Newton's Life and Work at a Glance
The following tabular summary of Newton's life and work does not pretend to be a comprehensive biography. It simply offers a quick and easy reference guide to the principal milestones in Newton's personal and professional development, and correlates them with contemporary events and publications that influenced him.
For those wanting more detailed and nuanced accounts of Newton's life and the various aspects of his thought, there is a wealth of material available online and in print. It would be impossible to provide an exhaustive list of such resources, but most of the best examples are listed on our Links page (for online material) and our Bibliography (for books and articles in print).
Note on dates: During Newton's lifetime, two calendars were in use in Europe: the 'Julian' or 'Old Style' in Britain and parts of Eastern Europe, and the more accurate 'Gregorian' or 'New Style' elsewhere. The difference between them lay in their attitude to leap years. At Newton's birth, Gregorian dates were ten days ahead of Julian dates: thus Newton was born on Christmas Day 1642 by the Julian calendar but on 4 January 1643 by the Gregorian. On either 19 February/1 March 1700 or 29 February/11 March 1700 (depending on which calendar is used to measure the gap), this discrepancy rose to eleven days, because there was no 29 February 1700 in the Gregorian calendar. Since some reference sources use one calendar, some the other, and some a mixture of both, this can cause considerable confusion. In the interests of clarifying apparent discrepancies with other sources, both options are given here wherever a particular date is specified.
Matters are further complicated by the contemporary English habit of regarding the year as beginning on 25 March. It is here regarded as beginning on 1 January, but notes are added where this may lead to confusion (for instance, the Complete Works of Joseph Mede are dated 1664 but were in fact published in the early months of what we now call 1665).
|1642||April (exact date unknown): Marriage of the elder Isaac Newton, an illiterate but quite well-to-do yeoman farmer, to Hannah Ayscough.
Oct: Death of the elder Isaac Newton (buried 6/16 Oct.).
|Death of Galileo Galilei.
Marriage of Princess Mary (later Mary II, then aged nine) to William of Orange.
Outbreak of English Civil War (Oct.).
|1642/3||25 Dec./4 Jan.: Birth of Isaac Newton in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire.|
|1645||Royalist defeat at Battle of Naseby marks the beginning of the end of the Civil War.|
|1646||27 Jan./6 Feb.: Hannah Newton marries Barnabas Smith, rector of North Witham (about a mile and a half from Woolsthorpe), and moves to North Witham, leaving young Isaac in Woolsthorpe in the care of Hannah's mother, Margery.||Birth of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.
Birth of John Flamsteed.
|1648||Peace of Westphalia ends Thirty Years War in Northern Europe.|
|1649||Execution of Charles I; England becomes a republic.|
|1650||Death of René Descartes.|
|1651||Publication of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan.|
|1652||Publication of Elias Ashmole's alchemical verse anthology Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum.|
|1653||Death of Barnabas Smith. Hannah returns to Woolsthorpe with her three children by her second marriage, Mary (b. 1647), Benjamin (b. 1651) and Hannah (b. 1652).||Oliver Cromwell appointed Lord Protector.|
|1654||Newton is enrolled at King's School, Grantham (about 7 miles from Woolsthorpe). Boards with a Mr. Clark, the town apothecary, who provides the first stimulus to his interest in chemistry. Initially regarded as a poor scholar, he eventually rises to top of the class.||Publication of The Marrow of Alchemy by 'Eirenæus Philalethes' (i.e. George Starkey).|
|1656||Birth of Edmond Halley.|
|c. 1658||Leaves school and is set to learn to manage the family estate. Perhaps wilfully, proves thoroughly incompetent and neglectful. The Grantham schoolmaster, Henry Stokes, and Hannah's brother, William, persuade her to let him return to the Grantham school to be trained for university. Apparently forms a short-lived romantic attachment to Clark's step-daughter (according to a report of her recollections in her old age).||Death of Oliver Cromwell (24 Aug./3 Sept. 1658). Succeeded as Protector by his son Richard.|
|1659-1661||Publication of Lazarus Zetzner's huge alchemical anthology Theatrum Chemicum.|
|1660||Restoration of Charles II.
