Chapter OneA BOY LIKE NO OTHER
On a dark September day in 1658, 15-year-old Isaac Newton was sitting on his bench in school when the wind began to blow all across England. Within hours, an enormous storm raged throughout the small country. As the boys at Isaac's school would soon learn, another storm, this one a political crisis, was unfolding in London. Oliver Cromwell, England's Lord Protector, was dead. Who would rule England now?
But Isaac Newton wasn't worried about the rain, nor was he thinking about England's troubles. The storm brought something else: a chance for Isaac to perform an experiment. As soon as he could, Isaac dashed outdoors to be with the wind. First, he jumped into it, and then he jumped with it. Against the wind, with the wind, over and over, all the while marking the length of his jumps.
Later, Isaac compared these jumps with others he made in calm weather, so that he could understand more about the wind and its magnificent force. Isaac's experiment showed that the force of the storm enabled him to jump one foot farther than usual. His schoolmates likely doubted Isaac's findings, so he proved it by showing them where he marked and measured his leaps.
Considering Isaac's perilous birth, it was a miracle that he was alive to experiment at all. When he was born at home on Christmas Day in 1642, the midwife who helped his mother surely thought he would die. Baby Isaac was so tiny he could fit into a "quart pot." The household servants who went on an errand after his birth didn't bother to hurry back, because they were sure he would be dead before they returned. All newborns' heads wobble, but this little baby was so weak his caregivers made a special collar to support his head.
After Isaac survived those first critical days of life, his mother took him to the small church in Woolsthorpe, a tiny village, to be baptized. The ceremony, as with every baptism in Woolsthorpe, was recorded on the parish register:
Baptizd Anno Domini 1642 Isaac sonne of Isaac & Hanna Newton Ian. 1. [Jan. 1]
There was no father watching as Isaac was baptized. His father, also named Isaac, died when his mother was six months pregnant. Isaac's father, according to the tax records of the day, was a yeoman (YOE-man) farmer, a man who owned land and dwelled in a small manor home. Isaac's father used an "X" to sign his name on the tax register because he could not read or write. He also had a bad reputation-a "wild, extravagant, and weak man," one witness said.
This "bad boy" caught the eye of Hannah Ayscough (AZ-kew). In that day, girls rarely received a formal education, but Hannah's family allowed her to learn a bit about reading and writing. Hannah's brother, William Ayscough, probably introduced Hannah to Isaac Newton, and Hannah's parents approved the match. She came to the marriage with her own money, as well. Hannah's parents gave her farmland that produced an income worth 50 English pounds a year-far more than an average household earned in the young couple's day. Why Isaac Newton's father died at the age of 36 remains a mystery.
Isaac's family was not rich by London standards, but the Newtons lived in comfort. Hannah Newton inherited her husband's property as well as everything on it-buildings, barns, sheep, cattle, and tools. Hannah learned how to oversee the farm and the people who worked on it. Hannah had every reason to think that her new baby would grow up to inherit the farm and run it just as his father had.
The name of Isaac's hometown fit exactly how its people made their living there as sheep farmers. Woolsthorpe, in the county of Lincolnshire, sat just a mile from the great road that led from London to the north. Even so, most folks in Isaac's day traveled very little. Many of them passed their whole lives and never ventured farther than a few miles from home.
Baby Isaac lived with Hannah, his grandfather James Ayscough, and his grandmother (whose name is lost) in the manor home in Woolsthorpe. About the time that he turned three and was "breeched"-dressed in boys' clothes instead of the baby dresses that all little children wore-Isaac's life changed. A well-to-do minister named Barnabas Smith, who had a parish in North Witham, a few miles from Woolsthorpe, had lost his wife and was looking for a new one. Hannah Newton's name came to his attention. The widower sent a messenger to see if Hannah would consider marrying him.
People with recently deceased husbands or wives did not remain widowed for long during those times. To the Reverend Smith, Hannah was a good catch; she had land and obviously could bear children. For Hannah, the prospect of marrying a respectable clergyman with a guaranteed income meant that she could leave widowhood, as well as the hard task of running a farm by herself. She agreed to marry Rev. Smith.
But there was a stumbling block. The Reverend Smith did not want anything to do with three-year-old son Isaac. Only Hannah was to move into his home in North witham. Isaac was to remain at Woolsthorpe to be raised by his grandparents. To Hannah's credit, she made sure that Isaac was financially secure before she left. Under the terms of her marriage contract with Rev. Smith, the minister guaranteed Isaac "a parcel of land"-the same land his mother brought to her first marriage-and the yearly income it produced.
