The past year and a half has been challenging for everyone. For some, it has resulted in the death of loved ones, loss of jobs, ill health, depression and anxiety. Yet, for others, it has been an opportunity to spend time with family, take up new hobbies, redecorate the house, and learn something new. Perhaps someone has even made a scientific discovery. At least, that is what Sir Isaac Newton achieved during the Great Plague of 1665-1666. Known as his Annus Mirabilis or ‘Year of Wonders’, Newton spent lockdown at his childhood home in the countryside, where he filled his time learning and discovering new things about the world.
On Christmas day in 1642, Isaac Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, near Grantham, Lincolnshire, to Hannah Ayscough (1623-79). Christmas day babies were special, but Newton was also considered blessed because he was born three months after the death of his father, also called Isaac. When Hannah remarried the rector, Barnabas Smith (1582-1653), from North Witham, three-year-old Newton remained at Woolsthorpe Manor with his maternal grandparents.
Woolsthorpe Manor was a yeoman’s farmstead, which principally reared sheep. While Newton was not adept at farming, the environment and landscape inspired his curious mind to observe and experiment with nature. His quiet, contemplative personality set Newton apart from other boys his age, particularly when he started attending the Grammar School in Grantham at the age of 12.
Rather than travel several miles to and from school, Newton lodged with Mr Clark, an apothecary. Mr Clark’s daughter remembered Newton as “a sober, silent, thinking lad who never was known scarce to play with the boys abroad.” Newton paid little attention to his lessons, preferring to study the workings of mechanical devices, such as the newly built postmill nearby. As soon as he had an opportunity, Newton constructed a working model of the postmill from wood.
Visitors can see an example of Newton’s postmill model at Woolsthorpe Manor, which now belongs to the National Trust. The house has been refurbished since Newton lived there, but recent discoveries suggest some sections remain as they were in the 17th century. On a wall in the kitchen, a faint carving of a postmill suggests Newton drew on the walls as a child. Other carvings have also been discovered around the room.
Newton’s notebooks reveal some of the experiments he undertook at school and home during his childhood. These included staring at the sun until he almost went blind and squeezing his eye-ball with a large blunt needle to see what would happen. He also had a keen interest in astronomy, time and mathematics.
At 17, Newton’s mother removed him from school and set him to work on the farm. Rather than look after the sheep, Newton spent his time reading or designing waterwheels and such-like. A disastrous nine months persuaded Newton’s mother to send him back to school, where he gained enough knowledge to enter the University of Cambridge. In June 1661, at the age of 18, Newton left his rural lifestyle behind in exchange for the city.
History books about the Great Plague tend to focus on London, but most major cities across England were affected. In 1665, Charles II (1630-85) tried to halt the spread of the plague by imposing a lockdown to prevent people from mixing. This was not too dissimilar from Boris Johnson’s decisions in 2020. Likewise, if someone came into contact with a plague victim, they had to quarantine for 40 days, painting a red cross on their door to warn others to stay away. Those who could, fled to the countryside where the population was much lower than in the cities.
Newton retreated to the safety of his childhood home in the summer of 1665. Despite being away from his university studies, Newton’s lockdown resulted in some of his best theories that changed the course of science. “For in those days, I was in the prime of my age for invention & minded Mathematics & Philosophy more than at any time since.” (Isaac Newton)
One of Newton’s aims was to understand how light worked. He observed that glass used in chandeliers sometimes changed white light into a rainbow of colours. With a glass prism, Newton experimented with light in his bed chamber. By boring a hole into the wooden shutters, Newton let a thin beam of light into his darkened room. When he placed the glass prism in the line of light, the colour changed, creating a rainbow pattern on the opposite wall. To ascertain whether the prism caused the light to change colour, Newton placed a second prism in the path of a single-coloured beam coming from the first prism. He noted the colour remained the same, thus proving that the glass had not altered it. From this experiment, Newton inferred that white light was made up of several colours: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.
Renovations to the house removed any evidence of Newton’s experiments, but his notebooks reveal the measurements of the room he used. Newton recorded the room had a width of “22 feet from the south-facing shutter to the wall”. Only one room in the manor house fits this description and has since been known as Newton’s chamber. For the benefit of visitors, the National Trust has filled the room with furniture from the 17th century and decorated the white walls with diagrams from Newton’s notes. Despite the carved drawings in the kitchen, it is unlikely that Newton wrote his findings on the wall. To demonstrate Newton’s experiment, a torch shines a light onto a prism, which produces a rainbow on the wall above the bed.
During his time at Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton contemplated the workings of the universe. While sitting under an apple tree outside the house, he observed an apple fall to the ground. This incident sparked questions, such as, why did the apple fall straight down and not to the side? Many who have heard this story believe this was the moment Newton “discovered” gravity, yet gravity was hypothesised by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) in 1604 and confirmed by Italian Jesuits, Grimaldi (1618-63) and Riccioli (1598-1671), in the 1640s.
The apple incident encouraged Newton to explore the theory of gravity in greater depth. He theorised that gravity was a key component in the working of the universe. Through numerous calculations, Newton developed a universal law of gravitation, which explained that all things with mass or energy are attracted to one another. Newton expanded upon theories suggested by Ismaël Boulliau (1605-94) and Giovanni Borelli (1608-79), who claimed the planets in the solar system are drawn towards the sun. Newton continued to explain that all planets, stars, galaxies, and even light are attracted to one another.
