Review of recent books on Newton
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Art. VI. -- 1. Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton. By Sir David Brewster, K.H., F.R.S., &c. &c. 2 vols. 8vo. Edinburgh and London: 1855.
2. Correspondence of Sir Isaac Newton and Professor Cotes. Edited by J. Edleston, M.A., Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. 1 vol. 8vo. London and Cambridge: 1850
3. Analytical View of Sir Isaac Newton's Principia. By Henry Lord Brougham, F.R.S., &c. &c.; and E.J. Routh, B.A., Fellow of St. Peter's College, Cambridge. 1 vol. 8vo. London: 1855.
The long-promised appearance of a Life of Newton, upon a scale somewhat commensurate with the demands of so illustrious a subject, cannot but be regarded as an event of some consequence in our national scientific literature. The promise on the part of its author has, we believe, been in abeyance since the appearance of his former small volume in the series of the 'Family Library,' in 1831. As to the causes of this delay we have little information; but at least some part of thetime has been worthily employed in a laborious search into original documents not hitherto examined. In the interval also several publications have appeared tending to throw great light on the subject. The late Professor Rigaud's 'Essay on the History of the First Publication of the Principia;' his editorial labours in printing the correspondence of Newton and his contemporaries from the Macclesfield collection; and more recently Mr. Edleston's similar volume of the correspondence with Cotes, preserved in the Trinity College library; besides the critical researches of Professor De Morgan, -- have all furnished most important aid towards an accurate history of Newton's life: and of all these and many other sources of information Sir D. Brewster has made ample and judicious use.
The history of Newton is in a great measure the history of science, and of the most important epoch in all the history of science. Great as that epoch was, and important as were the events which characterised it, they are already so perfectly known to all who take the slightest interest in the progress of human intellect, that we shall think it needless here to retrace them in detail. We shall rather avail ourselves of the vast mass of information now before us to present to our readers what will, perhaps, prove a more genuinely attractive view of the private life of the author of these discoveries; and we shall endeavour to extract from it what may serve to convey a more just and correct idea of his real personal character, habits, and pursuits than has been commonly entertained.
In a pleasant situation, about six miles south of Grantham in Lincolnshire, lies the parish and village of Colsterworth, a dependent hamlet of which, called Woolsthorpe, boasts the honours of a distinct manor. The domain is, however, limited to a very small expanse, and the manorial mansion is of corresponding dimensions, existing to this day as it stood upwards of two centuries ago; in fact possessing no apparent pretensions beyond those of a second-rate farm house, though substantially built of stone, after the fashion naturally prevalent in the oolite formations. The possessors of this estate, in the earlier part of the seventeenth century, were a family named Newton, rumoured to have been of Scottish extraction, and to have come to England with King James I.; who subsisted on the cultivation of the small farm, occupying no higher station than that of not very substantial yeomen. The estate of Woolsthorpe was estimated at only 30l. per annum, in 1623.They continued, however, undisturbed in that retreat during the troubled times which England was beginning to experience about 1642. But in that year the then representative of the family, Isaac Newton, having succeeded his father in the inheritance little more than a year before, died only a few months after his marriage with Hannah Ayscough, and in the prime of life, leaving his widow in a delicate situation, the result of which was, that at a premature period, on Christmas day, she gave birth to a diminutive son, in such a feeble state that some attendants, hastily despatched for medical aid, were astonished to find him alive on their return. He was named Isaac after his father. The widow possessed in her own right the adjacent farm of Sewsterne, estimated at 50l. per annum. On the modest income of these united domains she proceeded to rear and educate her son, with no better prospects for him that that of becoming in due time her assistant and successor in the cultivation of the soil.
She was described as a 'singularly good woman.' And within three years after her bereavement it so happened that the Rev. Barnabas Smith, rector of the adjoining parish of North Witham, who had lived long as an old bachelor, was advised by his parishioners to marry her; but understanding such matters, he paid one of his advisers a day's wages to go and make the proposal for him. It was, after due reflection, accepted; but, with proper caution, the farm of Sewsterne was settled upon little Isaac. In 1645 his mother removed to North Witham. But his maternal grandmother occupied the house at Woolsthorpe, and took upon herself the entire care of the delicate child. His health prospered under her auspices; and in a few years he was able to acquire such rudiments of education as the adjoining village schools at Skillington and at Stoke could furnish.
His mother's marriage was followed by the birth of a son, Benjamin, and of two daughters, Mary and Hannah. These individuals and their descendants are often referred to in the course of the memoirs before us. Young Isaac's health became more robust than could have been expected; and at the age of twelve he was in a condition to be sent to the Grammar School at Grantham, then presided over by Mr. Stokes. We must presume that his step-father furnished some aid towards his education, as we find that this step involved his boarding in Grantham at the house of an apothecary named Clarke. Here, however, instead of attending to his lessons in the school, he began to evince a decided taste for the more practical arts of carpentering and making contrivances. By degrees these operations were of a kind which attractednotice; and he gained a considerable celebrity for ingenious models of a mill worked by a mouse put into a tread wheel; -- a water-clock, and other devices. In his visits to Woolsthorpe his ingenuity was displayed in connexion with some notions of a more scientific kind, in the construction of sun dials, two of which were cut in the stones of the wall of the manor-house, and have been carefully preserved to this day. It is also stated that he acquired considerable skill in drawing, the walls of his room at Mr. Clarke's being covered with designs of various kinds. He is said also to have written verses, but the account is somewhat apocryphal.
During the later period of his residence at Grantham a development of his character of a different kind occurred. A relative of his landlord, a certain young lady designated as Mistress Storey, of unusual personal attractions, was an inmate in the house. He was then not fifteen years of age, and the lady three years younger; nevertheless, a flirtation ensued, which, according to her own statement, continued unabated even at a more reasonable age; when, however, prudential motives opposed that inexorable barrier which so often cruelly mars human happiness. The lady, however, consoled herself afterwards by twice marrying; notwithstanding that the attentions of her first lover continued to be displayed, sometimes in a very substantial manner, to the end of his life.
In 1656, when Isaac was fifteen years of age, his step-father died; his mother, with her children, returned to reside at Woolsthorpe, and Isaac was recalled from school to manage the farm. In this novel occupation he was aided by a trusty servant. They went together to market at Grantham; the servant to transact all the business, the young master to return to Mr. Clarke's garret and continue at once his studies and his courtship. At other times he was found intrenched under a hedge, absorbed in calculation or constructing machines, while the sheep were straying, and the cattle breaking the fences and trampling on the corn. In the terrible storm on the day of the death of Oliver Cromwell, in 1658, he was deeply engaged in studying the force of the wind, and measuring it by making a number of successive leaps in the direction against it compared with the number made in its direction, in the same time. His prudent mother soon saw that this state of things could not go on; and his uncle, the Rev. Mr. Ayscough, perceiving the bent of his mind, urged the propriety of his going to Cambridge; and, in consequence, he returned to Grantham school, where he now seems to have pursued his studies in a more earnest spirit; and, at the period of leaving the school, the master, in theheight of satisfaction at his progress and auguries of his future success, with a kind of formal ceremonial, in a speech delivered to the assembled school, took leave of him, and held him up to the admiration and imitation of the scholars.
We might be surprised at a person in the circumstances of Mrs. Smith thinking of sending a son to the University. But it must be remembered that the mode of life in those seminaries was very different at that period from what it has since become. And, moreover, the situation of sizar in colleges offered advantages precisely such as persons in Isaac Newton's condition would gladly avail themselves of. It held out a maintenance of a kind with which he might well be contented; and coupled as it was with the performance of some menial services, these were, at any rate, far less unpleasant than the labours of the farm, to which he had so invincible an aversion. Therefore armed with letters of introduction from his uncle, he presented himself at Trinity College, in June 1661, and was there admitted sub-sizar, and matriculated as sizar July 8th in the same year.
Considering his small pecuniary resources we are surprised, in looking at the entries in some account books of this period which have been preserved, to find not only a number of loans to different friends and relatives, but some items most conscientiously headed, 'Otiose and frustra expensa;' which include some curious entries: 'China-ale' (q. tea?), cherries, tarts, bottled beer, 'marmelot,' 'sherbet and reasks,' cake, &c. showing that he was not altogether of a very self-denying disposition; though, at a little later period, the sequel contains similar notices of money 'spent on my cousin Ayscough and on other acquaitances,' besides loans to other friends, and 'oranges for my sister;' indicating a spirit of generosity towards his relatives of which in after life he gave more noble examples.