Foundation of the Royal Society.
Publication of Robert Boyle's New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall.
|1661||Enters Trinity College, Cambridge (5/15 June), first as a subsizar and then a sizar (i.e. paying his way by acting as servant for socially superior fellow-students or for tutors). Further supports himself with a small money-lending operation.||Publication of Boyle's Sceptical Chymist.|
|1662||Apparently undergoes some form of religious crisis: draws up a list of his sins before and after Whitsun that year, presumably in the hope of charting an improvement. His conscience is still troubled by such remembered boyhood sins as 'Stealing cherry cobs from Eduard Storer', 'Calling Derothy [sic] Rose a jade' and 'Squirting water on Thy day [i.e. Sunday]' - but also, more ominously, 'Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them' and 'Wishing death and hoping it to some'.||Establishment of the Royal Society by royal charter.|
|1663||Makes friends with John Wickins, a new arrival at Cambridge, who becomes his room-mate for the next twenty years and works as his assistant.|
|1664||Probably attends the mathematics lectures given by Isaac Barrow, holder of the newly-instituted Lucasian Chair of Mathematics. Devotes himself to private studies in mathematics and optics, largely ignoring the official university curriculum of classics, Euclidean geometry and Aristotelian philosophy. Begins to fill up his college notebook instead with a series of wide-ranging scientific entries headed 'Quæstiones quædam Philosophiæ' ('Certain Philosophical Questions').||Publication of Boyle's Experiments Touching Colours.
Birth of Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, a Swiss mathematician who is later (c. 1689-93) to become Newton's closest friend for a time.
Returns to Woolsthorpe for the summer of 1665. Is detained there by the outbreak of plague in Cambridge and remains in Woolsthorpe until March 1667, apart from a short stay in Cambridge in spring 1666 which is cut short by a recurrence of the plague. During this period, despite being almost entirely self-taught in mathematics and optics, he establishes the fundamentals of what is now called the calculus (Newton calls it 'the method of series and fluxions'), setting down the basic rules of differentiation and integration in a paper of October 1666, and demonstrates the heterogeneity of white light through its separation by refraction. Nearly blinds himself by conducting optical experiments on his own eyes.
The sight of a falling apple - or so Newton himself is said to have claimed decades later - focuses his attention on the subject of gravity. Realises that the force required to keep the moon in orbit round the earth (as stated by Kepler in his Third Law) is of the same kind as that operating in terrestrial gravity. However, Newton's theory of universal gravitation is not fully worked out for another twenty years.
|1665 Great Plague. Publication of Robert Hooke's Micrographia and of the (posthumous) complete works of Joseph Mede (dated 1664, i.e. early 1665), whom Newton later acknowledges as the greatest influence on his interpretation of Biblical prophecy.
1666 Great Fire of London. Publication of Boyle's Origin of Formes and Qualities.
1665-7 Second Anglo-Dutch War.
