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History of Newton at Woolsthorpe Manor

A oil painting on canvas, a three-quarter-length portrait, of Sir Isaac Newton in older age painted by Sir James Thornhill from 1712, held at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire.
Oil painting of Sir Isaac Newton by Sir James Thornhill in 1712. | © National Trust Images / John Hammond

From the acorn of this farmhouse in Lincolnshire grew one of science’s greatest minds. Woolsthorpe Manor is the birthplace of Isaac Newton who, while not interested in farming, was inspired by his time growing up and living here. It’s in Woolsthorpe’s orchard that he saw an apple fall from a tree one day and was inspired to question why.

Isaac Newton’s childhood

Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day 1642, but didn’t have an easy start in life. His father, also called Isaac, had died three months earlier at just 36 and baby Isaac was born very weak. He wasn’t baptised until a week later, on New Year’s Day.

When Isaac was three years old, his mother Hannah Ayscough remarried and moved away to live with her husband, Barnabas Smith, in North Witham, just 1.5 miles away.

The young Isaac was left to be raised by his maternal grandparents at Woolsthorpe Manor. Such family arrangements weren’t unusual at that time.

Growing up at Woolsthorpe Manor

Even as a child, Isaac was inspired by the natural environment and landscape around him. He developed practical skills, using tools and construction techniques.

This combination of natural curiosity and an ability to work with his hands, meant Isaac had already taken the first steps into a lifetime of observation and experimentation.

Life changed again for Isaac when he was 10. His stepfather died and his mother returned to Woolsthorpe with three young children. They lived in a house adjacent to the manor house.

Sundial created by Isaac Newton aged nine, mounted on the wall of St John the Baptist church, Colesterworth
A sundial created by Isaac Newton aged nine | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Isaac Newton’s education

Isaac’s mother and grandparents must have hoped that he would follow his father’s footsteps into sheep farming. However, the young farmer’s son wasn’t interested in the life of a 17th-century yeoman farmer.

At 12 years old, Isaac was sent to King’s School, a weekly boarding grammar school with an excellent reputation in nearby Grantham. He lodged with the apothecary, Mr Clark, who lived next to the George Inn on the High Street.

Isaac had a quiet contemplative personality, which didn’t also fit with the social norms of the time.

'A sober, silent thinking lad who never was known scarce to play with the boys abroad.'

- Newton's landlord's daughter

Starting to shine

Newton’s skills in making and testing models began to shine at school, where he paid more attention to creating clever mechanical devices than to his textbooks. He watched closely while a post-mill was constructed nearby and made a small working model operated by a mouse.

It’s safe to say he didn’t shy away from the unusual. He travelled around in a small, four-wheeled cart, which ran by turning a crank. He also startled his neighbours by attaching a lantern to the tail of a kite at night.

Newton's first experiment

The date 3 September 1658 remained etched in Newton's memory. It was marked by a great storm, which gave the 15-year-old Newton the opportunity to carry out what he later recalled as his first experiment: to calculate the speed of the wind.

First, he measured how far he could jump against the wind. He then compared the results with the length of his jump in calm weather. This experiment encouraged him to carry out further experiments.

Risky experiments

The young Newton was fascinated by the effect that physical limitations might have on what people see. He almost blinded himself twice by exploring the repercussions of squeezing his eyeball with a large blunt needle and staring directly at the sun with one eye.

Isaac Newton, the farmer?

When Newton was almost 17, his mother Hannah decided it was time for him to come home and run the estate. It was a disastrous nine months. Newton proved incapable of learning how to be a gentleman farmer.

Given the task of guarding sheep, he instead began designing ingenious waterwheels and didn’t notice his flock wandering off. He was eventually rescued by two older men: his uncle William and the Grantham schoolmaster Mr Stokes.

Studying at Cambridge

To Newton’s excitement, he was sent back to school and boarded with Stokes. It’s here that he acquired the mathematical skills and additional knowledge needed to be accepted into Cambridge.

The 18-year-old Newton left rural Lincolnshire behind for the first time to study at Trinty College, Cambridge in June 1661.

Escaping the plague

Newton made two extended trips back to Woolsthorpe Manor between the summer of 1665 and spring of 1667. This was in order to escape the plague that was affecting Cambridge.