Of the details of his life at Cambridge during the first years of his residence unfortunately very few particulars have been preserved. Mr. Edleston incidently informs us, that Newton's tutor was Benjamin Pulleyn. This individual seems to have proceeded judiciously. In the first instance, his pupils being called upon to attend a logic lecture, he found that Newton had already become so complete a proficient in Saunderson's Logic, which he had studied before leaving home, that he dispensed with further attendance on that lecture, and, instead of it, placed him in a class reading Kepler's Optics. Newton, however, we are told, mastered the whole before the rest had proceeded but a little way. He was, in fact, principally his own tutor. He went to Stourbridge fair, and there he bought a book on Judicial Astronomy, to understand which he found it necessary to know more mathematics than he had yet acquired. He therefore commenced studying Euclid; but not liking the tediousness of long demonstrations to prove what he considered self-evident, he flew to the more attractive and generalised investigations of Des Cartes's Geometry, in such a way as fairly to awaken his inventive powers and lead him to attempt original solutions of a variety of problems. Of these studies, fortunately, some notice is preserved in several common-place books still extant, in which a variety of inquiries of this kind are entered in a rather promiscuous manner.
He was elected scholar April 28th, 1664, and in January, 1665, took the degree of B.A. Before that period the practice had begun of classifying the incepting bachelors in what is called the 'ordo senioritatis,' and which now constitutes the tripos, or list of honours: Mr. Edleston, however, informs us, that this estimate of the relative proficiency of the candidates is most provokingly omitted in the records of that year when, of all others, it would be so peculiarly interesting to possess it.
The eventful years 1665-6, marked by the fearful calamities of the plague and of the fire of London, were equally full of interesting events of a very different kind in the world of science; though, from the peculiarity of the circumstances, that interest was not excited, -- the very occurrences hardly known till many years afterwards. All that appeared to external observation was the simple fact that Isaac Newton, now a scholar of Trinity College and B.A., was in his usual odd, desultory way, deeply absorbed in certain mathematical researches, which (as was long afterwards discovered when the memorials of these researches were first brought to light), led him to a certain method of calculating, by rules perfectly general, various questions which all preceding mathematicians had attempted only by partial methods and isolated modes of solution, and even giving an unlimited extension of the means of solving a vast variety of problems relative to all parts of physical and geometrical inquiries: a method which was called 'Fluxions,' and under one form or another has been the sole instrument of all the modern discoveries.
We have now extant not less than four brief MS. tracts, all nearly to the same purport, though somewhat differing in details, giving the outline of the method alluded to, with many of its applications, in his own handwriting, bearing date in1665-6, together with a larger essay, 1671. These long remained wholly unknown.
It is true another paper on a subject nearly allied, and containing some of the same results, was, a few years later, privately shown to Dr. Barrow, and by him to Collins (then a sort of centre of communication among European mathematicians), through whom it became known; but this did not convey any intimation of the method. Thus the great discovery of fluxions remained for years unnoticed and unknown; thrown aside after its inventor had sufficiently satisfied himself by repeated transcriptions; and then forgotten, as soon as newer and more attractive researches tempted him.
In the summer of the same year the spreading of the plague to Cambridge caused the necessary measure of dismissing the colleges. This was again repeated in the following year; the intervening winter being probably deemed a sufficiently safe reason to allow residence to be resumed. It is by no means certain on which of these occasions the memorable incident of the fall of the apple occurred. Sir D. Brewster inclines to suppose it was in 1666. The story, in fact, rest chiefly on the authority of a lady (Newton's favourite niece), who figures considerably at a later period of his history, and who would hardly have failed to learn its truth from the fountain-head before she repeated it. It is no argument against its truth that Newton did not mention it to Whiston, or Pemberton when engaged in commenting on his discoveries, as it would have little to do with their objects. A writer of somewhat later date, Mr. Green, of Clare Hall (who published some strange theories which he called the Greenian Philosophy), mentions the story on the authority of Martin Foulkes, P.R.S., and adds, 'uti omnis cognitio nostra, a pomo.'
Be this as it may, it is not every reasoner who would have argued from the fall of bodies to the earth that the moon is every moment falling directly to the earth, by exactly the same quantity as an apple removed to the same distance would do; or would thence have been led to the theory of universal gravity, perceiving that this same centripetal, combined with a tangential or impulsive force, in certain proportions, must cause a body to move in an orbit: or that if the centripetal force be inversely as the square of the distance that orbit must be an ellipse, and to show by exact calculation that this agrees with all the observed motions of the moon, the planets, satellites, and comets.
All this, however, was not discovered in the garden atWoolsthorpe. The germ of the idea alone was then developed; the trial of it by calculation was not made till considerably later. Like many of the other great ideas which in rapid succession presented themselves to Newton's mind about this period, they engaged his inquiries but for a short time, and were then thrown aside.
Thus in the beginning of 1666 and, probably, when at Cambridge, Newton tells us that he purchased a glass prism 'to try therewith the celebrated phenomenon of colours.' Again in an account-book under the date of 1667 is entered a purchase of three prisms, costing one shilling each. But there does not appear any positive evidence (as Sir D. Brewster thinks) for assigning the date of the actual discovery of the unequal refrangibility of light at this precise period: it even appears most probable that he had not yet made the discovery in 1669, since in that year he had the revision of Dr. Barrow's Optical Lectures before their publication, which contain assertions quite a variance with that doctrine, and which he would hardly have allowed his friend to publish without remonstrance had he been then in possession of the true theory. Nevertheless Mr. Edleston, who is in general a model of accuracy, unhesitatingly sets down this great discovery as the work of the year 1666.
It is certain that to whatever extent Newton proceeded at that time, his researches were again interrupted by the appearance of the plague, and he was again driven from Cambridge. But even if these researches went no further than the general idea, we must mark the epoch as one singularly distinguished by the coincident development of even the first rudiments of three such grand conceptions, each in its department destined to revolutionise the face of science, and all due to the suggestions of one master mind, the first fruits of the youthful and as yet untried energies of a student then in his twenty-fifth year. Yet all this passed at the time in the quiet of Woolsthorpe or the interior of Newton's college rooms, exciting neither remark, surprise, nor commendation beyond, perhaps, the praise bestowed by Barrow on the paper which he sent to Collins, mentioning that 'the name of the author is Newton, a Fellow of our College, who, with an unparalleled genius, has made very great progress in this branch of mathematics.'
In October 1667 Newton was elected 'minor fellow of Trinity College,' and in the following year 'major fellow;' when he also took the degree of M.A. Notwithstanding the high celebrity which he obtained even during his residence inCambridge, it is remarkable how few details have been preserved of his mode of life; and that even on the subject of the locality of his rooms in college some doubts should exist. Those which he occupied as an undergraduate are unknown. On his nomination to a fellowship the rooms assigned to him were what was called 'the Spiritual Chamber,' the position of which is at this day matter of mere conjecture. The only locality certainly traced is that of the rooms he finally occupied from 1682 till he quitted the University. These are situated not far from the former, and, like the others at that part of the College, have a small piece of garden inclosed within the high walls which there shut out Trinity College from the street, just to the north of the great gateway. In this garden a small wooden building projected from the rooms, -- having an alcove under it; and at the end of the garden next the chapel was a laboratory. The whole is represented in Sir D. Brewster's work copied in a wood-cut from Loggan's print with all its wonderful impossibilities of perspective. The exterior has in late year undergone some changes, but stood as represented within the memory of Professor Sedgwick.
In the account-books and memoranda there repeatedly occurs the name of Ds. Wickings (not Dr. as Sir D. Brewster prints it in one or two places, but Dominus -- the college appellation of a B.A., expressed also in English by Sir Wickins). Newton, during his undergraduateship, or soon after, was in rooms with a 'chum.' That mode of life might be pleasant if the 'chums' happened to be mutually congenial; but if not, a brace of coupled hounds could not lead a more distracting existence. Newton's chum was unhappily a most noisy, idle, and ill-conducted youth: accordingly the philosopher strolled out disconsolate into the college walks, there to meditate in quiet over his problems. In those walks he several times encountered a fellow collegian looking as dismal as himself. The freemasonry of sympathy brought on conversation; and it was discovered that in both the cause of unhappiness was the same, -- an uncongenial chum. The principle of elective affinity happily prevailed: the mutually sympathetic parties made a double exchange, by which both were gainers, and Newton and Wickins became chums and friends for life; while their roystering companions were made equally happy together. Ds. Wickins did not always remain a bachelor, and his son has left on record this circumstance, as well as many particulars of his father's friend, from which we will extract a few points: --
'I have often heard my father say that he has been a witness, of what the world has so often heard, of Sir Isaac's forgetfulness of his food when intent upon his studies; and of his rising in a pleasant manner, with the satisfaction of having found out some proposition, without any concern for a seeming want of his night's sleep, which he was sensible he had lost thereby…. He was turning grey, I think, at thirty; and when my father observed that to him, as the effect of his deep attention of mind, he would jest with the experiments he made so often with quicksilver; as if from hence he took so soon that colour…. He sometimes suspected himself to be inclining to a consumption, and the medicine he made use of was the Leucatello's balsam, which, when he had composed himself, he would now and then melt, in quantity about a quarter of a pint, and so drink it.'
