Newton | Sir | Isaac | 1642-1727 | mathematician and astronomer

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Sir Isaac Newton was born on 25 December 1642 in Woolsthorpe, near Grantham in Lincolnshire. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he lived from 1661 to 1696. In 1696 he was appointed Master of the Royal Mint, and moved to London, where he resided until his death. Beginning in 1714 he served on the government's Board of Longitude. Newton died in London on 20 March 1727 and was buried in Westminster Abbey, the first scientist to be accorded this honor.

Mathematics: Newton invented integral calculus, and simultaneously with Leibniz, differential calculus. Physics: He defined universal laws of motion and gravitation, and made numerous advances in the principals of reflection and refraction. Astronomy: combining his work in mathematics, statics, and optics, he was able to predict the motions of bodies in the heavens, and build a practical reflecting telescope to see them. His improvements to instrumentation also extended to a better sextant, and an enormous composite burning glass. Chemistry: He derived a precursor to the famous Laplacian formula for finding the velocity of sound in a gas, and he experimented with metal alloys for better telescope reflectors. His metallurgical efforts may have elided with a private interest in alchemy. Newton's most influential works were the Principia (1687) and Opticks (1704).


Newton's preoccupation was his dispute with Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) over which of them invented the calculus first. Less famously he quarreled over other things with Robert Hooke (1635-1703) and John Flamsteed (1646-1719). He carried on routine professional correspondence with Robert Boyle (1627-1691), Fatio De Duillier (1664-1753), Edmund Halley (1656-1742), David Gregory (1659-1710), and others. He may also have corresponded with clandestine circles of alchemists.

Humphrey Babington, a Senior Fellow in Trinity, and brother of Newton's grammar-school landlady, may have stood behind his appointments in Trinity. Isaac Barrow probably arranged for Newton to succeed him as Lucasian Professor, and may have arranged for the royal dispensation that freed him from the chair's stipulation for ordination in 1675. Charles Montague, a prominent Whig, helped bring about Newton's appointment to the Mint and later his knighthood. Two other influential friends were Princess Caroline and her husband, eventually George II.

Isaac Newton, his father, an illiterate but prosperous yeoman farmer, died before his only son was born. Young Isaac's stepfather, with whom he never lived, was the Rev Barnabas Smith.

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, (1687)

Opticks: or a Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours, (1704)

Interests and activities:

The religious Newton was public Anglican but private Puritan, and late in life a crypto-Arian mystic, who refused the Anglican last rite on his deathbed. He was an enthusiastic enough amateur theologian that at least one colleague worried that he might need deflecting back into science.

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1665: Awarded Bachelor of Arts (BA), Trinity College, Cambridge

1667: Elected Fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge

1668: Awarded Master of Arts (MA), Trinity College, Cambridge

1669: Appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (resigned 1701)

1672: Admitted to the Royal Society

1688: Elected to Parliament as MP for Cambridge University

1699: Admitted to the Académie Royal des Sciences as a Foreign Associate

1701: Re-elected to Parliament as MP for Cambridge University

1703: Elected President, Royal Society


List of sources for the biographical information:

White, Michael, Isaac Newton. The Last Sorcerer, (London, Fourth Estate, 1997)

Gillespie, CC, ed, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, (New York , Scribner's, s.d.)