Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton's life/University years

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Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton's life by William Stukeley
University years

learning. he was uncle to Mrs. Vincent i.e. bror. to her mor. Mr Clarks wife, where Isaac had lodgd at Grantham. this seems to be the reason of his going to that college. the Dr. had a particular kindness for him & gave him all the incouragemt. imaginable, sensible of the lads great merit. Xthe Dr. was bred at Grantham school, & was rector of Boothby pannel hard by.

I have very little to say about Sr. Isaacs life, whilst he was resident in the University. I left that part of his history intirely to Mr Conduit: having no opportunity of inquiry concerning it, whilst I lived at Grantham. at that time it might have been done to purpose. Dr. Bentley knew a good deal of it. & I believe Dr. Colbach.*Dr. Cotes had wrote somewhat on Sr. Isaac It were to be wished still, that some person of that University would pick up the remembrances of this important life, whilst they possibly are to be had. Dr. Halley had wrote a considerable quantity of papers relating to this subject. but he wd. not communicate them to Mr Conduit.

I have heard it as a tradition, whilst I was student at Cambridg, that when Sr. Isaac stood for bachelor of arts degree, he was put to second posing, or lost his groats, as they term it; wh is lookd upon as disgraceful. I can't tell whether it be true or not; but it seems no strange thing at that time of day, notwithstanding Sr. Isaac's great parts. for he was too busy in the solid track of learning, & the sublime pursuits of mathematical philosophy, to allow of time enough, to be master of words only; or the trifling nicetys of logical & school subtletys, wh then was the chief test of proficiency in Academic learning, & qualification for a degree.

the famous Dr. Barrow, afterward master of Trinity college was Sr. Isaac's tutor. if he did not take a byass in favor of mathematical studys from him, at least he confirm'd it thereby.

now we are to consider this divine genius like a spring let loose, fully at liberty to follow the bent, & the pursuit of his own inclination. under no restraint, Xno care, in the intimate bosom of the seat of learning, his time wholly his own, had all assistances, & incoragement +here he might satiate to the full that immoderate thirst of science, wh knew no bounds, & indeed he made such advances, that he soon outstrip'd his tutor, tho' so considerable a man. for Sr. Isaac learn'd mathematics, as by intuition; rather it was connate to his understanding. little need had he of definitions, steps, & first principles, & rudiments of science. such were natural, easy & familiar to his vast mind, pregnant with the most difficult, & important theorems: wanted only a little time to maturate, & deliver them.

his tutor saw all this, very plainly, conceiv'd the highest opinion, & early prognostic of his excellence; would frequently say, that truly he himself knew something of the mathematics: still he reckond himself but a child in comparison of his pupil Newton. He faild not upon all occasions, to give a just encomium of him. & whenever a difficult problem was brought to him to solve, he refer'd 'em immediately to Newton.

*Sr. Isaac had all the qualifications for a philosopher the acumen, the patience, & the judgmt. necessary: at the same time, he had a natural geometry able to surmount all difficultys. he neither began with Euclid, or such like introductions but cd. demonstrate on sight. & at 24 yrs of age had laid the foundation of his two great discoverys, the principia philos. mathemat. & of his optics: & then had invented the wonderful method of infinite series, or fluxions.

it seems to me, likely enough, that Sr. Isaac's early use, & expertness at his mechanical tools, & his faculty of drawing, & designing, were of service to him, in his experimental way of philosophy: & prepar'd for him, a solid foundation to exercise his strong reasoning facultys upon; his sagacious discernment of causes, and effects, his most penetrating investigation of methods to come at his intended purpose; his profound judgment; his invincible constancy, & persevereance in finding out his solutions, & demonstrations, & in his experiments; his vast strength of mind, in protracting his reasonings, his chain of deductions; his indefatigable attachment to calculations; his incomparable skill in algebraic, & the like methods of notation; all these united in one man, & that in an extraordinary degree, were the architects that raisd a building upon the experimental foundation, wh must stand coeval with material creation.

a mechanical knack, & skill in drawing assists much in making experiments. such as possess it take thir ideas of things incomparably stronger & more perfect than others. it inlarges thir view, they see deeper, & farther. It ripens, & quickens thir invention. for want of this handycraft, how many philosophers quietly sit down in thir studys, & invent an hypothesis? but Sr. Isaac's way was, by dint of experiment to find out, quid Natura faciat aut feret?

philosophers, like great conquerors, or politic ministers of state, must take into thir assistance arts, & helps low, & sordid. as success in war depends on the arm of the scum of mankind, as well as on the head of the General.

children are always imitators. & perhaps his being brought up in an apothecarys house might give him a turn to the study of nature. no doubt it gave him a love for herbarizing. X at least accelerated it. but he was in reality born a philosopher. learning, & accident, & industry pointed out to his discerning eye some few, simple & universal truths. these by time, & reflexion, he gradually extended one from another, one beyond another, till he unfolded the œconomy of the macrocosm. Sr. Isaac was elected a fellow of the college; & also made Lucasian professor of mathematics; X in 1669 wherein he succeeded his tutor Dr. Barrow. then he put out a new edition of that curious piece, Varenius's geography. the method of that author pleasd him; it is like his own. his chambers in Trinity college were those in the great court, on the north side, between the masters lodg, & the chapel.