The recipe as recorded in his own hand is also given; and we are also informed that Mrs. Vincent (the ci-devant Miss Storey, Newton's juvenile charmer), told Dr. Stukely that Sir Isaac was a great 'simpler.' The Doctor says, 'his breakfast was orange-peel boiled in water, which he drank as tea, sweetened with sugar, and with bread and butter. He thinks this dissolves phlegm.' Several other instances of his medicinal practice (happily exercised only on himself) are also recorded; and, to turn to a higher feature of his character, Mr. Wickins also dilates on some instances of his charitable liberality, which passed privately through his father's hands, especially a donation of bibles to the poor of the parish of which he was the minister.
In the absence of detailed information as to Newton's actual pursuits about this period, we are left in doubt to what extent he carried on those experimental labours, implying considerable chemical and physical resources, which he called his 'glass works,' and which were directed towards the improvement of telescopes, before 1667. We have entries in his early account books of money spent on sundry tools, and on putty, and other materials for grinding and polishing lenses: but on the discovery of the unequal refangibility of light (not as yet disclosed to any human being) he soon perceived its necessary consequence, -- that of causing colour, and in consequence confused images, at the focus. While in accordance with the assumption he had not unnaturally adopted, in the first instance, that all dispersion must be proportional to the refraction, he concluded the impossibility of correcting such colour, and pronounced any further improvement of refracting telescopes 'desperate.' He was thus led to the idea of reflecting instruments. Gregory and Cassegrain had a little before proposed telescopes on this principle; but Newton attempted a different, a more simple, and more effective construction, in 1668: and in 1671, his first complete instrument, of about six and a half inches focal length, was sent upto the Royal Society, where it is still carefully preserved; and was submitted also to the 'perusal' of the king. This led to his admission into the Royal Society in 1672. The Newtonian construction has superseded all others; and in the present age has been adopted with only slight modification in the gigantic instruments of Herschel and Lord Rosse. Yet the disclosure of this invention was in a way extorted from him, and he expressly says 'had not the communication been desired I might have let it still remain in private as it hath already done some years!' This, however, was but an exemplification of the same spirit of reserve which he manifested on many other occasions.
Meanwhile, in 1669, Dr. Barrow resigned the Lucasian professorship of mathematics with the express view that Newton might succeed him; and on receiving this appointment, he relinquished his optical labours, and resumed his researches, rather of a miscellaneous character, in pure mathematics. These researches gave rise to much correspondence with Collins, which in several instances curiously illustrates his peculiarities of intellectual character. In one of his letters he complains of 'mathematical speculations' as 'at least dry, if not somewhat barren;' and again, when Collins pressed him to allow the solution of certain problems he had communicated to him to be inserted in the Philosophical Transactions, he gives that permission only on condition that, 'it be without his name to it.' For, he adds, 'I see not what there is desirable in public esteem were I able to acquire and maintain it. It would perhaps increase my acquaintance, the thing which I chiefly study to decline.'
In the same year 1672, he was induced to communicate to the Royal Society what he termed in a previous letter to the secretary, Oldenburg, 'an account of a philosophical discovery, being the oddest if not the most considerable detection which hath hitherto been made in the operations of nature.' This was in fact the full development of the unequal refrangibility of the colour-making elements of which white light consists. The series of elaborate experiments by which he further established it, and traced out all its consequences, formed the subjects of several subsequent papers. No sooner was a discovery announced involving ideas at that time so startling and paradoxical, than it excited vehement opposition from various philosophers wedded to received views. The theory was cavilled at, the experiments were declared fallacious; moreaccurate trials were alleged to subvert the conclusions; and Newton found himself, to his utter dismay and disgust, drawn into controversy on every side. It was not that he grudged the labour of repeating experiments or writing new arguments to prove the soundness of his conclusions. For all this he probably thought and cared nothing; the one annoyance, the standing grievance, was that his tranquillity was disturbed, and that he was dragged into the arena of public conflict. He could not be allowed to pursue his studies in peace for his own private satisfaction and enjoyment. He cared little for the fame which was to reward his discoveries. He valued little the triumph, complete as it was, which he gained over his assailants. But he could not bear to be obliged to come out into the public gaze. He thought nothing of the benefit he was conferring on the human race in comparison with the enjoyment of his own serenity.
Thus he writes to Oldenburg: --
'I intend to be no further solicitous about matters of philosophy; and, therefore, I hope you will not take it ill if you never find me doing anything more in that kind; or rather that you will favour me in my determination, by preventing, so far as you can conveniently, any objections, or other philosophical letters, that may concern me.'
And somewhat later again: --
'I see I have made myself a slave to philosophy; but if I get free of Mr. Linus's business, I will resolutely bid adieu to it eternally, excepting what I do for my private satisfaction or leave to come out after me: for I see a man must either resolve to put out nothing new, or to become a slave to defend it.'
And at a much later period, he thus looks back (writing to Leibnitz,) at his past troubles: --
'I was so persecuted with discussions arising out of my theory of light that I blamed my own imprudence for parting with so substantial a blessing as my quiet, to run after a shadow.'
On the strength of these and similar testimonies, Sir D. Brewster thinks that, wearied and disgusted with science, Newton now seriously turned his thoughts to the study of the law; a supposition which he appears to adopt chiefly on the ground that Newton is said to have been a candidate for a civil law fellowship of his college in 1673; but this, though involving the obligation to graduate in civil law, does not imply the practice of that profession; and it is obvious such a fellowship might be an object to him if, as seems likely, he had an objection to taking orders which an ordinary fellowship would oblige him to do when of a certain standing.
The case is also connected with a story, often repeated, of an individual named Uvedale, whose sole claim to an immortality of fame is the fact of his having been the successful competitor for the fellowship in question against Newton. Mr. Edleston designates the story as 'a myth.' Uvedale, however, was a real man, he was elected; and he proceeded with the study of the civil law. Mr. Edleston argues that the fellowship was not given to Newton on the ground that it would not have been compatible with the duties of his professorship. Yet the same reason would seem equally, or even more applicable against his retaining an ordinary fellowship, which involved the obligation of taking orders and studying divinity. The statutes of the Lucasian professorship had been not long before confirmed and subsequently enlarged by the King; and, in 1675, at Newton's earnest solicitation, a royal patent was obtained conferring the additional privilege of dispensing with the obligation of taking orders involved in any fellowship which the Lucasian professor might hold. Newton thus continued to enjoy his fellowship notwithstanding the far-famed victory of Mr. Uvedale.
Another character now appears on the stage, or rather in the witness box, who was eminently capable from his peculiar position of bearing testimony to Newton's private habits and pursuits. The individual in question is Humphrey Newton, who is described as 'of Grantham,' and, probably, was one of the many poor relations who often experienced the generosity of their distinguished kinsman. At any rate he was an inmate in Newton's rooms; but whether as a sizar or academical servitor, or as a simple assistant and amanuensis, does not appear. At all events, in 1683, he commenced residence and entered on his duties, and he has left behind him some highly curious and characteristic records of his employer or tutor. They are delivered in a quaint, simple, and desultory style; and in the same form we will present a few particulars to our readers. Thus as to Newton's personal appearance and manners: --
'His carriage was very meek, sedate, and humble; never seemingly angry, of profound thought, his countenance mild, pleasant, and comley. I cannot say I ever saw him laugh but once, which was at that passage which Dr. Stukely mentioned in his letter. . . . (and which is described thus): -- ''Twas upon occasion of asking a friend, to whom he had lent Euclid to read, what progress he had made in his author, and how he liked him? He answered by desiring to know what use and benefit in life that study would be to him; upon which Sir Isaac was very merry.'
Again: Newton --
'Always kept close to his studies, very rarely went a visiting, and had as few visitors, excepting two or three persons, Mr. Ellis, Mr. Laughton of Trinity, and Mr. Vigani, a chemist, in whose society he took much delight and pleasure at an evening when he came to wait upon him. I never knew him to 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 were not spent in his studies, to which he kept so close that he seldom left his chamber except at term time, when he read in the schools, as being Lucasianus professor; where so few went to hear him, and 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, and respect. When invited to a treat, which was very seldom, he used to return it very handsomely, and with much satisfaction to himself. So intent, so serious upon his studies that he ate very sparingly, nay, ofttimes he has forgot to eat at all; so that going into his chamber, I have found his mess untouched, of which, when I have reminded him, he would reply, "Have I!" and 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.' . . . . 'I cannot say I ever saw him drink either wine, ale, or beer, excepting at meals, and then but very sparingly. He very rarely went to dine in the hall, except on some public days; and then, if he has not been minded, would go very carelessly with shoes down at heel, stockings untied, surplice on, and his hair scarcely combed.' . . . 'He very seldom went into the chapel; that being the time he chiefly took his repose; and as for the afternoon, his earnest and indefatigable studies retained him, so that he scarcely knew the house of prayer. Very frequently on Sundays, he went to St. Mary's church, especially in the forenoon.' . . . 'In his chamber he walked so very much that you might have thought him to be educated at Athens among the Aristotelian sect.'