|1667||Made Fellow of Trinity College (22 Sept./2 Oct.). This requires him to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (a declaration of orthodoxy with particular emphasis on the doctrine of the Trinity), to take a vow of celibacy, and to promise to take holy orders within seven years of receiving his MA.|
|1668||Awarded an MA.||Publication of the Opera chymiatrica (Works of Chemical Medicine) of Jodocus a Rhe (a.k.a. Johannes Rhenanus).|
|1668-9||Installs elaborate experimental apparatus in a shed in the grounds of Trinity College, adding two furnaces for (al)chemical experiments and a copy of Zetzner's monumental Theatrum chemicum in 1669. Constructs the first functioning reflecting telescope (from a design by David Gregory).|
|1669||Writes 'De analysi per æquationes numero terminorum infinitas' ('On Analysis by Infinite Series'), another milestone on the road to calculus. Barrow retires as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics to become chaplain to Charles II and recommends Newton to succeed him, which he does on 19/29 Oct. Barrow and the mathematician and publisher John Collins urge Newton to publish his work on calculus, but he is reluctant. At Barrow's request, Newton prepares the former's Lectiones opticæ (Optical Lectures) for the press, despite being well aware that his own unpublished optical discoveries are far in advance of Barrow's and contradict many of his conclusions.||Publication of Secrets Reveal'd by 'Eirenæus Philalethes' (i.e. George Starkey), an English version of the Introitus apertus that had appeared two years earlier. Publication of Barrow's Lectiones opticæ.|
|1670||Begins delivering his Lucasian lectures (Jan.), which according to later anecdotes are extremely poorly attended. Lectures on geometrical optics rather than pure maths, putting forward the radical view that the science of colours, and indeed the whole of natural philosophy, is governed by mathematical principles.|
|1671||Barrow persuades Newton to allow him to demonstrate the telescope to the Royal Society, where it causes a sensation. Newton writes De methodis serierum et fluxionum (On the Method of Series and Fluxions), expounding the principles of calculus, though this is not published until 1736.||Publication of John Webster's Metallographia and of Henry More's Enchiridion metaphysicum.|
|1672||Elected Fellow of the Royal Society (1/11 Jan.).
Newton's 'Theory about Light and Colors' published in the Royal Society's journal, Philosophical Transactions (30 Jan./9 Feb.). Critical reactions from various quarters, and especially from the Society's own Curator of Experiments, Robert Hooke, elicit furious responses from Newton and embroil him in numerous polemical exchanges for the next four years, during which he repeatedly declares himself unwilling to engage in any further scientific publication or correspondence. However, he intermittently keeps up a vicious semi-public quarrel with Hooke until the latter's death in 1703.
|Outbreak of Third Anglo-Dutch War.|
|1673||Cold-shoulders various attempts to persuade him to re-engage with the scientific community and concentrates harder on his still almost totally secret (al)chemical studies. At about this date, he also begins an intensive study of the textual history of the Bible (both in the original and in various translations) and of the Church Fathers, which continues to occupy him for the rest of his life and soon leads him to conclude that the doctrine of the Trinity is a heretical error introduced in the 4th century AD.||Leibniz elected Fellow of the Royal Society. Publication of Christian Huygens' Horologium oscillatorium (Of Pendulum Clocks).|
|1674||End of Third Anglo-Dutch War.|
|1675||Visits London in spring to ask the Secretary of State, Joseph Williamson, for a dispensation from taking holy orders, as the statutes of Trinity require him to do as an MA of seven years' standing. This is granted and the statutes altered for Newton's benefit. It is not clear what grounds he argues for his exemption, though his private reasons are almost certainly his dissent from the Church's teaching on the Trinity.
Sends the Royal Society a 'Hypothesis' concerning the causes of light and colours. This is closely related to an alchemical essay, 'Of natures obvious laws and processes in vegetation', written (but not disclosed) by Newton at about the same time. Relations with Hooke worsen as the latter thinks Newton credits himself in the 'Hypothesis' with a number of ideas Hooke had already put forward in his Micrographia (1665).
