Isaac Newton: Education, books, and inventions

“To me there has never been a higher source of earthly honor or distinction than that connected with advances in science.” Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton, the founder of modern physics, had a difficult and lonely childhood. His father, a small farm owner, died three months before he was born. Newton was born in his family’s home in Lincolnshire, Woolsthorpe Manor, at Christmas in 1642. When he was two years old, his mother Hannah married the neighborhood pastor, who was far older than herself, and they moved away. As a result, Isaac was raised in Woolsthorpe by his grandmother and a nursemaid. Looking at Newton’s list of sins that he wrote when he was 19, it seems that he was a mad child who “desires the death of many.” At some point, he wanted to burn the house where his mother and stepfather lived.

Who was Isaac Newton?

Newton started King’s School near Grantham around 1655. He stayed with a pharmacist during his education. This environment helped him to flourish; he was extraordinarily creative in making wooden toys, watches, and other mechanical tools, and, as the 18th-century biographer William Stukeley said, also at “playing philosophical games.” However, in 1659, his mother took him out of school to run the farm. However, Isaac was not interested in performing the tasks expected of him. Isaac was fortunate as his outstanding academic success was noticed by people like the school principal, Trinity College, and his uncle, who studied in Cambridge. Although her mother, Hannah, saw academic life as a waste of time, she allowed her to return to high school to prepare for college.

Newton enrolled at Trinity College in the summer of 1661 and received a traditional education based on Aristotle’s writings. However, in 1664, he attended the lectures of Isaac Brown, the first Lucasian mathematics professor (who holds a special professorship in Cambridge). Brown’s implementation of physics into mathematics had a lasting effect on Newton. He decided to move away from the old-fashioned education methods and concentrate on the “mechanical” philosophies of advanced thinkers such as René Descartes, Nicolaus Copernicus, and Johannes Kepler. During the two years that followed, he made intriguing discoveries in optics, mechanics, and mathematics, mostly in his home in Lincolnshire, as Cambridge was closed because of the plague.

In late 1666, he was the first to describe the calculus (derivative and integral) technique through the analysis of extremely small units, which he called fluxion. He was also the first to express the binomial theorem, which allows the expansion of the form (a + b)n with a formula that can be used for all n values, including minus and fractions. As far as it is known, he saw an apple falling from the tree during this period and compared the gravity applied to the surface of the Earth with the gravity required to keep the Moon in orbit. He thought that the force exerted by the Earth on other objects was inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the objects. Both cases were in line with this law. However, the result was not precise enough to announce it to wider circles.

In the same period, through a series of ingenious experiments, Isaac Newton discovered how white light was composed of different light rays, each with its own color and refractive index. One by-product of this research was the discovery of a reflecting telescope that produces images from a very bright mirror instead of a lens.

Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke debate

Robert Hooke's constant debate with Isaac Newton did not help him much.
Robert Hooke’s constant debate with Isaac Newton did not help him much.

Newton returned to Cambridge in 1617 and became a Trinity College lecturer. But his academic success was just the beginning. Over the next few years, he refined his mathematics research and wrote an article called “Of Analysis by Equations of an Infinite Number of Terms.” Soon after, his efforts were rewarded with his election to the Lucasian professor position, which had been vacated by Barrow’s resignation in 1669. Two years later, while Newton was rewriting his lecture notes and studies on optics, Barrow showed the members a reflecting telescope made by Newton and brought him to the attention of the Royal Society. Newton sent them a crucial article. This article demolishes the continuing ancient belief that white light changes as it passes from one environment to another and also introduces the science of colors into mathematics.

Newton made a definite distinction between absolute mathematical claims and those that could not be proved, describing the latter as mere hypotheses or predictions. His arguments did not have a strong influence on Robert Hooke, the author of the famous Micrographia of 1665 and the dominant personality of the Royal Society. Hooke thought the light was a wave or vibration moving in an invisible medium or ether. He joined Newton in the reality of what he was explaining, but he still believed that the colors were formed by the change of white light in the prism. He said that Newton’s theory was just a hypothesis, which made the Lucasian professor angry.

In 1675, Isaac Newton was reluctantly convinced to publish his interpretation of his private views on natural philosophy under the title “The Theory of Light.” In this impressive text, he gives a detailed account of his understanding of the various cosmological roles of the ether associated with light, sound, electricity, magnetism, and gravity. His work sparked a second debate with Hooke; Hooke had told many people that most of the text was taken from his own Micrographia. Always quick to sense that he was underestimated, Newton accused Hooke of stealing all his work from Descartes. However, when Hooke stated that his views were misled, Newton calmed down. In his famous reply, Newton tells Hooke that he is doing well and adds, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants

Alchemy and theology

Newton's replica of the first reflecting telescope shown to the Royal Society in 1668.
Newton’s replica of the first reflecting telescope shown to the Royal Society in 1668.

