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Newton’s apple – the birth of a physics legend

Home to a famous apple tree

By Hamish Johnston

In 1666 a young Isaac Newton was waiting out the plague in his mother’s garden in Lincolnshire when an apple fell from a tree. Newton wondered why such bodies always moved downwards, rather than sideways or upwards – and the theory of universal gravitation was born.

Or so goes the most famous anecdote in the history of physics…a story that Newton himself appears to have repeated often in later life, but never wrote down.

Now you can read the earliest known account of this tale, written by William Stukeley who was a friend of the great physicist.

Stukeley’s Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life is available on the Royal Society’s Turning the Pages gallery of manuscripts – created to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the society. Both Newton and Stukeley were Fellows of the Royal Society.

The site offers the manuscript in three different formats but I was only able to view the most basic version – if you have the same luck, just left-click on a page for large and very readable version. The apple story can be found on pages 42–43 of the work.

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  1. John Duffield

    There’s also the “normalised version” here at the Newton Project run by Rob Iliffe at the University of Sussex:

  2. Whenever one encounters an information from the past which turns out of doubtful authenticity, first thing to do is to check if it belongs to the class of the so-called myth(olog)emas. Newton’s apple belongs to this category. It was apple which provided Adam and Eve with knowledge in the Eden. (In fact the Bible does not specify which kind of tree was it, and this tradition stems from 16-th century – Adam’s apple in our throats). (Recall that it was the Python who guarded the golden apples at the Esperides garden, in Greek mythology).
    Newton was a deeply religious man, who knew Bible better than anybody in his time and devoted more of his time in religious matters than on science and alchemy together. How this allegory turned into “history” is for the psychologists to explain.

  3. Scheiver

    These words had me puzzled: “Isaac Newton was waiting out the plague in his mother’s garden”: I pictured mr. Newton, maybe under some kind of cover as protection against the elements, in his mother’s garden thinking deep thoughts when it hit him. Why didn’t she invite him in the house, I started to wonder. And from there on …


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