards, gaining election to a scholarship in 1664 and BA in 1665, ensuring his security to a scholastic future once the plague abated.

Back at Woolsthorpe in his chamber above the hall, he was alone with his thoughts. And what thoughts they were! He was able to develop his brilliant ideas.

No, the apple did not fall on his head – see part 2 next week.