|Greenwich Observatory founded, with John Flamsteed as the first Astronomer Royal.|
|1676||Leibniz visits London in October and (without Newton's knowledge) is shown a copy of Newton's 'De Analysi' by John Collins. However, Leibniz has already independently established the fundamental principles of calculus, though (as he later acknowledges) he learns much from Newton's work on series expansion.|
|1677||Death of Isaac Barrow.|
|1678||Publication of Ralph Cudworth's True Intellectual System of the Universe. Publication of Ripley Reviv'd by 'Eirenæus Philalethes' (i.e. George Starkey).|
|1679||Returns to Woolsthorpe in the spring to nurse his dying mother (buried 4/14 June). Newton remains in Woolsthorpe for most of the year settling the family's affairs.||Birth of Newton's half-niece Catherine Barton.|
|1679-1680||Correspondence with Hooke about the path of falling bodies provides Newton with the key dynamic concepts of inertia and centripetal attraction.|
|1681||Correspondence with Flamsteed about the comets of November and December 1680, which Flamsteed maintains are one and the same. Newton initially disagrees but later acknowledges Flamsteed was right: this has further important implications for Newton's understanding of gravity.|
|c. 1683||Wickins resigns his fellowship and leaves Cambridge (probably to allow him to marry, which he cannot do as a Fellow). Newton invites Humphrey Newton (no relation) to share his rooms and work as his amanuensis.|
|1684||August: Halley visits Newton to discuss astronomical matters, particularly the notion of gravity. The two get on well and Halley becomes one of Newton's staunchest supporters. Correspondence with Flamsteed about the possibility of an attraction between Jupiter and Saturn.||Leibniz publishes an account of his calculus in the Leipzig-based journal Acta Eruditorum.|
|1685||Accession of the Roman Catholic James II (27 Jan./6 Feb.).|
|1686||Fully formulates his theory of universal gravitation: every object in the universe attracts and is attracted to every other object.||Publication of Edmund Dickinson's alchemical Epistola ad Theodorum Mundanum (Letter to Theodorus Mundanus).|
|1687||Plays a significant role in orchestrating opposition to the King's demand that Sidney Sussex College award an MA to a Benedictine monk, Alban Francis, without requiring him to take the statutory oath of allegiance to the Church of England - despite the fact that Newton, as a convinced but secret unitarian, owes the Church of England no more allegiance than Francis does. Newton and other delegates face examination by Judge Jeffreys, and Vice Chancellor John Peachell is sacked, but the college stands its ground and the degree is never conferred.
July: largely at Halley's urging and entirely at Halley's expense, publishes Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica (The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), his masterwork on mechanics, fluids and gravity. Though few outside England are initially convinced by Newton's theory of gravity, the book establishes his reputation throughout Europe as at least one of the greatest mathematicians and scientific thinkers of his day.
|Death of Henry More.|
|1688||Petition of Seven Bishops against James II's toleration of Roman Catholics.
The 'Glorious Revolution': arrival from the Netherlands of the Protestant William of Orange and his army (Nov.) and flight of James (Dec.).
|1689||Elected MP for Cambridge University. Applies for provostship of King's College, Cambridge, but (much to his chagrin) is not appointed.
Now seen as something of a superstar in English intellectual circles, Newton acquires a devoted following of mostly younger disciples, many of whom come to share his unorthodox theological views as well as championing his natural philosophy. At this time or a little earlier, makes friends with the philosopher John Locke and with the Swiss mathematician Fatio de Duillier: his friendship with the latter is arguably the one really close relationship of Newton's life. Terminates Humphrey Newton's service as his amanuensis.
|Accession of William III and Mary II (James II's sister).
Publication of The Cambridge Case, an anonymous account of the Sidney Sussex affair (probably not Newton's composition though he may well have had a hand in it).
Publication of Le triomphe hermétique (The Hermetic Triumph) by Alexandre Toussaint de Limojon, Sieur de Didier.
|1690||Writes two long letters to Locke, and a shorter supplement, concerning 'corruptions of Scripture', explicitly stating his own anti-trinitarian convictions. Begins revising the Principia and elaborating on his conviction that true (i.e. Newtonian) natural philosophy was known to the sages of various pre-Christian civilisations and represented in veiled, allegorical form in myths and in the design of ancient temples and monuments such as Stonehenge. Maintains that all 'his' discoveries are in fact re-discoveries of 'prisca sapientia' ('ancient wisdom').||Publication of Boyle's The Christian Virtuoso and Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding.|
|1691/2||Death of Boyle (31 Dec./10 Jan. - at quarter to one in the morning, for which reason many sources treat the date as 30 Dec./9 Jan.). His will endows the Royal Society's Boyle Lectures in defence of religion.|
|1692-3||Correspondence with the mathematician Richard Bentley on the value of natural philosophy as a proof of God's existence and a bulwark of true religion.