Newton did not tell the story of the apple tree until much later in life, leaving many people wondering if it actually happened or whether it was an example of gravity in action. Nonetheless, the incident was immortalised by Newton’s biographer, William Stukeley (1687-1765), who wrote, “the notion of gravitation… was occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood.” Legend or not, there is an apple tree standing by Woolsthorpe Manor, which has enticed pilgrims and tourists to the area since Newton’s death in 1727.
An apple tree has stood at Woolsthorpe Manor for at least 400 years. Many visitors ask if the tree is the same one Newton sat under, but the answer is not straightforward. In 1820, a storm blew the tree down, prompting many people, including students at Cambridge, to attempt to preserve it. Parts of the broken tree were used to make wooden trinkets and such-like, but the roots remained embedded in the ground. From these roots grew another tree, which remains at Woolsthorpe today. Dendrochronologists have determined it is technically the same tree, and the Tree Council has listed it as one of 50 Great British Trees.
Since the National Trust took over the property, the apple tree has been regularly pruned and looked after. It is a Flower of Kent tree, which produces green-red cooking apples. This type of tree was first mentioned in the 15th century and, despite its name, originated in France. At certain times of the year, the apples are used in the cafe at Woolsthorpe Manor.
Not only are these apples famous for their association with Isaac Newton, but they are also rather rare. After almost losing the tree in the storm of 1820, a graft was taken by Reverend Charles Turnor (1768-1853), who propagated the tree at Belton Park in Lincolnshire. During the 1930s, the Fruit Research Station at East Malling in Kent took grafts of the tree at Belton and gave them to the Cambridge Botanical Gardens. In the 1970s, Kew Gardens in London grew apple trees from the stock in Cambridge, one of which stands outside the Physics Department at the University of York.
Newton’s laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation, which derived from the incident with the apple tree, were recorded in his most important written work, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, first published in 1687. Shortened to Principia, the Latin document includes details about Newton’s experiments during lockdown and his further studies at Cambridge University. Whilst at Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton also produced three papers on calculus, which he continued working on once life returned to “normal”. Six months after returning to Cambridge, he was elected as a Minor Fellow of Trinity College. Then, two years later, he was appointed as the second Lucasian Professor.
Principia is one of the most important books in the history of science and brought about the beginning of the Age of Reason. Yet, Newton usually kept to himself at Cambridge, almost in a state of self-isolation and rarely discussed his ideas with others. Without the prompting of one student and future astronomer, Edmond Halley (1656-1742), Principia may never have been printed. Halley coaxed Newton through the writing process by asking questions and demanding written proof. The young astronomer even paid for the publication of Newton’s work.
Although science has moved on since Newton’s era, Principia remains a respected piece of work. When asked to name his 2015 mission to the International Space Station, British Astronaut Tim Peake (b. 1972) chose Principia in honour of the famous scientist and mathematician.
“Not only does it have the link with space and gravity but also it’s a celebration of science and that is what the space station is about now.”
As well as an English translation of Principia, Peake took seeds from the tree at Woolsthorpe Manor on his trip to the International Space Station. Peake and the seeds spent six months floating in microgravity before returning to Earth in 2016. Then the UK Space Agency, the National Trust and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew took care of the seeds, nurturing them into saplings.
In January 2020, one of the “Space Saplings” returned to Woolsthorpe Manor, where Tim Peake planted it a few yards from the original tree. Many people have joked about potential alien DNA picked up by the seeds while in space, but chances are the sapling will grow into a normal Flower of Kent tree.
A competition was held to find homes for the remaining saplings. They have since been planted at the Eden Project in Cornwall, the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre in Cheshire, the Brogdale Collections in Kent, the Catalyst Science Discovery Centre in Cheshire, Bushy Park in London, the Rosliston Forestry Centre in Derbyshire, and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna. To win the competition, the applicants demonstrated their commitment to science, physics, space and horticulture. As well as looking after the young trees, the centres are expected to encourage education, break down barriers to allow access to science for people of all ages, genders and abilities, and inspire potential future Isaac Newtons.
Whilst the apple tree is one of the greatest draws to Woolsthorpe Manor, the museum-like house provides an insight into Newton’s everyday life. By studying Newton’s diaries and letters from his family and friends, the National Trust has recreated Newton’s childhood home to the best of its ability. Newton had very few possessions and not much wealth of which to speak. From the outside, his home life appeared typical of the seventeenth century, yet Newton saw the world in a very different way.
The house reveals Newton’s human needs, making him appear no different from everyone else. Despite his genius status, Newton had his foibles and, according to a list of sins, quite a temper. Newton’s background did not reflect his achievements, which may give hope to many young visitors who feel their circumstances hinder them from reaching their full potential. In the barns and stables, hands-on activities demonstrate some of Newton’s ideas and discoveries. Not everyone can understand the workings of Newton’s mind, but seeing things in action certainly helps break Science down into manageable portions.
Woolsthorpe Manor is open from Thursday to Monday between 11am and 5pm. Access to the Manor House is by guided tour only, which can be booked online. Tickets cost £9.50 for adults and £4.75 for children over the age of five. National Trust members can visit for free.