In further proof of his absence of mind we have the additional testimony of Dr. Stukely: --
'When he had friends to entertain, if he went into his study to fetch a bottle of wine there was danger of his forgetting them. He would sometimes put on his surplice to go to St. Mary's church. When he was going home to Colsterworth from Grantham he once led his horse up Spittlegate Hill at the town end. When he designed to remount, his horse had slipped the bridle and gone away without his perceiving it, and he had only the bridle in his hand all the while.'<513>
Humphrey Newton continues: --
. . . 'He very seldom sat by the fire in his chamber, excepting that long frosty winter (1683-4) which made him creep to it against his will. I believe he grudged the short time he spent in eating and 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 bedmaker; she faring much the better for it; for in a morning she has sometimes found both dinner and supper scarcely tasted of, which the old woman has very pleasantly and mumpingly gone away with. . . . In winter time he was a lover of apples; and sometimes at night would eat a small roasted quince.
'As for his private prayers I can say nothing of them. I am apt to believe that his intense studies deprived him of the better part. His behaviour was mild and meek, without anger, peevishness, or passion, -- so free from that, that you might take him for a Stoick. I have seen a small pasteboard box in his study, set against the open window, no less as one might suppose than a thousand guineas in it, crowded edgeways; whether this was suspicion or carelessness I cannot say: perhaps to try the fidelity of those about him. . . . He was very charitable; few went empty-handed from him. . . No way litigious, not given to law or vexatious suits, taking patience to be the best law, and a good conscience the best divinity.
'He was very curious in his garden, which was never out of order; in which he would at seldom times take a short walk or two, not enduring to see a weed in it. It was kept in order by a gardener. I scarcely ever saw him do anything, as pruning, &c., at it himself. 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 ευρηκα, falling to write on his desk standing, without giving himself the leisure to draw a chair to sit down on.'
His gardening taste is, perhaps, a new feature in the imaginary picture we form of him. It is fully corroborated by some letters, which Sir D. Brewster has given at length, in which we find him anxiously and critically dilating on the best varieties of apple from which to obtain grafts, and expressing a wise preference for the genuine 'red streaks.'
Now comes one of the most curious particulars of honest Humphrey's disclosures: --
. . . 'He very rarely went to bed till two or three of the clock; sometimes not till five or six, -- lying about four or five hours; especially at spring and fall of the leaf, at which times he used to employ about six weeks in his elaboratory, the fire scarcely going out either night or day, -- he sitting up one night and I another, till he had finished his chemical experiments, in the performance of which he was the most accurate, strict, exact. What his aim might be I was not able to penetrate into; but his pains, his diligence at these set times, made me think he aimed at something beyond the reach of human art and industry. . . . On the left end of the garden was his elaboratory, near the east end of the chapel, where he at these set times employed himself in with a great deal of satisfaction and delight. Nothing extraordinary, as I can remember, happened in making his experiments; which if there did, he was of so sedate and even temper, that I could not in the least discover it.
'About six weeks at spring and six at fall the fire in the elaboratory scarcely went out, which was well furnished with chymical materials, as bodyes, receivers, heads, crucibles, &c., which was made very little use of -- the crucibles excepted, in which he fused his metals. He would sometimes, though very seldom, look into an old mouldy book, which lay in his elaboratory. I think it was titled "Agricola de Metallis;" the transmuting of metals being his chief design. For brick furnaces, pro re natâ, he made and altered himself, without troubling a bricklayer.'
The surmises of his simple-minded assistant were undoubtedly correct; and we have a somewhat new light thrown on Newton's turn of mind, when we learn that he was really devoted to alchemy. Indeed, if his honest amanuensis was correct in the matter of the guineas in the pasteboard box, we should be inclined to believe he had really succeeded in the occult art; since it is difficult to imagine from what possible source he could have amassed such a sum. Be this as it may, the testimony to his alchemical tendencies rests on other authority than that of honest Humphrey's mere surmises. We are at least certain that he had largely studied the subject; and if he expresses himself sometimes with caution, or even doubt, this must be allowed as a not unnatural exhibition of reserve on a subject on which he was doubtless unwilling to avow the extent of his convictions or expectations.
In a letter of advice to Mr. Aston on his travels, Newton exhorts him to inquire into anything he can learn abroad as to transmutation of metals, which he says are 'the most luciferous, and many times lucriferous experiments too, in philosophy.' And he also expressed a peculiar interest respecting one Bory, in Holland, a noted alchemist, who, he thinks, possesses important secrets.
At a subsequent period Boyle, who had been engaged in similar pursuits, communicated to Newton and other friends the discovery of a certain 'red earth,' which, by combination with mercury, was to multiply gold. A specimen of it was sent to Newton, who at first seemed to doubt, yet intimates an intention of shortly trying it, 'though the success seems improbable.' He afterwards hints that Boyle 'had reserved a part of the process from my knowledge, though I knew more of it thanhe has told me.' On another occasion Boyle communicated other experiments, which Newton says, 'he cumbered with such circumstances as startled me, and made me afraid of any more.'
Mr. Law states that he found among Sir Isaac's papers large extracts out of Jacob Behmen, from whose writings he had been led to search for 'the philosopher's tincture;' and that this was the object of the chemical labours which he prosecuted in conjunction with his relative Dr. Newton.
Sir D. Brewster has seen, in Newton's hand-writing, copies and extracts of several alchemical works, such as John De Monte Snyders' 'Metamorphoses of the Planets,' Norton's 'Ordinal,' and Basil Valentine's 'Mystery of the Microcosm,' and others: also a copy of the 'Secrets Revealed, or an Open Entrance to the Shut Palace of the King,' covered with MS. notes in Sir Isaac's hand, and suggested emendations of the text; and, besides these, a small work, an original of his own, as we are led to suppose, entitled 'Thesaurus Thesaurorum, sive Medecina Aurea;' together with innumerable note books and detached MS. papers, containing an infinity of extracts, and remarks on all parts of the subject, and a minute 'Index Chemicus,' with a supplement of extensive references to writings and authorities. This, then, seems to have been the absorbing passion of his life, at least about the period of which we are speaking. Engaged in such an engrossing pursuit he threw aside fluxions, optics, and gravitation; and, with the glowing vision of the philosopher's stone before his eyes, was blind to all prospects of sublunary fame or distinction, and desired nothing in life but the peaceful seclusion of his laboratory and the uninterrupted enjoyment of the pursuits of the grand arcanum.
From the date of 1666 it is clear Newton had laid aside his speculations concerning gravitation. There has been much difficulty in ascertaining the dates of the subsequent steps by which he finally arrived at his grand conclusion. At a later period he tells us that he had formerly made an attempt to test the theory by calculation in the instance of the moon's orbit, but not finding it accurate enough, he had ceased to attend to the subject. All things considered, it seems most probable, that in 1679, in consequence of some queries and suggestions of Hooke, he was led to resume the investigation; and in that year he completed a demonstration of the general theorem of an orbit described under the influence of a centripetal and tangential force, and the application of it to the case wherethe force is inversely as the square of the distance, when it becomes an ellipse. It was not until 1684, when the subject had been much discussed in London, when Wren, Hooke, and Halley had severally made considerable advances towards a solution, and had even established the doctrine in regard to circular orbits, yet were unable to extend it to elliptical, that Halley took a journey (a thing of no small moment in those days) to Cambridge, to visit Newton, under a certain impression that he might be able to throw some light on the subject. To his great satisfaction he learned in conversation that Newton had obtained the solution, but had in his usual way so little valued it that he had dismissed the subject from his thoughts and lost the papers. When strongly urged by Halley, however, he promised to endeavour to recover the investigation; and, probably, with little effort was soon able to reproduce the whole, and even to carry it out to further consequences. He 'composed,' he says, 'about a dozen propositions,' which were sent to Halley; and a notice of the discovery pledged to the investigation, during the remainder of that year, the whole of the next, and the beginning of 1686, he was intently engaged in seriously grappling with the great problem of universal gravitation, and working out the various details of the theory and its applications which crowded upon his mind as consequences from his grand principle. On April 28th the substance of what is now the first book of the 'Principia' was communicated to the Royal Society. It was in due time followed by the remaining portions, and the whole published in June, 1687, by the spirited exertions and at the sole expense of Edmund Halley, then secretary to the Royal Society, without whose continued stimulus Newton would never have been induced to bring out his discoveries, and without whose singularly spirited pecuniary advances (at a time, too, when his own finances could hardly in prudence justify the risk,) -- the world is indebted for the actual publication of this great work.
That a second edition of the Principia was wanted was clear in 1691. But the long-protracted discussions with Flamsteed which prevented the completion of the lunar theory, and Newton's subsequent avocations at the Mint, to say nothing of his own habitual reluctance to engage in any such undertaking, caused its postponement, till at length, in 1709, the importunities of Bentley, then Master of Trinity, prevailed with Newton to entrust the new edition to the care of that promising young mathematician Roger Cotes, then just appointed Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy.The long correspondence between the editor and the author, preserved in the library of Trinity College, in which the progress of all the improvements in this edition is minutely traced, forms the substance of Mr. Edleston's valuable publication. The second edition was completed in June 1713: the third, under the care of Pemberton, appeared in 1726, the year before Newton's death. Sir D. Brewster's work is enriched by some valuable notes from the master-hand of Mr. Adams, of Cambridge, on the alterations introduced into the third edition. It is known that a long correspondence on this subject between Newton and Pemberton was in the possession of the descendants of the latter, but has never yet been discovered.
