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

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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 scientistsWhat did Puritans believe?The English Civil War

1645

A lonely boy who hated his stepfather

Woosthorpe Manor

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.

Newton's college notebooks contained a list of childhood sins, written in code

1661

A mathematical mentor

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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 notebookWho was Isaac Barrow?Portrait of Isaac Barrow

Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my best friend is truth.

Entry in Newton’s notebook, begun in 1664

1665

Newton’s productive plague years

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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

1671

New ideas lead to a revolutionary new telescope

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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

1672

Taking criticism badly

crane court

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 SocietyWho was Robert Hooke?

I believe you would think him a man of strange and unsociable temper.

Newton describes Robert Hooke. Their feud often sank to the level of personal attacks

1679

A self-imposed exile

Alchemist's laboratory

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?

1684

Newton's greatest rivalry begins

Gottfried Leibniz

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 computingIn 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.

Newton's biographer James Gleick describes the world of the 17th Century.

1687

The Principia Mathematica: A foundation of modern science

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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 MotionBitesize: Revise Newton's Laws

1689

Newton enters the world of politics

The coronation of James II

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.

1693

Exhaustion and breakdown

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Newton suffered an emotional breakdown. Were his chemical experiments to blame? Clip from Isaac Newton: The Last Magician (BBC Two).

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?

1696

Newton saves Britain's currency

Tower of London

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 MintEngland's great recoinage of 1696

By fire, by water, by touch or by weight, or by all or by any of them.

Newton's minted coins were subject to rigorous tests to ensure their purity

1703

Newton elected president of the Royal Society

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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.

Isaac Newton's famous quote may have been a dig at his rather short rival, Hooke

1712

Newton re-writes history in his favour

Newton and Leibniz

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.

Remark attributed to Newton shortly before his death

1726

Newton creates a legend

Isaac Newton

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.

Keith Moore, head of archives at the Royal Society, on the legend of Newton and the apple

20th March 1727

Newton dies

Newton memorial at Westminster Abbey

"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.

Professor Robert Iliffe, director, The Newton Project