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Isaac Newton

      As a literary philosopher, Bacon surpasses Newton; as an experimental philosopher, Newton surpasses Bacon. Newton's works contain nothing in point of style and illustration comparable to Bacon's essays; Bacon's works contain nothing in point of scientific discovery and mathematical calculation comparable to Newton's "Optics" and "Principia."

      Newton has been the great glory of the Royal Society; and the Royal Society is justly proud of its most illustrious ornament. He joined it in January, 1674, when he was excused the ordinary payment of a shilling a week, "on account of his low circumstances as he represented." In 1703 he was elected to the presidential chair, which he continued to occupy until his death, in 1727. Characteristic mementoes of him are preserved among the Royal Society's treasures. There is a solar dial made by the boy Isaac, when, instead of studying his grammar and learning Virgil and Horace, he was busy making windmills and water-clocks. We fancy we see him going along the road to Grantham on a market day with the old servant whom his mother sent to take care of him, and then stopping by the wayside to watch the motions of a water-wheel, reflecting upon the mechanical principles involved in the simplest contrivances. It is pleasant, with our knowledge of what he afterward became, to sit down on the green bank by the river side, and to speculate upon the ignorance of the old servant who accompanied him, and of the farmers they saluted by the way, as to the illustrious destiny which awaited the widow's son who lived in the manor house of Woolsthorpe. The reflecting telescope, preserved along with the dial, was made by Newton in his thirtieth year, and reminds us of the deep mathematical studies he was then pursuing at Cambridge. The autograph MS. of the "Principia," also in the possession of the Royal Society, gives increased vividness to the picture of this extraordinary person in his study, solving mysterious problems, and suggesting others still more mysterious; and then the lock of silvery hair adds the last touch to fancy's picture--like a stroke of the pencil which, when a portrait is nearly complete, gives life and expression to the whole.

      Newton was portly but not tall, his silvery locks were abundant without any baldness, and his eyes were sparkling and piercing, though perhaps they failed to indicate the profound genius which through them looked into the secrets of the universe. Wonderful humility blended with his intellectual greatness. To other men he seemed a spirit of higher rank, having almost superhuman faculties of mental vision, wont to soar into regions which the vulture's eye hath never seen; to himself he was but a boy playing with the shells on the seashore, while the ocean lay undiscovered before him. Others were taken up with what Newton accomplished, Newton was taken up with what remained to be done. So it is ever with the highest genius; the broader the range of view, the wider the horizon of mystery. He who understands more than others is conscious beyond others of what still remains to be understood.

      Isaac Newton was born at Woolsthorpe, in Lincolnshire, on December 25, 1642, one year after the death of Galileo, and just as England was being plunged into the confusion and miseries of civil war. Strange to say, as a lad, at first he was inattentive to study; but being struck a severe blow by a school-fellow, he strangely retaliated by determining to get above him in the class, which he accomplished, and ere long became head of the school. His play hours were employed in mechanical contrivances, and a windmill in the course of erection on the Grantham road was an object of intense curiosity and a source of immense instruction. He soon had a windmill of his own, at the top of the house in which he lived. He had also a water-clock in his bedroom, and a mechanical carriage in the parlor, in which he could wheel himself. Paper kites and paper lanterns were his favorite toys. In the yard of the house he traced on a wall the movements of the sun by means of fixed pins; the contrivance received the name of "Isaac's dial," and was a standard of time to the country people in the neighborhood.

Newton analysing the ray of light.

      He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, June 5, 1660, just as England was astir with restoration festivities, and he soon devoted himself to mathematical studies. Euclid he took in at a glance, and afterward proceeded to master Descartes's geometry. Isaac Barrow, then Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, became his friend and tutor; and the pupil repaid the master's kind attention by services rendered to him in connection with his optical lectures. In 1669, Newton succeeded Barrow in his professorship. He rose to eminence in the university, and in 1688 was chosen its representative in the Convention parliament. In 1695 he was appointed Warden of the Mint, and was promoted to the Mastership in 1699. After his appointment to a government office he left Cambridge to reside in London, and occupied for a time a house in Jermyn Street. From 1710 till two years before his death he lived close to Leicester Square. Next door to Orange Street Chapel there stands an old house which has seen a good many changes, and is identified as the abode of Sir Isaac, who had been knighted by Queen Anne in 1705. We visited it many years ago. The part of the house most intimately associated with his name is the little observatory perched on the roof. We were permitted to ascend into that spot, to see it desecrated by its present use, for there we found a shoemaker busy at his toil. A glass cupola probably crowned the observatory in Newton's time, and evidently there was a window in each of the four walls. So here he looked out on the London of nearly a century and a half ago, hardly less crowded and smoky about the neighborhood than now. Overhead, where Newton turned his eyes with most interest, we know it was just the same; the same beautiful stars shining out on a cold winter's night, the same planets sailing along the same blue ocean, the same moon throwing its light over the same old city. What observations, keen and searching, what calculations, intricate and profound, what speculations, far-reaching and sublime, must there have been, when one of the most gifted of mortals from that spot looked out upon the heavens, and in thought went forth on voyages of discovery into the distant regions of the universe! At the calm, still hour of midnight, Sirius watching over the city of sleepers, Jupiter carrying his brilliant lamp along his ancient pathway, every one of the luminaries in the place appointed by Him who calleth them all by their names--there stood the thoughtful man, with his reflecting telescope, occupied with thoughts which we common mortals in vain endeavor to conjecture.