The Principia must on all hands be allowed to be a wonderful monument of genius, not only in regard to the actual discoveries and truths established in it, but by the manner and method in which they are worked out. It is, however, neither matter of surprise nor disparagement that those methods should have been improved upon, and generalised, in proportion as modern research has extended the details of the subject to which they were to be applied. Hence a comment on the text of the Principia exhibiting its demonstrations in comparison with the more recent processes, and indicating the parts of the theory where the most important extensions have been required and effected by the analytical investigations of the modern school, would be a work at once illustrative of both, and important alike to those who admiringly trace Newton's conceptions in the very form in which he originally delivered them, and to those who, taking the more enlarged views of Laplace and of his followers, wish still to follow their connexion with the more elementary developments of the theory as at first put forth. Such a work is supplied in the able analysis and commentary recently published by Lord Brougham and Mr. Routh, which places Newton's immortal work in a most convenient form within the reach of the modern student.
Even in the honours of this incontestable discovery, however, Newton was not at first allowed to repose in peace. For a time the invidious pretensions set up by Hooke led many to question his entire originality. But though such pretensions were soon set at rest, they were not without the effect of seriously disturbing his equanimity. In truth the peculiarities and even apparent contradictions of his character and constitutional tendencies are almost as great a marvel as his transcendent powers of intellect. We believe it may with the most perfect truth, without flattery or detraction, be said of him, nemo unquam sic impar sibi. The enjoyment of tranquil study -- ofhis crucibles and his calculations -- seems to have been the one wish of his life: yet there were occasions on which we find him strangely stirred up from that apparent apathy to the world around him, and roused into strenuous exertion even at the imminent risk of sacrificing all the enjoyments he most prized.
In the very year of the publication of the 'Principia' (1687), the illegal attempt of James II. to interfere with the rights of the University, called forth the memorable defence of those rights by a deputation of which Newton was not only a member, but the one member by whom a firm resistance against the encroachment was in the first instance offered, when other, especially the Vice-chancellor Pechel, were timid and temporising. It is not too much to say, that to his personal inflexibility and integrity the successful issue of the resistance was owing. Newton with his colleagues at the bar of the High Commission Court, opposing a calm but unassailable front to the arbitrary designs of that tribunal, and the infuriated insolence of the infamous Jeffreys, its president, -- who, with the meanness characteristic of a cowardly bully, vented all his rancour on the timid and vacillating Vice-chancellor, deprived him of his offices and emoluments, yet was constrained to dismiss the deputation with an admonition 'to go and sin no more,' -- must have been a spectacle little inferior in moral and intellectual grandeur to some others of that period which have afforded materials to our historical artists and artistic historian.
The principal events of Newton's life coincided in date with those of the most marked epochs in English history. But we shall not go into the state of public affairs at this crisis further than to mention, that Newton's zeal for the rights of the University, probably much more than his scientific fame, was the ground of his election to sit in the Convocation Parliament for the University, as he did also in one subsequent parliament.
It is asserted by Sir D. Brewster, that during his residence in London to attend to his public duties 'Newton was looking forward to some higher station in the University or some permanent appointment from the Government.' There was, in fact, no higher station in the University to which he could in the regular course of things aspire. But a vacancy in the provostship of King's College occurring in the same year, some of his powerful friends made a strange attempt to obtain it for him, which even succeeded so far as the issue of a mandamus from the Crown (we know not how obtained), but which, if successful, would have been as arbitrary an act onthe part of William as any of the attempts of James had been. It, however, could not proceed, being manifestly in the teeth of statutes of the college; of which it seems incredible that the parties could have been ignorant. In the next year a somewhat similar effort was made to procure for him the Mastership of Charterhouse, with respect to which he observed: -- 'I see nothing in the situation worth making a bustle for. Besides a coach, which I consider not, 'tis but 200l. per annum, with a confinement to the London air and to such a way of living as I am not in love with; neither do I think it advisable to enter into such a competition as that would be for a better place.'
His biographer seems to think that he blamed his friends for their backwardness to serve him; but in the face of such a declaration as this he must have been strangely inconsistent if he did. He does, indeed, express (in the same morbid disposition which betrays itself in some other instances) his suspicions of Mr. Montague not being true to him, and in consequence says, that 'he had done with him; intending to sit still unless Lord Monmouth was still his friend.' But when assured that Locke had interested both Lord and Lady Monmouth in his favour, he desires Locke to thank them equally 'whether their design succeeded or not;' and so far from pressing any interest he expressly says, -- 'my inclinations are to sit still, and I intend not to give his lordship any further trouble.' We can therefore in no way join in the opinion that Newton was unduly neglected. He had hardly yet attained general celebrity; several attempts had been made, without his approval, to obtain places for him; and he was already in the enjoyment of an honourable position in the University, the highest open to him, the widest sphere for the exercise of his talents, and of an income which was clearly ample for his moderate habits and wishes.
But while thus advancing in reputation, and in the midst of public duties, we are presented with a more touching trait of his personal character in his affectionate and assiduous attendance on his mother, who had been seized with a malignant fever. Braving all fears of infection, he nursed her day and night, and administered the remedies with his own hands. She, however, sunk under the disease, and was buried at Colsterworth.
Of all parts of the system of Gravitation, by far the most complex and difficult is the theory of the lunar inequalities. In the first research of Newton this intricate but most important portion of the inquiry was treated in a masterlyand general manner, yet leaving many material points still to be cleared up. After the publication of the first edition of the 'Principia' in 1687, therefore, this subject continued to occupy Newton's thoughts; and the more he pursued it the more sensible did he become at once of its difficulty and its importance to the completeness of the theory of gravitation. In 1692 he was more especially engaged in carrying out these investigations. Its intricacies put even his unparalleled powers to a severe trial. It caused him continual anxiety and incessant labour: nor can it be wondered at if it tried his patience and temper also; more especially when, in some parts of the subject, an additional supply of accurate observations was absolutely essential for putting the theory to the proof; and these were as yet wanting. They were to be supplied by the observations of Flamsteed at the Royal Observatory of Greenwich; but it was long before these were forthcoming; and a fresh source of trouble and vexation was opened in the discussions which arose as to their publication.
Many years afterwards, when Machin complimented Newton on his lunar theory, the latter replied, that 'his head had never ached but when he was studying that subject;' and Halley mentioned to Conduitt that he had often pressed Newton to complete that part of his theory, but he always replied, that 'it had made his head ache, and kept him awake so often, that he would think of it no more.' He was harassed at once by the intricacies of the subject and his anxiety to possess more numerous and accurate observations of the moon's motions. But at a later period, when Halley was Astronomer Royal, Newton told Conduitt, that if he lived till Halley made six years' observations, 'he would have another stroke at the moon.' There can be no doubt that whatever may have been the real merits of the question between Newton and Flamsteed, the delays must have been a subject of intense disappointment to the former, and, doubtless, were alone sufficient to throw him into a state of mind not the most favourable for enduring any subsequent trials of temper, to which the discordant elements involved in their intercourse would subject him.
Thus we may take, as an exemplification of the state of his feelings, the following letter addressed to Flamsteed: --
'Sir, -- Upon hearing occasionally that you had sent a letter to Dr. Wallis about the parallax of the fixed stars, to be printed, and what you had mentioned therein with respect to the theory of the moon, I was concerned to be publicly brought on the stage, about what, perhaps, will never be fitted for the public, and thereby the world put into an expectation of what, perhaps, they are never like to have. I do not love to be printed on every occasion; much less to be dunned and teased by foreigners about mathematical things, or to be thought by our own people to be trifling away my time about them when I should be about the King's business. And, therefore, I desired Dr. Gregory to write to Dr. Wallis against printing that clause which related to that theory, and mentioned me about it. You may let the world know, if you please, how well you are stored with observations of all sorts, and what calculations you have made towards rectifying the heavenly motions. But there may be cases wherein your friends should not be published without their leave. And, therefore, I hope you will so order the matter that I may not, on this occasion, be brought upon the stage.
