The gravity of Newton, 1727
A close portrait of one 'reaching beyond human art and industry'
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I’ve touched on the nature of biographical and autobiographical writing here before, the challenges of source material, its misinterpretation and the risks of recollection years after the events. One solution for the biographer, certainly, is to get as close to one’s subject as possible.
When the giant of British science, mathematics and ‘natural philosophy’ Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) died, his papers went into the safekeeping of his friend John Conduitt (1688–1727), was married to Newton’s half-niece, Catherine Barton (whose own story is worth telling another time), and succeeded Newton as Master of the Royal Mint. He was also appointed as Newton’s executor – and was the first person to deliberately gather material about Newton’s life. (Ten years later, when Conduitt himself died, he was buried at Newton’s right-hand side in Westminster Abbey.)
Conduitt’s first biographical act was to draft a memorial sketch about his friend, to help the French author Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle deliver a eulogy of Newton at the French Académie des Sciences. Unfortunately Conduitt was unimpressed by what the Frenchman did with his material. He wrote in a letter dated 6th February 1727:
I have taken the liberty to trouble you with some short hints of that part of our honoured friend Sir I. Newton’s life which I must beg the favour of you to undertake, there being no body without dispute so well qualified to do it as yourself — I send you at the same time Fontenelle’s Eulogy, wherein you will find a very imperfect attempt of the same kind but I fear he had neither abilities nor inclination to do justice to that great man who had eclipsed the glory of their hero Descartes. As Sir I. Newton was a national man I think every one ought to contribute to a work intended to do him justice, particularly those who had so great a share in his esteem as you had, & as I pretend to nothing more than to compile it I shall acquaint the public in the preface to whom they are indebted for each particular part of it.
This appears to have been a circular letter sent to numerous of Newton’s acquaintances. And in fact it’s one of the responses, rather than Conduitt’s own work, that I wanted to spotlight here.
Enter Humphrey Newton – according to the antiquarian William Stukeley, another friend of Isaac Newton’s who himself wrote a biography of the scientist in 1752 (only actually published in 1936), Humphrey was a ‘relation’ of Isaac’s, but this hasn’t been proven. Humphrey came from Grantham in Lincolnshire, the town where Isaac went to school and less than 10 miles from his birthplace, so a family connection certainly seems plausible. Humphrey came down to Trinity College, Cambridge some time in the mid-1680s, and became Isaac’s amanuensis when the latter was writing his Principia (the book which introduced the world to his laws of motion and gravity). Stukeley described Humphrey as ‘a physician and manmidwife’ – and also offers Humphrey as a source of the great man’s renowned seriousness: Humphrey “scarce ever observed him to laugh, but once” (the occasion being someone’s quip about Euclid – you had to be there, I suppose). Though Stukeley himself recalled Newton as “courteous, affable… easily made to smile, if not to laugh”.
Two letters from Humphrey Newton to John Conduitt have survived – one actually written before Conduitt’s circulated letter, the other shortly after it. And in them we have perhaps the closest pen portrait we might get to the great man of science (bearing it mind it recalls events 40 years earlier, when Isaac was in his 40s), described by David Knight as “the only personal record of Newton’s daily life from someone who had every opportunity for long and close personal observation”. It is affectionately written and gives us a brilliant snapshot of an archetypal absent-minded professor.
17th January 1727
[Humphrey begins by explaining how he became involved with the Principia.]
… His carriage then was very meek, sedate & humble, never seemingly angry, of profound thoughts, his countenance mild, pleasant & comely… He always kept close to his studies, very rarely went a-visiting, & had as few Visitors, excepting 2 or 3 Persons, Mr. Ellis of Keys, Mr. Lougham of Trinity, & Mr. Vigani, a chemist, in whose company he took much delight and pleasure at an evening, when he came to wait upon him. I never knew him take any recreation or pastime, either in riding out to take the air, walking, bowling, or any other exercise whatever, thinking all hours lost, that was not spent in his studies, to which he kept so close, that he seldom left his chamber unless at term time, when he read in the schools, as being Lucasianus Professor, where so few went to hear him, & fewer that understood him, that ofttimes he did in a manner, for want of hearers, read to the walls.
Foreigners he received with a great deal of freedom, candour, & respect… So intent, so serious upon his studies, that he ate very sparingly, nay, ofttimes he forgot to eat at all, so that going into his chamber, I have found his mess untouched, of which when I have reminded him, would reply, “Have I?” & then making to the table, would eat a bit or two standing; for I cannot say, I ever saw him sit at table by himself.