Newton abandoned his plans to publish his optical and mathematical works due to the controversy caused by his entry into the intellectual community known as the Republic of Letters in Europe and America, as well as his extensive communication through letters. He became increasingly devoted to other studies, such as alchemy. In one of his texts, he claimed that metals were “growing” on the Earth like trees, according to the laws governing the development of living things. Behind this was the hidden soul, which energized other processes such as fermentation, nutrition, and chemical processes. Newton was also committed to theology. He developed a sophisticated and profoundly Protestant view of history in the late 1670s. Probably in a draft text he created in the mid-1680s, he argued that ancient people believed in the Newtonian cosmos and worshiped around the central Vesta fire, imitating the solar system. He claimed that this custom was proven by the shape of the ruins at Stonehenge and Avebury, and this was the most rational religion before Christianity.

Throughout his adult life, his main interest was to explain the mystery of prophecies. Influenced by the Protestant movement, where the Pope was the antichrist and Catholicism was seen as the religion of the devil, Newton’s investigations were in an extraordinarily radical style, highly opposed to the Trinity (he believed the Trinity was deliberately fabricated). According to Newton, shyster politicians like Athanasius of Alexandria were deceived by the devil, who was born in the 4th century AD. According to Newton, they had imposed an incomprehensible and corrupt form of Christianity on the world, and it easily believed it. Isaac Newton lived in a society that would be horrified by these thoughts. If his contemporaries knew his views, he would be, at best, excluded from society.

Principia Mathematica

Principia Mathematica, which is Isaac Newton's greatest work, consists of 3 volumes.
Principia Mathematica, which is Isaac Newton’s greatest work, consists of 3 volumes.

Hooke wrote to Newton at the end of 1679 about the orbital dynamics of the celestial bodies. During this correspondence, Hooke stated that the motions of the planets and their moons can be determined by adding the linear line of inertial movement to the force that attracts objects. He also brought up that this force would be inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the two objects. As we’ve seen, Newton knew about the inverse square law. However, he didn’t understand Hooke’s other point about orbital motion until 1680, when he saw an important event in the sky.

Later that year, the Great Comet of 1680 appeared in the skies. It disappeared behind the Sun at the end of November, and then another comet appeared at the beginning of the next month. Royal Astronomer John Flamsteed wrote to Newton in January 1681 that he predicted the comet’s return and that these comets were the same, as the comet in November was now in front of the Sun with the magnetic thrust.

Newton still considered the two comets to be different and responded by saying that the routes of both comets would be inconsistent if they passed in front of the Sun. If the two were the same comet, then they had to go into the back of the Sun, but there was no known physical mechanism for that. In any case, Newton doubted that the force of the Sun was magnetic. because the heated magnet was losing its strength.

At a time when the physical causes of the philosophy of nature had to be used to properly describe a case, the only possible theory of magnetism was the vague “ether” fluid defined by Descartes in the 1630s and 1640s and the “whirlpool” idea of the period. When Isaac Newton published the Universal Law of Gravitation Theory in his 1687 work, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, known as Newton’s masterpiece Principia, he explicitly denied that there is ether or a whirlpool in space.

Isaac Newton and De Mundi Systemate

Edmond Halley asks Isaac Newton about the planetary motion.
Edmond Halley asks Isaac Newton about the planetary motion.

Such abstract mechanisms were leaving no room for God’s intervention (which keeps the cosmos standing as an absolute reference system) in what he created. Whereas he had to intervene once in a while. Newton was criticized by many contemporary scientists for throwing away the physical mechanisms needed to explain the idea of universal gravity, but he eventually managed to change the way natural phenomena are expressed.

Edmond Halley’s visit in 1684 served as a stimulus that guided the publication of the Principia. When Halley insisted, Newton claimed that he could demonstrate the relation of the elliptical orbit with the inverse square law but was unable to show it until November of that year. In 12 months, he discovered that all bodies, no matter how small, were attracting other bodies according to the equation F=Gm1m2/R2 (G is the gravity constant, and r is the distance between masses m1 and m2). Thus, Newton presented the modern ideas of force and mass, the laws of motion, as well as universal gravity.

Principia’s final version consisted of three volumes. The first deals with a variety of “mathematical worlds” about different laws of nature. The second relates to motion in mediums such as liquid, and the third is called the De Mundi Systemate (System of the World), which handles the laws of nature that exist in the cosmos. The first explanations of the tide, comet motions, the shape of the Earth, and the orbit of the Great Comet (which he now knows was a comet) were made by Isaac Newton, and they played an important role in his work. Soon, Newton’s work was seen as the creation of a genius. The brightest natural philosophers and mathematicians tried to grasp the content, and the difficulty of it had become a legend. Many people had great respect for him, but some weren’t too impressed.

When Principia was about to hit the shelves, Hooke was angry about Newton’s lack of respect for the tips he got on orbital dynamics. Newton became disturbed when he heard Hooke’s complaints. He took out some of the references he made to him in the manuscript of the work and told Halley that Hooke was a braggart thief and a novice mathematician. Similarly, Flamsteed began to see Newton as a pathological tyrant whose followers worshiped him obsessively. 

Isaac Newton signs a death sentence

The conflict between Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton is the most famous intellectual mathematics debate in the world of science. Leibniz created the Calculus as a result of these discussions.
The conflict between Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton is the most famous intellectual mathematics debate in the world of science. Leibniz created the Calculus as a result of these discussions.