'I am your humble servant,
It will be in the recollection of all who are interested in these subjects that in 1835 the late eminent astronomer, Mr. F. Baily, published, from original documents, 'An Account of the Rev. John Flamsteed, first Astronomer Royal,' &c.' which excited a high degree of interest, not only with regard to the scientific details, but especially as illustrative of the personal history and characters of Flamsteed and of Newton; -- disclosing for the first time the very serious nature of the misunderstanding which arose between them, and displaying, in a way not very creditable to either of them, the violence, and even virulence, of the quarrel. Nor will it be forgotten how keen was the controversy which the publication of these curious records occasioned at the time. The reflections made on the personal character and temper of Newton were regarded by many of his admirers as if they detracted from his philosophical preeminence; and those who in the ardour of hero-worship had invested him with almost superhuman perfections, could not endure to find that he was on some occasions liable to the common infirmities of our nature. Sir D. Brewster refers to this subject in a somewhat indignant tone, telling us that 'in 1835 the scientific world was startled by the publication of Baily's Life of Flamsteed, a huge volume deeply affecting the character of Newton; and strange to say, printed and circulated throughout the world at the expense of the Board of Admiralty. The friends of the great philosopher were thus summoned to a painful controversy.' The Board of Admiralty, we imagine, had little to do with the merits of the controversy between Newton and Flamsteed. They exercised a wise liberality in bearing the expense of a publication the very name of whose editor was a guaranteethat it was worthy of their patronage, and which is on all hands admitted to throw material light on the history of British astronomy at one of its most important epochs. Sir D. Brewster has recalled attention to the subject with reference to some newly adduced documents as tending materially to elucidate the question, and, as he expresses it, 'to enable him to defend the illustrious subject of this work against a system of calumny and misrepresentation unexampled in the history of science.' But we think these expressions, as well as the entire tone in which our author takes up this question, are much stronger than the occasion really calls for. The examination of the recently discovered letters of Flamsteed as carried on by Sir D. Brewster, while it tends greatly to illustrate the entire history, yet does not, so far as we can judge, materially alter the impressions as to the relations of the parties in the proceedings; nor do we see that the actual peculiarities of Newton's disposition are in any remarkable degree softened by anything new here adduced. The conclusion we are inclined to adopt is, that the imperturbability of his temper was of that negative kind which arose from intense absorption within himself and insensibility to things around him: but any cause tending to disturb him from that state of tranquillity was resented, and made him irritable and suspicious. And to this, in the course of his discussions with Flamsteed, there were other predisposing causes arising out of his state of health which may account for a large portion of the infirmity of temper occasionally displayed: especially when he called Flamsteed 'many ill names; -- "puppy" was the most innocent of them.'
It is not without some reference to the same questions that we may now advert to an incident on which a great deal more has been said than it deserves. On the statement of Mr. Conduitt after a conversation with Newton himself, we have the explicit account that he once accidentally left a candle on his table among some papers, by which they were burnt. Some of these related to optics and some to fluxions; and 'he was obliged to work them all over again.' The loss then was not serious, nor did it materially affect him. This we may take as the simple truth, and real basis of what has been dressed up in many fabulous forms and connected with other events with which it really had not the least relation. Dr. Stukely tells us that Newton wrote a piece of chemistry, 'explaining the principles of that mysterious art upon experimental and mathematical proof; and he valued it much; but it was unluckily burned in his laboratory which casually tookfire. He would never undertake that work again: a loss much to be regretted.' Humphrey Newton alludes to a report of some such loss having been occasioned by fire, but says that if it occurred, it was before his time. Every one has heard that version of the story which compromises the rather apocryphal little dog 'Diamond'; while it is supposed to exhibit so beautiful a trait of the imperturbability of his master. Humphrey tells us that he 'kept neither dog nor cat in his chamber.' The story is in other respects embellished in the version of Mr. De la Pryme, in whose diary it is however entered only as what 'he has heard;' he bears no false witness against the dog; but describes the burning of the papers one winter morning while Newton was at chapel (where Humphrey says he never went), and affirms that he 'was so troubled thereat that everyone thought he would have run mad; he was not himself for a month after;' the papers having been, according to this account, researches on optics, on which immense sums had been spent, and twenty years' labour totally lost! And as a story never loses by repetition, Professor Sturm writes from Altorf, that a rumour had reached them that Newton's 'house and all his goods were burnt, and himself so disturbed in mind thereupon as to be reduced to very ill circumstances.'
Lastly, this incident has been connected with another, which many think still more apocryphal. The story of Newton's temporary derangement in 1692-3 was for the first time generally heard of by the English reading public in 1822, when M. Biot published his life, in which he professed to derive this fact from the explicit statement of a contemporary journal of Huyghens, then first brought to light; in which the incident is mentioned on the authority of one Colm, a Scotchman, who visited Huyghens soon after the alleged occurrence. The cause assigned was either 'too intense application to study, or excessive grief from having lost by fire his chemical laboratory and several manuscripts.' The burning of his papers, from what we have already observed, had no connexion whatever with any illness. But it is exceedingly probable that too intense application to study, and especially the anxieties attending the lunar theory, which 'made his head ache,' had a very close connexion with a state of ill health into which he had undoubtedly fallen during a part of 1692 and 1693. And that this illness was of a kind which lamentably shook his nerves, and to a certain extent interfered with the coherent exercise of his mental faculties appears to us placed beyond all doubt by the testimony of his own letters. That it is painful to witness so exalted a mind,even for a time prostrated by the influence of bodily disorganisation, is no reason for shutting our eyes to facts, and thinking the credit of Newton at stake if we admit that he could ever have exhibited transient marks of incoherence or weakness.
The letters alluded to are not new to the reading public; but we must, in support of what we have said, briefly refer to them. The first is addressed to Pepys, dated September 13th, 1693: --
'Sir, -- Sometime after Mr. Millington had delivered your message he pressed me to see you the next time I went to London. I was averse, but, upon his pressing, consented, before I considered what I did; for I am extremely troubled at the embroilment I am in, and have neither ate nor slept well this twelvemonth, nor have my former consistency of mind. I never designed to get anything by your interest, nor by King James's favour; but am now sensible that I must withdraw from your acquaintance, and see neither you nor the rest of my friends any more, if I may but leave them quietly. I beg your pardon for saying I would see you again; and rest
'Your most humble and obedient servant,
Pepys was naturally startled at such a letter, and immediately in much alarm wrote to their mutual friend Millington, who in answer says, that he has had an interview with Newton: --
'He told me he had writt to you a very odd letter, at which he was much concerned; added that it was in a distemper that much seized his head, and that kept him awake for above five nights together; which, upon occasion, he desired I would represent to you, and beg your pardon; he being very much ashamed he should be so rude to a person for whom he hath so great an honour. He is now very well, and, though I fear he is under some small degree of melancholy, yet I think there is no reason to suspect it hath at all touched his understanding, and I hope never will.'
What he had said or done with reference to Locke seems still more extraordinary and inexplicable. Whatever it was, he not long after gave a most touching instance of contrition, coupled with a melancholy exposure of some of the aberrations into which he had been led with respect to his friend.
Thus he writes to Locke: --
'Sept. 16, 1693.
'Sir, -- Being of opinion that you endeavoured to embroil me with women, and by other means, I was so much affected with it as that when one told me that you were sickly and would not live, I answered "'twere better if you were dead." I desire you to forgive this uncharitableness, for I am now satisfied that what you have done is just, and I beg your pardon for my having hard thoughts of you for it; and for representing that you struck at the root of morality, in a principle you laid in your book of ideas, and designed to pursue in another book, and that I took you for a Hobbist. I beg your pardon also for saying or thinking that there was a design to sell me an office, or to embroil me.
'I am your most humble and unfortunate servant,
Locke's answer displays all the generous kindness and sympathy which might be expected from his excellent nature, and Newton again in his reply to Locke explains the cause of his apparent incoherency, and the delusion under which he laboured: --
'Sir, -- The last winter, by sleeping too often by my fire, I got an ill habit of sleeping; and a distemper, which this summer has been epidemical, put me further out of order; so that when I wrote to you, I had not slept an hour for a fortnight together, and for five days together not a wink. I remember I wrote to you, but what I said of your book I remember not. If you please to send me a transcript of that passage I will give you an account of it if I can.
'I am your most humble servant,
This indisputable evidence under Newton's own hand, affords a striking illustration of what has been said in another part of this Number on the effect of interrupted sleep on the mental faculties.
M. Biot, on a subsequent occasion, has expressed, his surprise at the sensitiveness of English philosophers at the allegation of Newton having suffered from such a malady; and in this we almost entirely concur with him; more especially when we perceive the asperity of tone adopted by Sir D. Brewster (after quoting a passage from Biot) in reference to it, in observing that however great M. Biot's surprise may have been, 'it cannot be equal to that which they feel at his persisting in the statement and at the offensive aggravation of it which is contained in the preceding extract.'
M. Biot has viewed the whole subject of the quarrel with Flamsteed as connected with Newton's supposed aberration of mind, which he regards as having been of much longer continuance, than the few months during which it is on all hands clear he was labouring under considerable derangement of bodily health, and perhaps in some measure of mental also. M. Biot, in fact, supposes the malady to have been to a certain extent permanent, as having at least so far affected Newton's powers of thought as to render him incapable of any great efforts of investigationafter the period in question; and more particularly he sees in the irritation, and as he considers it the incoherence, of some of the letters to Flamsteed only a repetition of the same characteristics as those which so painfully mark the letters to Pepys and Locke. He finds further confirmation of his idea in the circumstances of Newton's unaccountably reserved and taciturn conduct at a later period when giving evidence before a parliamentary committee on the subject of the proposed Board of Longitude; and believes that the effects of the attack are manifested in all his subsequent writings, especially in his theological writings, which he conceives betray an enfeebled intellect.
