DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q075-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 20, 2024, from

1. Life

Isaac Newton entered Trinity College Cambridge in 1661, and began investigations of mathematics in 1664. These investigations culminated two years later in the binomial theorem and the fundamentals of the calculus. During the so-called annus mirabilis of 1666, while the university was closed because of the plague, and in the years immediately following, he extended his mathematical work; he also conducted optical experiments and worked on several basic problems in mechanics, including impact and circular motion. He became Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge in 1669.

Although some of Newton’s mathematical manuscripts were in circulation, yielding him some renown, his only notable publications before the Principia were a series of communications in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society from 1672 to 1676 on his experiments on light and colours and the reflecting telescope. The debate which this work provoked led Newton to begin articulating what he called his ’experimental philosophy’, which focused on establishing propositions by means of experiment.

In an exchange of letters in late 1679, Robert Hooke, himself an eminent scientist, asked Newton to use his mathematical methods to determine the trajectory of a body under a combination of inertial motion and an inverse-square force directed towards a central point – that is, the force Newton later named ’centripetal’. But the intense effort that culminated in the publication of the Principia (1687) did not begin until 1684, after a visit from young Edmond Halley, who later became Astronomer Royal.

Newton spent most of the years after 1689 in London. He was elected to represent Cambridge University in Parliament in 1689 and again in 1701, the year in which he resigned his professorship. He became Warden of the Mint in 1696, and Master of it in 1699. In 1703 he became President of the Royal Society, a post he held until he died. He was knighted in 1705.

During his London years Newton engaged in an acrimonious dispute with Leibniz over who had priority for inventing the calculus. One element fuelling this dispute was Newton’s failure to publish his work, save for a three-page summary of a handful of results in Book II of the Principia. His first formal publications on the calculus appeared in 1704, when two earlier manuscripts were included as supplements in the first edition of the Opticks. (A Latin edition of the Opticks appeared two years later.)

Newton gave some thought to a restructured edition of the Principia in the early 1690s. But the second edition was not published until 1713, after four years of effort under the constructively critical eye of its editor, Roger Cotes. A third edition followed in 1726. These editions sharpened the contrast between his approach and that of Leibniz and the Cartesians. The second English edition of the Opticks (1717/18) included Queries that summarized his conjectures on atomism. These Queries end with a concise statement of his method for establishing scientific knowledge on the basis of experiment and induction; so too does his final riposte in the priority dispute with Leibniz, his anonymous ’An Account of the Book Entitled Commercium epistolicum’.

Citing this article:
Harper, William L. et al. Life. Newton, Isaac (1642–1727), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q075-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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