* in 1687 he showd himself to the world indeed, in publishing that amazing production principia philosophiæ mathematica. & the world was truly astonishd at it, almost afraid to look on so divine a work.

the same year k. James hanging over the priveleges of the University, he had spirit enough to oppose all violences of that sort, & was nominated one of their Delegates to the high Commission Court. he was also a Member of Parliament the next year, the great Convention on k. James deserting the k.dom. 1688.

Dr. Newton of Grantham aforemention'd was sizor to Sr. Isaac; lived under his tuition 5 years: was assistant to him particularly in his chymical operations, wh he pursu'd many years. he often admir'd Sr. Isaac's patience in his experiments, & operations; & his extreme accuracy; how scrupulously nice he was in weighing his materials: & that his fires were almost perpetual. in the year 1705 & 6, when I was at CC College, I went a course of chymical lectures with Seignior Vigani, in Sr. Isaac's room, where he made his chymical operations, being backward, towards the masters lodg.

Dr. Newton says, that all the time, he was with him, she scarce ever observ'd him to laugh; but once: he remembers, it was on this occasion. he askd a frd to whom he had lent an Euclid to read, what progress he had made in that author? & how he liked it? he answerd by desiring to know what use, & benefit in life, that kind of study would be to him? upon which Sr. Isaac was very merry. according to my own observation, tho'. Sr. Isaac was of a very serious, & compos'd +frame of mind,, yet I have often seen him laugh, & that upon moderate occasions. he had in his disposition, a natural pleasantness of temper, & much good nature, very distant from moroseness, attended neither with gayety nor levity. he usd a good many sayings, bordering on joke, and wit. in company he behavd very agreably; courteous, affable, he was easily made to smile, if not to laugh.

beside his severe studys, Xwhile he lived at Trinity college, he frequently diverted himself with his tools in mechanical works. he made speaking trumpets, he ground, & polishd glasses, for microscopes, telescopes, prisms, spectacles, & all kind of optical purposes. He would work very hard upon these. & his constancy, & persevereance at it, was great. that wonderful invention of the reflecting telescope is his. he made that famous reflecting telescope, now in the repository of the Royal Society: & likewise that concave speculum, or burning glass of many lesser, all respecting one common focus, now in the same repository. they are all instances of his curious hand in workmanship; as well as of his wonderful penetration, into the nature of vision.

when we read his book of optics [*Optics published 1704.], we are astonishd at his indefatigable attention to that nice, & abstruse subject; & the long course of his observations, & experiments; the vast acumen necessary to produce so stupendous a work. who can sufficiently admire his unraveling the mysterious nature of light, or the sun beams, consisting of different, & all kinds of colors, specific to each ray, & the analogy of thir proportions to that of the number, & nature of the notes in musick! so harmonious are the works of the divine creator! but sure of all things that ever were committed to writing, this book of optics deserves our most grateful praise, & acknowledgment of his surprizing capacity.

I have heard, that he had gone considerable lengths in his experiments on sounds, which doubtless he would have brought to as great perfection as his optics. but they say, he left it off, when he came to live in London; as well as his intense study in general. we may discern without difficulty, that nothing was too difficult for his enterprizing genius, his application, his quicksighted apprehension. we are sure of this, from what he has done. while we admire at that, we at the same time admire, that he has done so much; at his strength of nature, as well as strength of parts. X & this leads us to recite a story, that gave him a character he sought not for, that of a prophet.


in the year 1667 when the Dutch beat our fleet at the mouth of the Thames in a perfidious manner: whilst our indolent monarch was treating with them without stipulating a cessation of arms, they came up the river with a great fleet & burnt many of our ships: and did us great damage. their guns were heard as far as Cambridg, and the cause was well known, but the event was only cognisable to Sir Isaac's sagacity, who boldly pronounc'd that they had beaten us. the news soon confirm'd it. & the curious would not be easy whilst Sr. Isaac satisfy'd them of the mode of his intelligence, which was this. by carefully attending to the sound, he found it grew louder & louder, consequently came nearer. from whence he rightly infer'd that the Dutch were victors.

whilst he lived at Cambridg, his mother dyed at Stamford in 1689. She went thither on a visit to her son Benjamin Smith. her body was brought to Colsterworth, & buryed in the north isle of the church, where this family were generally interr'd.