Quite possibly, Isaac felt abandoned and neglected by his mother when she left him at Woolsthorpe. As a young man, Isaac left some evidence of his feelings in a notebook. In it, he recalled that as a little boy, he hoped the Smith house would burn down around the family. Still, Isaac remained devoted to his mother all her days until she died in 1679, even mixing medicine for her when she was ill. But Isaac appeared to have no special affection for the grandparents who brought him up. Once he left Woolsthorpe, he never spoke about his grandmother to anyone outside his home.
Hannah came back to Woolsthorpe when Isaac was 10. The Reverend Smith, who was old enough to be Isaac's grandfather, died in 1653, but not before he had fathered three children with Hannah. When she returned to Woolsthorpe, she brought Isaac's three half-siblings with her. Now Isaac had to share his mother's attention with two small children, Benjamin and Mary, as well as baby Hannah.
Like many small boys in the villages around Woolsthorpe, Isaac learned a little bit about reading and writing at village schools. Parents of his schoolmates hoped that their sons could learn enough to be able to read the Bible and grow to manhood in a godly fashion. (Their sisters, if they learned to read at all, learned at home.) In the households of Isaac's fellow schoolboys, there was little else worth reading, if there were any books available.
But there were books to read at Woolsthorpe. when Hannah returned there, she carted along piles of them from her dead husband's library. Isaac must have taken note of the leather-bound volumes that had belonged to his estranged stepfather. In tiny Woolsthorpe, as throughout all of England and Europe in the 1600s, books were rare and precious. One of them, a notebook that the Reverend Smith had used to outline his great thoughts about God, was nearly empty, but its blank pages of heavy paper were far too precious to throw away. Isaac later filled that particular notebook with brilliant ideas.
From the Back to the Front of the Line
When Isaac turned 12, it became time for him to go to a larger, better school. By now, Hannah was a wealthy woman, and it seemed fitting that her son should go to the King's School in Grantham, a larger town six miles from Woolsthorpe. It was too far for Isaac to walk to school, so he lived in Grantham at the home of a Mr. Clark, the town apothecary, who had a shop where he mixed medicines to treat the ill.
Upstairs, Mr. Clark lived with a wife and stepchildren, and Isaac moved in with them. Isaac found himself a friend to Clark's stepdaughter, whose name is lost to history. with Clark's stepsons, Edward and Arthur, things were different. Isaac was smaller than most boys his age, and his odd habits made him the target of their jokes. It was the same at school. Isaac just didn't fit in with the rest of the boys.
Isaac spent a great deal of time living in his own head. He enjoyed being by himself, and he spent long hours with no one else around. But he didn't waste time. Isaac liked to use his hands and was a gifted artist. Mr. Clark did not mind that Isaac decorated the walls of his room on the house's top floor with fanciful drawings of beasts and people like King Charles I, the most famous man in England, and Isaac's schoolmaster, Mr. Henry Stokes.
Isaac also liked to make complex models of mechanical objects like clocks and watermills. He planned and built a clock operated by water power that hung in the Clark's home. In Mr. Clark's shop on the ground floor of his house, Isaac watched how the apothecary combined chemicals to create new substances.
When the town of Grantham erected its first windmill, Isaac built a small replica of it. Isaac hitched up a mouse to the contraption, named it "The Miller," and watched it make the mill wheel turn. Not only did Isaac build little models, he made his own tiny tools to aid him in his handiwork. He liked Clark's stepdaughter and her friends and "would frequently make little tables, cupboards & other utensils for her & her playfellows, to set their babys & trinkets on," as one storyteller recalled. The girls must have thought Isaac a very talented boy when he built a four-wheeled cart he could sit in and crank to make it move.
Despite his cleverness at making things, Isaac appeared to have few gifts for schoolwork. At school in Grantham, boys were ranked by their grades. Isaac stood near the end of the line. Things changed, however, after a student ahead of him gave Isaac a strong kick in the stomach that sent him reeling. Isaac took his revenge, launching a pattern that he followed for the rest of his life. Isaac called out his attacker in the schoolyard, beat him up, and threw the other boy into the wall of a church. Isaac Newton never allowed anyone to take him for a fool.
Then Isaac got even with the rest of the boys in another way. He took a serious look at his schoolwork and decided that his place should be at the head of line. To become "head boy" at King's School would be sweet revenge, and Isaac won the coveted spot. Now he wanted to learn everything he could. He mastered Latin, the language that well-educated people both wrote and spoke all across Europe. He studied Greek so that he could know more about the works of scholars like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
Isaac also learned basic arithmetic and possibly a bit of multiplication and division. Algebra and geometry weren't part of the curriculum at the King's School. Mathematics wasn't considered an important subject when Isaac went there, and only tradesmen like carpenters and shipbuilders studied geometry. However, once Henry Stokes, the schoolmaster, saw Isaac's gifts, he very well might have tutored Isaac in all the math he knew.