The Great Plague of 1666 was the worst outbreak of the bubonic plague in England since the Black Death of 1348. In fact, London lost roughly 15 per cent of its population to the disease. Like many town-dwellers, Newton retreated to the relative safety of the countryside.

The Year of Wonders

Interestingly, in later life, Newton stressed that these periods at Woolsthorpe Manor, while escaping the plague, were the most intellectually fruitful of his entire life. That's why they're remembered as his 'Year of Wonders'.

'For in those days I was in the prime of my age for invention and minded Mathematics and Philosophy more than at any time since.'

- Isaac Newton

In these intense periods at Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton was freed from the restrictions of the limited curriculum and rigours of university life. He had the time and space to develop his theories on calculus, optics and the laws of motion and gravity.

Playing with light

Working obsessively to further his understanding of light, Isaac obtained glass prisms. At the time, people believed that prisms changed light into a coloured rainbow-like spectrum. However, Newton’s experiment disproved this.

It’s believed that Newton undertook his key experiment in what's now known as Newton’s chamber. He bored a tiny hole in the wooden shutters so only a thin pencil of light could enter the darkened room.

Newton's optic discovery

Newton’s crucial innovation was to take a second prism and put it in the path of a single-coloured beam coming from the first prism.

When it emerged from the other side of the second prism, the ray was still the same colour, proving that the glass medium hadn’t altered it.

Title page of Principia by Isaac Newton at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire
Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

The apple tree

A special apple tree stands in the orchard at Woolsthorpe Manor. This is said to be the very tree from which an apple fell and prompted Newton, during his ‘Year of Wonders’, to ask why apples always fell straight down to the ground.

Newton theorised that everything in existence is attracted to everything else and this attraction or power, (we now call it a force), ties the universe together. It wasn't until years later that he published his theories and expressed this vision in a mathematical formula.

A scientific legend

The story of the falling apple that inspired Newton is a scientific legend, but it holds many truths. We know he was constantly inspired by the natural world around him and this caused him to question, explore and experiment.

People have visited the tree in Woolsthorpe Manor since Newton's time. When a storm blew the tree down in 1820, pilgrims came to see it lying in the orchard, sketches were made of it and the wood was used to make snuff boxes and small trinkets.

Regrowth of the tree

That might have been the end of the story – and some claim it was. However, drawings from the time confirm that the tree remained rooted and regrew from the base. This is the tree you can see today.

Both the oral tradition and the dendrochronology confirm that the tree is the right age, and the Tree Council has certified it as one of 50 Great British Trees.

Working with calculus

If working with optics and theorising about gravity wasn’t enough during his ‘Year of Wonders’, Newton continued to tackle the mathematical problems that he’d been contemplating at Cambridge. Never one to shy from a challenge, he deliberately chose particularly complicated topics.

By the end of 1666, Newton had completed three papers on fluxions (early calculus), which culminated in his most intensive period of mathematic creativity.

Life after lockdown

After the Great Plague, Newton returned to university life at Cambridge and, six months later, was elected Minor Fellow of Trinity College. Two years after that, he was appointed second Lucasian Professor.

With his academic position and income secure, he developed his ideas and research from Woolsthorpe Manor.

Newton met Edmond Halley

Newton was approached by a young astronomer called Edmond Halley, while at Cambridge, in 1684. Newton answered a question that the curve to a mathematical formula was an ellipsis and Dr Halley asked for his calculation immediately.

Halley went to great lengths to get Newton’s work onto paper. He coaxed him to produce the three books that became known as the Principia. Halley even paid for the publication himself as the Royal Society ran out of funds.

Producing the Principia

Newton first published the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy – otherwise known as the Principia – in 1687. Originally written in Latin, it lays out his laws of motion, law of universal gravitation and an extension of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion.

Newton proposed that the universe is mainly empty space criss-crossed by powerful, but invisible gravitational forces. The attractive pull between two objects, he said, is proportional to the produce of their masses and decreases with the square of the distance between them.

It’s a book that helped define the Age of Reason and is Isaac’s most celebrated achievement.

A oil painting on canvas, a three-quarter-length portrait, of Sir Isaac Newton in older age painted by Sir James Thornhill from 1712, held at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire.

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