At some (seldom) entertainments the masters of colleges were chiefly his guests. He very rarely went to bed till 2 or 3 of the clock, sometimes not till 5 or 6, lying about 4 or 5 hours, especially at spring & fall of the leaf, at which times he used to employ about 6 weeks in his laboratory, the fire scarcely going out either night or day, he siting up one night, as I did another till he had finished his chemical experiments, in the performances of which he was the most accurate, strict, exact. What his aim might be, I was not able to penetrate into but his pain, his diligence at those set times, made me think he aimed at something beyond the reach of human art & industry.
I cannot say, I ever saw him drink, either wine, ale or beer, excepting meals, & then but very sparingly. He very rarely went to dine in the hall unless upon some public days, & then if he has not been minded, would go very carelessly, with shoes down at heels, stockings untied, surplice on, & his head scarcely combed…
He was very curious in his garden, which was never out of order, in which he would, at some seldom times, take a short walk or two, not enduring to see a weed in it; on the left end of the garden was his laboratory, near the east end of the chapel, where he, at these set times, employed himself in, with a great deal of satisfaction & delight. Nothing extraordinary, as I can remember, happened in making his experiments, which if there did, he was of so sedate & even temper, that I could not in the least discern it. He very seldom went to the chapel, that being the time he chiefly took his repose; and as for the afternoons, his earnest & indefatigable studies retained him, so that he scarcely knew the hour of prayer… He was only once disordered with pains at the stomach, which confined him for some days to his bed, which he bore with a great deal of patience & magnanimity, seemingly indifferent either to live or die…
17th February 1727
I have bethought my self about Sir Isaac’s life, as much as possibly I can.
[Humphrey repeats some of the same points of the previous letter, but here are some more snippets…]
When he has sometimes taken a turn or two, he has made a sudden stand, turned himself about, run up the stairs, like another Archimedes, with an Εὔρηκα (eureka), fall to write on his desk standing, without giving himself the leisure to draw a chair to sit down in.
At some seldom times when he designed to dine in the hall, he would turn to the left hand, & go out into the street, where making a stop, when he found his mistake, would hastily turn back, & then sometimes instead of going into the hall, would return to his chamber again…
In his chamber he walked so very much that you might have thought him to be educated at Athens among the Aristotelian sects. His brick furnaces… he made & altered himself, without troubling a bricklayer. He very seldom sat by the fire in his chamber, excepting that long frosty winter, which made him creep to it against his will.
I can’t say I ever saw him wear a nightgown, but his wearing clothes that he put off at night – at night, do I say, yea rather towards the morning – he put on again at his rising. He never slept in the daytime, that I ever perceived. I believe he grudged that short time he spent in eating & sleeping… In a morning he seemed to be as much refreshed with his few hours sleep, as though he had taken a whole night’s rest. He kept neither dog nor cat in his chamber, which made well for the old woman his bed-maker, she faring much the better for it, for in a morning she has sometimes found both dinner & supper scarcely tasted of, which the old woman has very pleasantly & mumpingly gone away with… His behaviour was mild & meek, without anger, peevishness or passion, so free from that that you might take him for a Stoic. I have seen a small pasteboard box in his study set against the open window, no less as one might suppose than 1000 guineas in it crowded edgeways; whether this was suspicion or carelessness I cannot say, perhaps to try the fidelity of those about him. In winter time, he was a lover of apples, & sometimes at a night would eat a small roasted quince… When he was about 30 years of age, his gray hair was very comely, & his smiling countenance made him so much the more graceful.
He was very charitable; few went empty handed from him… He commonly gave his poor relations (for no family is so rich, but there is some poor among them), when they applied themselves to him, no less than 5 guineas as they themselves have told me. He has given the porter many a shilling…
Could your honour pick some things out of this indigested mass worthy to be inserted into the life of so great, so good, & so illustrious a person as Sir Isaac Newton! it would be of infinite satisfaction…
Conduitt in fact had his own issues with “indigested mass” – although he did write a draft of Newton’s life, he never completed an actual biography. (His text was first published in 1806 by the Lincolnshire antiquarian Edmund Turnor.) In fact it would take until 1831, a century after Newton’s death, for the first full biography to be written, by scientist Sir David Brewster, drawing on the material Conduitt had compiled.
PS Various routes brought me to this research, including this piece by Mason Currey, who writes brilliantly about the daily habits of famous people:
Original letter here (I have modernised the spelling). Note: all dates in this article refer to the ‘old style’ Julian calendar.