Isaac Newton’s apple story drops online

By Calvin Palmer

An account of how an apple falling from a tree led Sir Isaac Newton to develop his theory of gravity was made available to the general public for the first time today.

The handwritten manuscript by William Stukeley was recorded in 1752 as part of a biography of the great scientist and has been kept in the archives of Britain’s Royal Society.

The manuscript is one of several to be published online to mark the society’s 350th anniversary. The Royal Society was founded on July 15, 1662, as a learned society for science and its modern-day role is as a national academy for science.

Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society, said: “Stukeley’s biography is a precious artefact for historians of science and I am delighted that it is being made available today, along with other treasures from the archives, in a format that allows anybody to view them as if they were holding the manuscript in front of them.”

The extract, from Stukeley’s Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life, reads: “After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank thea (sic), under the shade of some apple trees … he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind.

“It was occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself, occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood.

“Why should it not go sideways or upwards, but constantly to the earth’s centre? Assuredly, the reason is that the earth draws it.”

Keith Moore, the Royal Society’s head of library and archives, said the Royal Society has also released other documents, including the design for Thomas Paine’s revolutionary iron bridge, the philosopher John Locke’s contribution to an early version of the American constitution, drawings of English wildflowers by Richard Waller, anatomical drawings based on early dissections of the human body and sketches of fossil trilobites made by Sir Henry James around 1843.

The release of these documents is part of the Royal Society’s Turning the Pages initiative, which can be accessed at www.royalsociety.org/turning-the-pages.

“Fellows of the Royal Society in the early days weren’t just scientists as we define them now, they were interested in all kinds of things” said Moore. “John Locke, who is well known these days as a philosopher, was a fellow and was involved in drafting a constitutional document for one of the American colonies, the Carolinas. We thought that we would reproduce that so that people in the U.S. could see it.”

The Royal Society holds more than 250,000 manuscripts and pieces of paper in its archives, and today’s publication is the start of an attempt to make all of that available one day.

 “This is just a baby step towards bringing our archives to a wider public,” said Moore.

[Based on reports by The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and AFP.]

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Filed under History, News, Science, United Kingdom

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