We are fully persuaded that M. Biot has carried out this theory to a greater extent than the data will really bear. At the same time we admit that the morbid sensitiveness which was a prominent feature in Newton's original constitution may have been acted upon to so injurious an extent by bodily ill health and mental labour, as to leave him liable to nervous irritability of mind under peculiar exciting circumstances, such as those of his intercourse with Flamsteed, which gave rise to seeming incoherence in his expressions, and conjured up delusive suspicions and unfounded jealousies, to a degree which in a sound state of bodily health and under calmer auspices he would never have entertained.
To these sources of disquiet other were added in the violent controversy which arose out of the rival claims of Leibnitz to an invention similar to that of fluxions, which Newton had so long concealed. If Newton hoped for quiet by withholding his productions from the public, never was he more unfortunately deceived. The embroilment (to use his favourite expression) continued unabated through a considerable part of the later portion of his life.
Charles Montagu (grandson of the Earl of Manchester) had been acquainted with Newton at Cambridge, though much his junior: he sat with him in the Convention Parliament: and after having filled several official situations, he became in 1694 Chancellor of the Exchequer. The reformation of the coinage was at that juncture a most pressing object, as Mr. Macaulay has recently related in his brilliant account of the financial difficulties of William III. Montagu was fully alive to its importance, and was anxious to secure Newton's valuable aid in reference to an object which involved scientific knowledge both mathematical and chemical.
Coming events cast their shadows before; and in some unaccountable way towards the end of 1695, a rumour prevailedthat Newton was appointed Master of the Mint. It was wholly untrue, as there was then no vacancy. Nevertheless it called forth from Newton the characteristic declaration, in a letter to Halley, 'if the rumour of preferment for me in the Mint should hereafter, upon the death of Mr. Hoare or any other occasion, be revived, I pray that you would endeavour to obviate it, by acquainting your friends that I neither put in for any place in the Mint, nor would meddle with Mr. Hoare's place were it offered me.'
In the following year, however, a vacancy did occur in the Wardenship of the Mint, and Montagu, in a letter equally full of personal regard and the consciousness of putting the right man in the right place, announced to Newton his appointment to that office, then worth 600l. per annum. While on another occasion he declared that 'he would not suffer the lamp which gave so much light to want oil.'
Newton's services as Warden of the Mint were so highly appreciated, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer declared he could not have carried on the new coinage without his assistance. It was not completed till the end of 1699; and Montagu (soon after created Lord Halifax), now First Lord of the Treasury, on a vacancy in the Mastership of the Mint, conferred that high office on Newton; the most graceful tribute which the Government could pay to that transcendent genius which had shed lustre on his country in the eyes of all Europe. So high had his reputation become on the Continent, that it was said the French King had offered him a large pension, which he declined: but he was created one of the eight foreign associates of the Academy of Sciences on the reorganisation of that body in the same year. The duties of his office required residence in London. But Newton still held the Lucasian chair, and might occasionally lecture to bare walls: the latter interesting duty, however, he now resigned into the hands of the celebrated W. Whiston as his deputy, with the full profits of the place. In 1701, however, he formally resigned the professorship, and earnestly promoted the appointment of Whiston as his successor. In the same year also he resigned his fellowship.
There is some difficulty in tracing Newton's first habitation in London. Towards the close of 1697, he occupied a house inJermyn Street, near St. James's Church. Thence in October, 1709, he temporarily removed to a part of Chelsea 'near the College,' and in September, 1710, he finally took up his abode in Martin Street, Leicester Square, in a house now a printing office at the corner of Long's Court. There he remained till 1725, two years before his death, when he removed to Kensington for better air, to a spot then called Orbell's, but more lately, Pitt's Buildings, where he died.
When settled in the metropolis he adopted a style of living suited to his position, and freely received at his house the numerous visitors, native and foreign, who were attracted by his celebrity and who appreciated his merits. But in this mode of life he received the most material aid from another source.
Newton's half sister, Hannah Smith, married Robert Barton, of Brigstock, in Northamptonshire. We know nothing of the issue of this marriage except as regards one daughter, Catherine, born in 1679, and who was consequently only in her sixteenth year when Newton received his first appointment to the Mint. Newton commenced residence in London (as we have seen) in 1697. At some period after this -- how soon precisely we are not informed -- he received his poor but beautiful niece into his house, and invested her with the entire superintendence of his domestic affairs. It is hardly probable that this arrangement could have commenced till she was a little more advanced in age. It is, however, just possible that it occurred before Newton's promotion to the higher office in 1699; and on this last supposition it is also possible that Lord Halifax may have then seen her. If he did see her, he no doubt may have then been as much fascinated by her beauty as he certainly was at a later period. But granting all these suppositions, it certainly is not likely or credible, that Newton should have owed his second, much less his first, appointment to the influence of her charms on the minister. There is, therefore, great improbability, if not a positive anachronism in Voltaire's satire, that Newton, instead of being raised to preferment from his acknowledged merits, owed it entirely to the charms of his niece, and the admiration with which she had inspired Halifax. Yet this story, and others more absurd, have been currently circulated respecting her.
Sir D. Brewster states that Newton had educated her; one of the many proofs he gave of his generosity towards those of his connexions who were in any way in need of it; though he perhaps took this step with the additional motive of intending to make her his housekeeper; and that nothing might be wanting to complete the arrangement in every way for her comfortand future benefit, in 1706 he settled upon her an annuity of 200l., of which his friend Lord Halifax was made a trustee. Such at least is Sir D. Brewster's view of the arrangement. She fully repaid his kindness, and amply fulfilled the requisitions of presiding over his household and table. Whether or not she had entered on her housekeeping duties before 1700, it is certain that in that year she was residing near Woodstock; and there had an attack of the small-pox. But in a letter addressed to her by 'her very loving uncle,' he 'hopes that the remains of it are dropping off apace.' Wishes to know by the next 'how your face is, and if the fever be going; perhaps warm milk from the cow may help to abate it.'
The effects of this malady were however, in her case, not such as permanently to impair her beauty, which we suspect was of a kind less dependent on mere features and complexion, than on the higher and more enduring graces of person, manner, and intelligence. Catherine Barton was clearly a very extraordinary woman. We know no particulars of her education, and we cannot suppose it to have been above the average of those days. She must, however, have profited by it in no ordinary degree, aided by native talent of a peculiar and many-sided kind; since we no sooner find her presiding at her uncle's parties than men of all grades and pursuits were fascinated as much by her talent and conversation as by her personal charms. She could converse equally well with philosophers and politicians, with men of the world and retired students; she could flirt with the gay, and argue with the grave; she could talk fashionable scandal with Lady Betty Germaine, politics with Swift, and science with Brook Taylor, Dr. Moivre, and Montmort.
Writing in the heat of the fluxionary controversy, Brook Taylor cannot omit wishing to 'make his most humble services acceptable to Mrs. Barton;' and Montmort, on his return to France, bears testimony to her fascinations in no measured terms, in a letter to B. Taylor, accompanying a present of fifty bottles of champagne to Newton, with respect to which he declares: --
'Ce seroit dommage que ce bon vin fut bu par des commis de vos douanes, étant destiné pour des bouches philosophiques et la belle bouche de Mademoiselle Barton. Je suis infiniment sensible de l'honneur qu'elle me fait de se souvenir de moy. J'ai conservé l'idée du monde la plus magnifique de son esprit et de sa beauté. . . .' and this more especially on account of 'l'air le plus spirituel et le plus fin,' which characterises her.
In a poem of the day, entitled 'The Toasters,' when all thereigning beauties receive their appropriate recognitions in distinct epigrams, the name of Barton is celebrated with due honour both for wit and beauty.
In 1710, Swift's journal contains a series of entries of his repeated visits to Mrs. Catherine Barton which evince the admiration she inspired. He seems to have prided himself on dining with her alone more than once; yet he complains that 'he loves her better than any one here, and sees her seldomer.' He gives up his usual society, and changes his manner of living; for the sake of getting into her company, he moved his lodgings to be nearer to hers. On one occasion, 'we were three hours together disputing upon Whig and Tory.' On another, 'I have been so teased with Whiggish discourse by Mrs. Barton and Lady Betty Germaine, -- never saw the like.' At a much later date, a letter from her to Swift is of itself a model of its kind.
