Great Englishmen - M. B. Synge

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

It is said that when Isaac Newton was born, which was on Christmas day, he was such a wee baby, that they might have put him into a quart mug. He was so tender and small that they did not think he would ever live to be a man, but he did live, and became a very great man too.

His father died when he was a baby, but his mother watched over her only child with great care, and when old enough sent him to a day-school. When he was twelve he went to school. At first he did not get on well, but later he worked hard and rose till he was the head boy in the school. While the other boys were playing, Isaac would sit apart thinking, working long and hard sums, and making models of machines and windmills. Although he was a "sober, silent, thinking lad," and did not join in the games, yet he took pleasure in watching them. He invented the flying of paper kites in the air for the boys, and made a paper lantern, by the light of which he went to school on dark winter mornings. He was also very fond of drawing, and writing verses.

When Isaac was fifteen, his mother wished him to leave school and learn to manage his father's farm and estate. To teach him the art of buying and selling, his mother sent him to market every Saturday with a trusty servant. The young scholar did not like this, and no sooner were the horses put up, than he would forsake the servant, and going to an old garret in the town, would read old musty books till it was time to return.

He hated tending the sheep and watching the cows, and while he read his book or made water-wheels in the stream, the cows would tread down the corn and the sheep stray away, and bring disgrace upon the boy Isaac.

One day his uncle found him sitting under a hedge with a book in his hand, working out a most difficult problem. Struck with his serious look and eagerness to do the sum, his uncle begged that he might be sent back to school. His mother gave in, and with joy and gladness the boy returned to his studies.

When he was eighteen he was sent to Cambridge.

It so happened that there was a great teacher at Cambridge at that time. He was delighted with Isaac Newton, who was already far advanced in his knowledge of the stars, light, sums, and machines.

For many years he worked very hard, but in 1665 a dreadful plague broke out, and he was obliged to leave Cambridge for a time.

On his return he made a wonderful telescope, which was shown to King Charles II., who was reigning. Thus his name became known for the first time in public.

One day Isaac Newton was sitting quite alone under an apple-tree in his garden. He was thinking very deeply, when suddenly an apple fell off the tree close beside him.

A new idea darted across his mind.

Why did that apple fall down to the ground?

Why should it not have gone up or in another direction? There must be something to pull it down.

What is that something? The Earth, yon say. This power that the Earth has of making things come towards it, or fall, as we commonly say, is called the Force of Gravity, and Newton was the first to think of this, as he sat beneath the apple-tree in his garden in Lincolnshire.

The following year he was made a fellow of his college, and soon after made teacher, or professor of mathematics.

All this time he was finding out many new things about light, and in a few years he wrote a book all about the things he had found out about tides, the moon, light, new laws, and comets and stars. The book was received very well, and everyone talked about Newton.

"Does Mr. Newton eat, drink, or sleep like other men?" asked a Frenchman when he had read the book. "He seems to live in another world."

After this he wrote many other learned books.

He was very much disappointed once. For twenty years he had been studying the nature of colour and light, and spent a great deal of time and money. At last he felt able to write a book about it. This took him a long long time, but at last it was ready to go to the printer.

It was a cold winter morning, and Newton was going to chapel. He left his papers on his study table, with a lit candle standing near.

No sooner had he left the room than a breeze blew the flame of the candle, the precious papers caught fire, and Newton returned to find them entirely burnt. When he saw what had happened, Newton was nearly mad with grief and trouble, and he did not get over it for many weeks.

When Queen Anne came to the throne, she made Isaac Newton a knight for all he had done and his great cleverness.

Sir Isaac Newton was very absent. He would become quite lost in thought, and often forget affairs of life.

One day a learned doctor came to see Newton about dinner time. He found dinner ready on the table, but no Newton was there. After waiting a long time, and being very hungry, the doctor lifted the cover and found a boiled chicken. It looked so good that he sat down and began to eat. When he had finished it, he put the bones back on the dish, put the cover on, and sitting down by the fire, waited for Newton.

After a time Newton entered, said he was sorry to have kept him waiting, and asked him if he had dined.

"Yes," answered the doctor.

Newton then sat down and took the cover off the dish.

"Bless me!" he cried, as he saw the remains of the chicken, "who would have thought it? I forgot that I had dined!"

The story goes no further, but we will hope that the doctor explained, and that Newton had some dinner after all.

In 1704 Newton wrote a book on light which made his name more famous than ever.

He had a wonderful temper, and was never made angry by anything. One evening he had been busy working problems, when he was called away. On his return he found that his pet little dog had torn all his papers to pieces. He looked sadly at the fragments for a few minutes, and then, turning to the dog, said, "Ah, Diamond, Diamond, you little know what mischief you have done!"

Newton was very modest. Although all England was talking of him, and his books were widely spread, although he must have known that he was the greatest thinker living, yet he was never proud, he never boasted of his cleverness, and when asked a question he would often say, "Ask someone else who knows better than I do."

But after a time Newton's mind and health gave way after so much learning and studying. He was in great pain, but he never groaned or murmured, and went on with his duties to the end. At last, in his eighty-fifth year, he died, just three months before George I., King of England. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, and a monument was raised to his memory. At Cambridge, in the chapel of his college, there is a statue of white marble, in which Newton stands in a long, loose gown, looking upwards in deep thought. But no statues are needed to remind us of the great man who did so much for science and learning,—of the great Sir Isaac Newton.