In 1687, Isaac Newton publicly defended Cambridge University against Catholic King James II’s efforts to appoint a Catholic priest at Sydney Sussex College. Two years later, at the dawn of the 1688 Revolution, Newton was elected to Parliament on behalf of Cambridge University. In the following few years, he failed in his attempts to obtain an office in London. But he continued to work intensively on several different topics. For example, he tried to explain how ancient people knew that God was the main cause of gravity but hid that and other facts in public in a mysterious and obscure language. Newton was eventually assigned to the Mint in 1696.

He turned this job—which his predecessors saw as an opportunity to receive a salary without working—into a mission in which he was devoted to seeking out and finding treacherous counterfeiters who lowered the value of the British coin. Therefore, his job required him to sign the execution warrant for the people who committed this crime. When he became the new director of the mint in 1699, he played a big part in combining the English and Scottish mints. This made it possible for the Acts of Union, which created Great Britain in 1707.

He was elected president of the Royal Society in 1703 and moved to one of the highest positions in British science; two years later, he was declared a knight. Those who supported and spread his ideas outside of England gained great respect. By the 1720s, the Newtonian system was dominant in British and Dutch universities and cities. The wide acceptance of the doctrine in Italy and France took more than twenty years.

But the idea of some kind of mysterious force acting between all the objects in the universe since the beginning seemed incredible and unscientific to great European natural philosophers like Gottfried Leibniz and Christiaan Huygens. Newton’s theories led to various debates with his rivals throughout his life. Leibniz visited England in 1673 and 1676. Before the second visit, he had designed a calculus that is different from Newton’s. At this time, he had a good relationship with Newton, which was expressed in Newton’s two letters to Leibniz in 1676. However, this mutual respect would not last. Leibniz wrote the rules of calculus in 1684, but evidence of Newton’s work in this area would appear only 20 years later.

While the fight with Leibniz continues

In his work Opticks, Newton studied the properties of light in 1704.
Newton’s 1704-dated Opticks is an important experimental physics work. By breaking the light into a prism, he found that the white light decomposes into the colors that made it. He discovered that if one of these colors was selected and passed through a second prism, neither the color nor the refractive index had changed, and thus the color was primary.

Meanwhile, some of Newton’s followers suggested that Leibniz’s calculus method was worthless compared to Newton’s and that their “hero” was the one who found it first, and even Leibniz received important clues about Newton’s discovery when he visited London in 1676. In the years 1712–1713, fierce swordplay broke out between Newton and Leibniz supporters. When Queen Anne died in the summer of 1714, Leibniz was the librarian and effective court philosopher of the Hanover regime (under the name of George I) that would continue the Protestant comprehension, and this further complicated the debates.

According to Leibniz, Newton’s system was stupid not only because of its absurd gravity doctrine but also because it meant God had to intervene again and again perversely in what he created. Isaac Newton thought that Leibniz had designed a perfect system like Descartes that did not require God. He also compared Leibniz’s vague metaphysical ideas to the teachings of people who try to change the simple truths of Christianity.

Despite these discussions, Newton’s theories continued to dominate much of the intellectual environment. The publication of his new book, “Opticks,” in 1704 enabled a much richer set of doctrines to be discussed and supported. While it mostly encapsulated his previous works, he also added the “Quaestiones” section to the book, where he explained his personal views on active principles governing phenomena such as growth and movement. In subsequent editions, other Quaestiones were added about subjects such as chemistry, electricity, and magnetism. Surprisingly, he tried to explain the ether in his work, Hypothesis, dated 1675.

Isaac Newton continued his administrative duties perfunctorily in the last years of his life, but his solid interest in theology and chronology continued. When he died in 1727, he had been a scientific legend for decades. He received the greatest respect from the British state and was declared the founder of reasoning. Despite some of the immoralities that have been revealed recently, historians have agreed that he was mentally better equipped than his contemporaries. They agreed with Halley’s quote, saying, “Nor can any mortal come closer to touching the gods.


  1. Ball, W.W. Rouse (1908). A Short Account of the History of Mathematics. New York: Dover. ISBN 978-0-486-20630-1.
  2. Christianson, Gale (1984). In the Presence of the Creator: Isaac Newton & His Times. New York: Free Press. ISBN 978-0-02-905190-0. This well documented work provides, in particular, valuable information regarding Newton’s knowledge of Patristics
  3. Craig, John (1958). “Isaac Newton – Crime Investigator”. Nature182 (4629): 149–152. Bibcode:1958Natur.182..149Cdoi:10.1038/182149a0. S2CID 4200994.
  4. Levenson, Thomas (2010). Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist. Mariner Books. ISBN 978-0-547-33604-6.
  5. Manuel, Frank E (1968). A Portrait of Isaac Newton. Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

By Bertie Atkinson

Bertie Atkinson is a history writer at Malevus. He writes about diverse subjects in history, from ancient civilizations to world wars. In his free time, he enjoys reading, watching Netflix, and playing chess.