Among others who frequented Newton's house, Lord Halifax could not resist the effect of her charms, though probably long after the period imagined by Voltaire. Of the precise extent of his admiration nothing is recorded. But in his will he left her all his jewels, 5000l., with a grant from the Crown, during her life, of the Rangership and Lodge of Bushy Park, and the manor of Apscourt: 'These gifts and legacies,' he adds, 'I leave her as a token of the sincere love, affection, and esteem, I have long had for her person, and as a small recompense for the pleasure and happiness I have had in her conversation.' He also charges his executor to 'transfer to her an annuity of 200l. purchased in Sir I. Newton's name, and which he (Halifax) held in trust for her.' He died in 1715.
In an anonymous life of Lord Halifax, evidently a trumpery work, got up by the disreputable publisher Curll, and which Sir D. Brewster has traced to an unknown penny-a-liner, one Pittis, the following passage occurs, when he is speaking of the death of Lord Halifax's lady: --
'Upon whose decease his lordship took a resolution of living single thenceforward, and cast his eye upon the widow of one Col. Barton, and niece to the famous Sir Isaac Newton, to be superintendent of his domestic affairs. But as this lady was young, beautiful, and gay, so those who were given to censure passed a judgement upon her which she no way merited, since she was a woman of strict honour and virtue; and though she might be agreeable to his lordship in every particular, that noble peer's complaisance to her proceeded wholly from the great esteem he had for her wit and most exquisite understanding, as will appear from what related to her in the will at the close of these memoirs.'<531>
Passing over the trivial mistake as to her widowhood, that a person in Mrs. Catherine's situation should not have escaped calumny, is no way surprising; but that such insinuations should be conceived to be in any way supported by the above statement, which, so far as it is worth anything, goes directly to contradict them, may well be a matter of astonishment. One circumstance, however, may require a word: Halifax, in his will (as we have seen), charges his executor 'to transfer to her the annuity purchased in Sir I. Newton's name.' This has been supposed to bear an ambiguous meaning. We do not profess to comprehend the exact nature of the transaction from these words, unless it were, as Sir D. Brewster supposes, simply an annuity purchased for her life by her uncle, and of which Halifax was trustee. If it mean that Halifax purchased the annuity, why did he do it in Sir I. Newton's name? or how could it be transferred to Miss Barton? his name was not concealed in the matter, since he was at any rate avowedly a trustee. However this may be, supposing Halifax to have been the donor, it was clearly a legitimate mode of substantially evincing his friendship for the uncle and his admiration for the niece, by making a provision for her after her uncle's death, when she would probably much need it. To infer from it anything in the way of an underhand payment in requital for favours of a more particular nature (as has been insinuated) is not only wholly unsupported by evidence, nor even probability, but clearly inconceivable when we recollect that Newton was himself a party to the transaction; a man whose precise morality would not endure an approach to impropriety; -- who even cut his old acquaintance Vigani for once 'telling a loose story about a nun;' -- yet he continued to retain his niece as the head of his household during the whole period in which any such proceedings, if they existed, must have been going on. Moreover, in August, 1717, she was married to John Conduitt, Esquire, of Cranbury, in Hampshire; a man of position and character, not likely to marry the cast-off mistress of a premier; and for four years after their marriage they continued to reside in Newton's house. Conduitt latterly assisted in the duties of the Mint, and, doubtless from consideration to Newton's high opinion of him, was appointed his successor in the office. Their only daughter married the Hon. John Wallop, afterwards Viscount Lymington, through whom the Earls of Portsmouth are descended from Catherine Barton, and many valuable memorials of Newton have been preserved in their family.
Mr. Conduitt, describing Newton's personal appearance inthe latter part of his life, says, he had a 'comely and gracious aspect,' and 'a very lively and piercing eye.' Bishop Atterbury, however, thought, that 'in the whole air of his face and make there was nothing of that penetrating sagacity which appears in his compositions: he had something rather languid in his look and manner, which did not raise any great expectation in whose who did not know him;' which is confirmed by the testimony of Hearne, the antiquary, who says, 'he was a man of no very promising aspect.' . . . . 'He spoke little in company; so that his conversation was not agreeable. When he rode in his coach, one arm would be out of his coach on one side and the other on the other.' But this last peculiarity is strangely interpreted by Arago (in his éloge of Young), who ascribes it to timidity and the continual fear of being upset.
When his admiring friend Locke stated confidentially to the Lord Chancellor King that Newton 'is a nice man to deal with and a little too apt to raise in himself suspicions where there is no ground,' we cannot be surprised that Flamsteed should have declared that he found Newton 'insidious, ambitious, and excessively covetous of praise, and impatient of contradiction.' D'Alembert observes: 'In England people were content with Newton's being the greatest genius of the age: in France one would also have wished him to be amiable:' and no doubt it would have been desirable to have been able to assign to him both kinds of excellence; but we must be content with him as we find him.
The numerous instances of his pecuniary liberality to his relations and other who stood in need of it, are not fairly to be disparaged by the fact that he was notoriously careless of money; of which several curious instances are on record. He had once been imposed upon in the purchase of an estate, and when told that he might vacate the bargain in equity, he replied, 'that he would not for the sake of 2000l. go into Westminster Hall to tell that he had been made a fool of.'
He one day missed bank bills to the amount of 3000l., and suspected that his pocket book had been picked by the graceless nephew of his friend Whiston, who had bought an estate at that price without any ostensible means of paying for it. Yet he could not be prevailed on to prosecute; and when Conduitt asked him how much he had lost, he only answered 'too much.'
When he was attended by the eminent surgeon Cheselden, he took out of his coat pocket a handful of guineas and offered them as a fee, and on Cheselden's remonstrating he only saidlaughing, 'suppose I do give you more than your fee.' Being told that Dr. Cheyne had written an ingenious book on mathematics, but had not money to print it, Newton offered him a bag of money which he refused, and 'Newton would see him no more.'
Anxious as Newton was above all things for quiet and tranquillity, he seems to have been destined never to enjoy it. No sooner was he appointed to the Mint than he was harassed by a series of annoyances arising from the misconduct and quarrels of his subordinates, and was even himself the subject of accusations and calumnies, which were however promptly repressed and silenced by his elevation to the Mastership. On his assuming the chair of the Royal Society, even that philosophical body was not exempt from dissentions of a very undignified and disgraceful character, which led to some serious and unseemly altercations at a public meeting of the society, when, after a violent attack upon him from Dr. Woodward, Dr. (afterwards Sir Hans) Sloane (according to the friends of the former) 'made grimaces,' and Sir Isaac called him 'a tricking fellow,' and 'a villain, and a rascal!'
The surreptitious publication of his Chronology was not unmixed with other annoyances (or at least was connected with them in Newton's too susceptible and suspicious apprehensions), as is painfully evinced in the following expressions: --
'Abbé Conti came into England in spring, 1715, and while he staid in England he pretended to be my friend, but assisted Mr. Leibnitz in engaging me in new disputes. The part he acted here may be understood by the character given of him in the Acta Eruditorum for 1721. . . . And how Mr. Leibnitz, by his mediation, endeavoured to engage me, against my will, in new disputes about occult qualities, universal gravity, the sensorium of God, space, time, vacuum, atoms, the perfection of the world, supra-mundane intelligence, and mathematical problems, is mentioned in the second edition of the "Commercium Epistolicum." And what he hath been doing in Italy may be understood by the disputes raised there by one of his friends, who denies many of my optical experiments, though they have been all tried in France with success. But I hope that these things and the perpetual motion will be the last efforts of this kind, -- will be the last efforts of those friends of Mr. Leibnitz to embroil me.' (Vol. ii. p. 306.)
We have gone to too great length in the details of Newton's personal history and private life to allow room for, or perhaps to require, extended general remarks. As to the extraordinary peculiarities of his idiosyncrasy, our readers will be able to judge for themselves. Extremes of praise or blame are for the most part equally erroneous. While we do not uphold him asa model of moral as well as of intellectual excellence, we can by no means assent to the assertion that he was destitute of common good feelings. We cannot agree in a parallel which has been drawn between him and Bacon as similar instances of transcendent intellectual greatness combined with the lowest moral meanness. We cannot admit, as has been said by a recent critic, that his was 'iron intellect surrounded by a moral vacuum.' We do not believe, on the other hand, that he was all goodness, beneficence, and patience. He was imperturbable when there was nothing to perturb him; but once thrown off his equilibrium he had little self-control, and became often irritable, sometimes intemperate. But he could be also generous, forgiving, and courageous, as he was always transparently honest and incorruptibly pure. The truth is, that the intellect which had most deeply sounded and explored the mysteries of external nature was at times perplexed and obscured by the mysteries and infirmities of its own constitution, and in embracing the system of the universe Newton at times lost possession of himself.
We have not gone into particular literary criticism of Sir D. Brewster's work. But our readers will see how far we have found reason to differ from the author in some points, while we freely admit that the literary and scientific world is deeply indebted to him for the disclosure of a large amount of new information relating to the illustrious subject of this memoir. But amid many highly rhetorical passages, and copious scientific illustrations of the history of Newton's discoveries, there is to our mind something of a one-sided and disagreeable tone pervading the whole performance; and as a composition we hardly think the work a memorial altogether worthy either of Newton or of Brewster.