Isaac Newton was born at Wolsthorpe,
Lincolnshire on 25 December 1642. Born into a farming family and first
educated at Grantham, Isaac Newton was sent to Trinity College, Cambridge,
where as an undergraduate, he came under the influence of Cartesian philosophy.
When confined to his home at Woolsthorpe by the plague between 1665 and
1666 Newton carried through work in the analysis of the physical world
which has profoundly influenced the whole of modern science.
On returning to Cambridge, Newton
became a Fellow of Trinity College, and was then appointed to the Lucasian
Chair of mathematics in succession to Isaac Barrow. In the 1670s lectures,
demonstrations and theoretical investigations in optics occupied Newton,
constructing in 1672 the reflecting telescope today named after him, but
in the early years of the 1680s correspondence with Robert Hooke re-awakened
his interest in dynamics. After Edmond Halley's visit to Cambridge to encourage
him in this work, Newton laid the foundations of classical mechanics in
the composition of his fundamental work Philosophiae Naturalis Principia
Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), which was
presented to the Royal Society in 1686 and its subsequent publication being
paid for by his close friend Edmund Halley.
In the Principia were presented Newton's laws of motion, and the law of
universal gravitation. The laws of motion are the foundation of modern
dynamics, defining concepts such as force and acceleration, inertia, mass
and weight. The universal law of gravitation described the attraction
between any two masses. Newton showed how these fundamental physical laws
could be used to predict the orbit of the moon around the earth, and the
form of the planetary orbits previously observed by Johannes Kepler.
Newton was also a brilliant mathematician, developing the concepts of
differential and integral calculus.
Newton seems to have come to a watershed
in his career with the publication of Principia in 1687, after which he
turned his back on academic pursuits. Appointed as Warden of the Mint
in 1696 he diligently applied himself to the recoinage of the realm, though
he of course maintained his position of scientific pre-eminence until
the end of his life. In 1703 he was elected President of the Royal Society
and the next year published his Opticks, containing the first full
exposition of his method of fluxions. He showed by passing light through
prisms that it is made up of different colours. He investigated various
optical effects, such as thin-film interference (Newton's rings). He was
active in the debate over the corpuscular versus wave nature of light.
Newton was however a controversial character, frequently involved in
acrimonious disputes with other scientists; with Leibnitz over who should
receive credit for the development of calculus, and with Robert Hooke over
the nature of light.
Newton's interests were wide-ranging, from alchemy and the transmutation of
other metals into gold, to the authenticity of biblical texts. He remarked:
'To myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore,
and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier
shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered
In later life Newton became less active as a scientist. He was elected
member of parliament for the university in 1689. Subsequently he became
Warden of the Royal Mint, becoming Master in 1699. He was knighted in 1705.
He was elected President of the Royal Society in 1703, retaining that
position until his death on 20th March 1727.