Monday 18 January 2010

The true story of Newton’s falling apple

by Kathryn Hadley

Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) was allegedly inspired for his theory of gravitation from seeing a falling apple in his garden. In his 1752 biography of Newton entitled Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life the antiquary and scientist William Stukeley (1687-1765) recalled Newton’s telling of the apple-tree story:

‘After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank tea,
under the shade of some apple trees… he told me, he was just in the same
situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. It
was occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood. Why
should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to

Today, for the first time, the Royal Society has made available online the original manuscript of Stukeley’s biography in a ‘turning the pages format’ ( The online publication forms part of the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary celebrations this year.

Stukeley was one of the first biographers of Isaac Newton. He lived in London for a decade, from 1717, where he befriended Newton and became a Fellow of the Royal Society. He collected Newton’s reflections on his own life, but also gathered material about his childhood from residents of the King’s School in Grantham where he went to school.

Stukeley’s biography is just one of seven manuscripts to be published online to mark the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary. Other manuscripts from the Royal Society’s archive are also now available in an interactive format, including a 1789 description of an iron bridge design by Thomas Paine and John Locke’s contribution to one of the earliest American state constitution documents in the fundamental constitutions of Carolina from 1681.

Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society edited by Bill Bryson, a new book charting the story of science and the Royal Society from 1660 to the present, is also published today.

Further information about this year’s 350th anniversary events is available on the website of the Royal Society

In Genius Eclipsed: The Fate of Robert Boyle Michael Hunter explains why, within half a century of his death, the natural philosopher and scientist Robert Boyle was almost forgotten, overshadowed by his contemporary Isaac Newton.

Images (the Royal Society):

- title page from William Stukeley's 1752 work Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton's Life
- extract from William Stukeley's 1752 work Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton's Life, the first time the famous story of Newton and the apple was written down
- portrait of Isaac Newton by Charles Jervas, 18th century

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