Correspondence with Locke about alchemy. Locke, who is one of a team appointed to inspect Boyle's manuscript legacy, sends Newton copies of two alchemical recipes he finds among the papers.
|Bentley delivers the first Boyle lectures (1692), drawing heavily on his reading of and correspondence with Newton, and publishes them (1693).|
|1693||Invites Fatio to take rooms next to his in Cambridge, though this plan is never realised.
Suffers a nervous breakdown (c. July/August). Writes distractedly to Locke in September apologising for having imagined 'that you endeavoured to embroil me wth woemen' and that 'when one told me you were sickly ... I answered twere better if you were dead'. Explains a month later that 'when I wrote to you I had not slept an hour a night for a fortnight together & for 5 nights together not a wink'. Has regained his composure by the end of the year. From this point on, has little if anything more to do with Fatio (the reasons for this rupture remain obscure).
|1694||Presses Flamsteed for data on the moon's motion, which Newton still cannot satisfactorily explain in terms of his gravitational theory. Deeply offends Flamsteed by telling him not to waste time on his own theoretical speculations on the subject but to concentrate on collecting and supplying better data.||Death of Mary II leaves William III as sole monarch.|
|1696||Visited in March by an anonymous 'adept' who reveals what he claims is a 'menstruum' to dissolve all metals. Probably in about this year, Newton composes (but does not publish) the essay 'Praxis', the most substantial of his own (al)chemical compositions. However, his practical research into the subject seems to be abandoned at about this date, though he continues to collect books and manuscripts.
Appointed Warden of the Royal Mint (19/29 March), which is housed at this date in the Tower of London. Leaves Cambridge on 20/30 April to settle in London. Though the post has traditionally been treated as a sinecure, Newton (much to the annoyance of the other Mint officers) takes his duties very seriously indeed, waging vigorous campaigns against the institution's endemic corruption and inefficiency.
At some point after this move, probably before 1700, Catherine Barton (b. 1679), the daughter of Newton's half-sister Hannah (née Smith), comes to live with him in London.
|Silver recoinage in England (till 1698).|
|1697||Publication of John Pollexfen's Of Trade, Coin and Paper Credit, an attack on credit and paper money.|
|1699||Fatio publishes a work asserting Newton's priority in the discovery of calculus and heavily implying that Leibniz stole the idea from him (though Newton himself acknowledged in the Principia that Leibniz had reached at least some of the same conclusions independently). Newton later denies having had any hand in the publication.|
|1700||At his own request, Newton transfers from being Warden to Master of the Mint (a nominally less prestigious but in fact more influential and lucrative position). The appointment is made on 25 Dec. 1699/4 Jan. 1700 - a birthday present.
Leibniz responds to Fatio's criticisms in the Acta Eruditorum, and an increasingly bitter and personal dispute erupts between Leibniz and Newton, waged - on both sides - largely through third parties or under cover of anonymous publication. This preoccupies both men until Leibniz's death (and Newton until his). Exacerbated more or less wilfully by the seconds of both parties, the argument swells to encompass attacks on Leibniz's views on miracles and 'pre-established harmony' (later satirised by Voltaire as the doctrine that 'all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds') on the one hand, and Newton's theory of gravity on the other.
|Second edition of Pollexfen's Of Trade, to which Newton writes (but never publishes) an extensive rejoinder.|
|1701||Again elected MP for Cambridge University.
Appointment of Newton's friend and fellow unitarian Hopton Haynes to the Mint post of weigher and teller.