      The first department in the field which Newton explored with characteristic success was the study of optics. Philosophers were busy with inquiries into the nature of light. It had been long believed that every colored ray is equally refracted when passing through a lens. Newton determined to analyze the prismatic hues. He made a hole in a window-shutter, and darkening the room, let in a portion of light, which he passed through a prism. The white sunbeam formed a circular image on the opposite wall, but the prismatic colors formed an image five times as long as it was broad. He was curious to know how this came to pass. Satisfied that the length of the image in the latter case did not arise from any irregularity in his glass, or from any differences in the incidence of light from different parts of the sun's disk, or from any curvature in the direction of the rays, he concluded, after thorough reflection, that light is not homogeneous, but that it consists of rays of diverse refrangibility. The red hue he saw was less refracted than the orange, the orange less refracted than the yellow, and the violet more than any of the rest. These important conclusions he applied in the construction of the first reflecting telescope ever used in the survey of the heavens, and an instrument is preserved in Trinity College Library bearing the inscription, "Invented by Sir Isaac Newton, and made with his own hands, 1671."

      At the request of the Royal Society, he published in the "Transactions" an account of his optical discoveries, and proved that white light is a compound of seven prismatic colors.

      Everybody is familiar with the story of Newton's watching the apple fall from the tree. The tradition is fondly cherished on the spot where the philosopher is said to have been struck by the fact. The law by which the apple falls, not the reason which underlies the law, formed the subject of Newton's reflections, and led to the grandest of modern discoveries. The unknown cause of the apple's descent is the unknown cause of the planet's motion. That was the truth, simple and grand, which he brought to light and inculcated on the world. He undertook long calculations which he expected would prove this theory, but they failed to give the desired result. He consequently for a time desisted from the inquiry and turned his attention to other subjects. The error in Newton's first calculation arose from his taking the radius of the earth according to the received notion that a degree measured sixty miles, whereas Picard had determined it to be sixty-nine and a half miles. This was mentioned at a meeting of the Royal Society in 1682, at which Newton was present. "It immediately struck him that the value of the earth's radius was the erroneous element in his first calculation. With a feverish interest in this result, little imagined by those present, he hurried home, resumed his calculation with the new value, and having proceeded some way in it, was so overpowered by nervous agitation at its anticipated result, that he was unable to go on, and requested a friend to finish it for him, when it came out, exactly establishing the inverse square as the true measure of the moon's gravitation, and thus furnishing the key to the whole system." Hence proceeded Newton's immortal work, the "Principia."

      The sublimest conclusion which Newton drew from his cautious and successful investigations of the laws of nature is put, with his characteristic humility, in the form of a query: "These things being rightly described, does it not appear from the phenomena that there is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent, who, in infinite space (as it were in His sensory), sees the things themselves intimately, and thoroughly perceives them, and comprehends them wholly by their immediate presence to Himself?"

      Newton spent his last days in Kensington. "I was, Sunday night," says his nephew, "March 7, 1725, at Kensington, with Sir Isaac Newton in his lodgings, just after he was come out of a fit of the gout, which he had in both of his feet for the first time, in the eighty-third year of his age. He was better after it, and had his health clearer and memory stronger than I had known them for some years." A year later the same diarist says: "April 15, 1726. I passed the whole day with Sir Isaac Newton, at his lodgings, Orbell's Buildings, Kensington, which was the last time I saw him." The house was lately in existence, situated in what is called Bullingham Place, retaining, when we visited it, a mansion-like aspect, with a large garden and tall trees. There he died, March 20, 1727, having on the previous day been able to read the newspaper and to hold a long conversation with Dr. Mead.

      His body was laid in state in the Jerusalem Chamber, and then buried in Westminster Abbey.

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