*he has left in MSS a Lexicon propheticum; a discourse on the form of the Tabernacle & of the sacred cubit. he wrote likewise an intire work on chymistry, explaining the principles of matter, & elementary components, from that abstruse art; on experimental, & mathematical proof. he had himself a good opinion of this work. but the manuscript was unluckily burnt in the laboratory, which casually took fire. he never could undertake it again, a loss not to be sufficiently regretted. Dr. Friend endevord at a thing of this sort, which is not unworthy of commendation; his purpose was some attempt to supply our want of it.

as to chymistry in general, we may very well presume, Sir Isaac, from his long, & constant application to that pyrotechnical amusement, had made very important discoverys, in this branch of philosophy. which had need enough of his masterly skill, to rescue it from superstition, from vanity, & imposture; and from the fond inquiry of alchymy, & transmutation. *by this means Sir Isaac carryed his inquiry very far downwards into the ultimate component parts of matter: as well as upwards towards the boundless regions of space: he has taken in to our knowledg a large province of universal nature: and put us in the way of acquiring more: if we have proper qualifications for it.

Dr. Newton tells me, that several sheets of his optics were burn't, by a candle left in his room. but these I suppose he was able, by a little pains, to recover again. or if there be any imperfection in that work, we may reasonably suspect, it was owing to this accident.

he says, Sir Isaac constantly went to church on Sundays, to Saint Marys: tho' not always to the college chapel; in mornings he was up at study. he seldom went to the hall to dinner, but had his victuals brought to his chamber; & then very often, so deeply intent was he, that he never thought of it, till supper time. +when he was busy in study, he never minded his meal times. & when he took a turn in the fellows gardens, if some new gravel happen'd to be laid on the walks, it was sure to be drawn over, & over, with a bit of stick, in Sir Isaac's diagrams; which the fellows would cautiously spare, by walking beside them. & there they would sometime remain for a good while.

At Cambridg I often heard storys of his absence of mind, from common things of life. as when he has been in the hall at dinner, he has quite neglected to help himself; and the cloth has been taken away before he has eaten any thing. that sometime, when on surplice days; he would goe toward Saint Mary's church, insted of college chapel. Xor perhaps has gone in his surplice to dinner, in the hall. that when he had friends to entertain at his chamber, if he stept in to his study for a bottle of wine, & a thought came into his head, he would sit down to paper, & forget his friends. θthus the human mind wholly taken up in abstract reasonings, & long concatenation of causes & consequences, was apt, as it were, to desert the body: assume its essential & true life. & enjoy those superlative pleasures arising from contemplations of the most worthy sort, nearly approaching to angelical. tis an anticipation of part of those divine joys, in our future state of being.

I have heard him say, that during his closest application, he never forgot going to bed about 12. this he learn'd by experience. for if he exceeded that hour, it did him more mischief in his health, the next day, than a whole days study, at regular times.

he often amusd himself in reading, & writing on lighter matters, as an alleviation of his deeper researches. for in short he had study'd every thing. he had very good knowledg in physick, as we commonly understand the word. & to that probably is owing the good state of health he enjoy'd; & his long life. he knew anatomy very well. he was indeed a master of every science.

he had studyed every thing. his chronology has somewhat very particular, & likewise solid. but whilst he has justly shortend the years of the world; he appears to me, to have done it a little too much. further, if I may be permitted to differ from so great an author, I would venture to assert, that he has assign'd too late an epoch for the origin of the celestial catasterisms, in dating them from the argonautic expedition. I have very good reasons to think them, at least most of them, of a much antienter date, & some of them antediluvian. This I could show amply, & trace them to their several beginnings, were it feasible for a writer to publish his ~labors without expence to himself, or for any profit. XI have reduced the whole heavens into a number of drawings, on that account, elegantly painted with the azure tincture, which I mentiond, from the solanum lethale.

he had a good notion of Xthe prophetic writings, & likewise of the Apocalypse, especially in one important light; that the Divine lays his mysterious plan of future things, in the scenes of the Jewish temple, & service. but Sir Isaac's scheme of the Saints' festivals, as in the church liturgy, I take to be ill founded. +these kind of works & many more which he had by him, were the effect of his Sunday exercitations. when he turn'd over the sacred volumes, with great diligence, and full conviction of the divine Spirit that dictated them.

he left the University in 1696, as I have heard him say, being calld to Town in k. William's time, by means of his great patron the Earl of Halifax, +chancellor of the Exchequer; who sensible of his merit, was resolv'd, he shd. no longer be immur'd in a college. the Earl, together with Lord Somers, undertook the great affair of the recoynage. & judg'd rightly, that Sr. Isaac was the fittest man in the kingdom, to assist them. r. Isaac therefore was made master of the mint. in 1699, he was made master, & worker of the mint. *Sir Isaac's political notions on the affair of money, are thought to be extremely judicious.ħin 1701 he resign'd his professorship at Cambridg, & Mr. Whiston succeeded, by his recommendation.