Officially resigns as Lucasian Professor (Dec.), having held the post in absentia for over five years, and is succeeded by his protégé William Whiston.
|Outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession. Act of Settlement debars Roman Catholics from the British throne.|
|1702||Designs Queen Anne's Coronation Medal.||Accession of Anne.|
|1703||Elected President of the Royal Society, a post he holds (by annual re-election) until his death.||Death of Robert Hooke.|
|1704||Publishes Opticks, his second masterpiece, setting out the principles of refraction and arguing for the corpuscular nature of light.|
|1706||Publication of Optice, a Latin translation of the Opticks. Fatio becomes deeply involved with a sect of controversial and much-derided radical mystics, the 'French Prophets'.||Publication of A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God by Newton's protégé Samuel Clarke.|
|1707||Fatio and other 'French Prophets' pilloried in London.||Union of England and Scotland. Silver recoinage in Scotland (to 1709) and re-organisation of the Edinburgh Mint.|
|1710||Ejection of Whiston from Lucasian Professorship for his advocacy of unitarianism (Oct.).|
|1712||At Leibniz's somewhat naive request, the Royal Society appoints a committee to review the history of the calculus controversy. The committee is selected by the Society's President - Newton - who also compiles its report for it. Consisting principally of carefully selected extracts from relevant scientific correspondence, with explanatory notes, the report emphatically (and quite correctly) asserts Newton's priority, and heavily (and quite unjustly) implies plagiarism on Leibniz's part.
Uses his authority as President of the Royal Society to compel Flamsteed, who is still smarting from the lack of credit given him for his contributions to the Principia, to hand over an unfinished star-chart and compilation of astronomical observations to be completed and edited by Halley.
|Publication of Samuel Clarke's Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity (in fact a work with a distinctly anti-trinitarian flavour).|
|1713||Publication of the 1712 calculus report as Commercium epistolicum ... de analysi promota (Correspondence ... Relating to the Progress of Analysis).
Second edition of the Principia, with the acknowledgments of Leibniz toned down and all reference to Flamsteed excised. Adds a 'General Scholium' setting out Newton's view of the relationship between God and Creation. The new preface by Newton's disciple Roger Cotes denounces Leibniz as a 'miserable reptile'.
|Peace of Utrecht ends British involvement in War of the Spanish Succession.|
|1714||Accession of George I.|
|1715||Devotes almost an entire issue of the Philosophical Transactions to 'An Account of the Book entituled Commercium Epistolicum', his own anonymous review of his own report on the calculus controversy.||Flamsteed acquires most of the copies of Halley's edition of his star-chart and burns them.|
|1716||Draws up a summary of his theories on ancient chronology at the request of Princess Caroline of Wales, asking her to keep the manuscript to herself (which she does not).||Death of Leibniz.|
|1717||Marriage of Catherine Barton to John Conduitt.|
|1718||Second English edition of the Opticks.|
|1719||Second Latin edition of Optice.||Death of Flamsteed.|
|1720||Newton is said to have lost £20,000 in the South Sea Bubble according to Catherine Conduitt.||South Sea Bubble. Halley succeeds Flamsteed as Astronomer Royal.|
|1721||Third English edition of the Opticks.|
|1722||Begins to suffer from bladder stones and is increasingly forced to delegate his duties at the Royal Society and Mint to others (in the case of the Mint, largely to Conduitt, who eventually succeeds him as Master).|
|1725||Unauthorised publication, in Paris, of Abregé de la chronologie de M. le Chevalier Newton, a French translation of the 'Abstract of Cronology [sic]' Newton had written in 1716, with adversely critical commentary by the translator. Newton promptly publishes a withering rejoinder in the Philosophical Transactions.||Posthumous publication of Flamsteed's Historia coelestis britannica (British History of the Heavens), his own completion of the work he had been forced to surrender unfinished to Halley.|
|1726||Third edition of the Principia.|
|1727||Presides over his last Royal Society meeting on 19 Feb./2 March. Shortly afterward takes to his bed, suffering from a new bladder stone. Dies, having refused the last rites, on 20/31 March.|