Isaac also learned "shortwriting," a type of shorthand writing similar to today's text messages. During a time when students used quill pens and dipped them into ink-often with messy results-shortwriting proved useful in writing letters and taking down notes from books. The English that Isaac and his schoolfellows wrote also looked and sounded different than today's English. He used terms like "ye" for "the," "yt" for "that," "wch" for "which," and "yn" for "than."
Isaac spelled words differently as well. In one of his notebooks, a heading read:
Of ye Sunn Starrs & Plannets & Comets.
In that notebook, he wrote a recipe for making gold-colored ink:
How to write a gold colour. Take a new laid egg, make a hole at one end & let out the substance then take the yolk without the white, & four times soe much quicksilver [mercury] in quantitie as of the former grind them well together & put them into the shell stop the hole thereof with chalk & the white of an egg then lay it under a hen that sitt with 6 more for the space of 3 wekes [weeks], then break it up & write with it.
Isaac went to school in a town where many people couldn't read at all. Most of his fellow citizens in England lived simple lives and did not ask many questions about the world around them. Most did not have clocks to mark the passing of each day, so they used the sun's position in the sky to get a rough idea of the time. Some households had hourglasses filled with sand that supplied a means of measuring time. If there was an emergency, someone had to ring the bells in the church tower to alert everyone in the area.
By the time Isaac was born, educated people had accepted the idea that the world was round, but some refused to believe that the earth orbited the sun. People lived close to the rhythms of the earth. Why would their eyes lie to them? They could see for themselves that the sun rose in the east, tracked across the sky, and set in the west.
Still, some ideas were beginning to change. A few people looked at the world with a fresh view. Isaac Newton was one of them. He started to experiment with things that interested him, to observe and measure them. For instance, Isaac watched as sunshine poured against a wall of his house and saw how the light shifted from day to day and week to week. He marked the stream of light with pegs in the wall, adjusting them as the days grew longer in the spring and shorter in the fall. Over time, Isaac created a fairly accurate sundial, and passersby could tell the time by "Isaac's dyal."
Isaac's neighbors were superstitious. If twin calves were born on a farm, it was a sign of God's anger. If a black cat crossed their paths, certainly it was time to say a prayer for good fortune. If a comet appeared in the night sky, surely bad luck would follow. England's history had "proved" this in 1066, when a comet appeared. Shortly thereafter, Harold, King of the Anglo-Saxons in England, was slaughtered during the Battle of Hastings. Harold's enemy William the Conqueror, along with William's fellow Normans from France, overran the country and changed England forever. Sometimes Isaac used this kind of knowledge to make mischief. At least once, he managed to frighten a good number of people when he built some kites, tied candlelit lanterns to their tails, and flew them at night. Many of the townsfolk thought they were seeing comets and feared the worst.
A Farming Failure
In the late 1650s, when Isaac was in his mid-teens, his mother called him home from Grantham. Hannah thought that Isaac had learned quite enough at the King's School and was ready to manage her land. There were sheep and cattle to raise, hay to rake, buildings and fences to mend, and servants to manage. All of this was a big responsibility, and Hannah Newton firmly believed that it was time for Isaac to take on his duties as a future landowner.
It didn't take long for the servants to see that Isaac Newton was no sheep farmer. He sat under hedges and read books when he should have been looking after his animals. when he and a servant went to market in Grantham, Isaac spent the day with his books in his old room at Mr. Clark's home while the servant did Isaac's work. One day, as Isaac returned home on horseback, he dismounted to lead the horse up a hill. Somehow the horse slipped out of its bridle. But Isaac never noticed. He continued on home, dragging the horseless bridle behind him. Indeed, Isaac was miserable at farming, and he was miserable while farming, too.
To Isaac's good fortune, two men in his life intervened with his mother. Hannah's brother, Isaac's uncle William Ayscough, and his schoolmaster, Mr. Stokes, visited Hannah to plead for Isaac to return to the King's School. Mr. Stokes even agreed to drop Isaac's fees in order to persuade Isaac's tightfisted mother to let him go back.
Both men agreed that Isaac was destined for more learning; a few more months of preparation, and Isaac would be ready to enter Cambridge University. Uncle William Ayscough had a particular college at Cambridge in mind: his nephew would enter Trinity College, the same Cambridge college he had attended.
Isaac returned to the Clark household in Grantham and moved back into his old room. Sometime during his years at the King's School, he supposedly fell into a romantic "attachment" with Mr. Clark's stepdaughter. Many years later, this same woman, now the elderly "Mrs. Vincent," spoke of the warm feelings she and Isaac had shared as young people, but she said that she married someone else after Isaac left for university. Isaac himself never left anything written about her.