The core of truth behind Sir Isaac Newton's apple

The manuscript that gave rise to one of science's best-known anecdotes is now online.

It is one of the most famous anecdotes in the history of science. The young Isaac Newton is sitting in his garden when an apple falls on his head and, in a stroke of brilliant insight, he suddenly comes up with his theory of gravity. The story is almost certainly embellished, both by Newton and the generations of storytellers who came after him. But from today anyone with access to the internet can see for themselves the first-hand account of how a falling apple inspired the understanding of gravitational force.

The Royal Society in London is making available in digital form the key original manuscript that describes how Newton devised his theory of gravity after witnessing an apple falling from a tree in his mother's garden in Lincolnshire, although there is no evidence to suggest that it hit him on the head.

It was 1666, and the plague had closed many public buildings and meetings. Newton had to abandon Cambridge for Woolsthorpe Manor, near Grantham in Lincolnshire, the modest house where he was born, to contemplate the stellar problems he had been pursuing at the university.

He was particularly obsessed by the orbit of the Moon around the Earth, and eventually reasoned that the influence of gravity must extend over vast distances. After seeing how apples always fall straight to the ground, he spent several years working on the mathematics showing that the force of gravity decreased as the inverse square of the distance.

But what evidence is there that Newton was really inspired by a falling apple? He left no written account suggesting this, although there were other documents suggesting that he had spoken to others about it when he was an old man.

Historians point to the one particular account written by one of Newton's younger contemporaries, an antiquarian and proto-archaeologist called William Stukeley, who also wrote the first biography of Britain's greatest scientist, entitled Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton's Life.

Stukeley was also born in Lincolnshire, and used this connection to befriend the notoriously cantankerous Newton. Stukeley spent some time in conversation with the older man, and the pair met regularly as fellows of the Royal Society, and talked together. On one particular occasion in 1726, Stukeley and Newton spent the evening dining in London.

"After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden & drank thea under the shade of some apple tree; only he & myself," Stukeley wrote in the meticulously handwritten manuscript released by the Royal Society.

"Amid other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly the notion of gravitation came into his mind. Why sh[oul]d that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself; occasion'd by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood.

"Why sh[oul]d it not go sideways, or upwards? But constantly to the Earth's centre? Assuredly the reason is, that the Earth draws it. There must be a drawing power in matter. And the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the Earth must be in the Earth's centre, not in any side of the Earth.

"Therefore does this apple fall perpendicularly or towards the centre? If matter thus draws matter; it must be proportion of its quantity. Therefore the apple draws the Earth, as well as the Earth draws the apple."

This is the most detailed account of the apple anecdote, but it is not the only one from Newton's day. He had also used it to entertain John Conduitt, the husband of Newton's niece and his assistant at the Royal Mint, which Newton had run in his later years. Conduitt wrote: "In the year 1666 he retired again from Cambridge to his mother in Lincolnshire. Whilst he was pensively meandering in a garden it came into his thought that the power of gravity (which brought an apple from a tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from Earth, but that this power must extend much further than was usually thought.

"Why not as high as the Moon said he to himself & if so, that must influence her motion & perhaps retain her orbit, whereupon he fell a calculating what would be the effect of that supposition."

Both accounts of the apple incident were recalled by Newton some 50 years later. Did it really happen, or was it a story that Newton embellished or even invented?

"Newton cleverly honed this anecdote over time," said Keith Moore, head of archives at the Royal Society. "The story was certainly true, but let's say it got better with the telling." The story of the apple fitted with the idea of an Earth-shaped object being attracted to the Earth. It also had a resonance with the Biblical account of the tree of knowledge, and Newton was known to have extreme religious views, Mr Moore said.

At Woolsthorpe Manor, now owned by the National Trust, the house steward, Margaret Winn, said that the same apple tree, a cooking variety known as Flower of Kent, still grows to the front of the house, in sight of Newton's bedroom window.

"He did tell the story as an old man but you do wonder whether it really happened," said Ms Winn, who has cooked with the apples. But even if the tale was the fanciful imaginings of an old man, the story of the falling apple has gone down in history as the second-greatest "eureka moment" in science, after Archimedes discovered how to work out the volume of objects while he was in the bath.



View the Stukeley manuscript at www.royalsociety.org/turning-the-pages

Eureka moments: How they 'got it'

*Archimedes is thought to have been the first scientist to shout out the Greek word "Eureka!" to mark a breakthrough, when he discovered his principle of buoyancy. Roman writer Vitruvius wrote that Archimedes was taking a bath when he realised that when he stepped into his tub, his body mass displaced a certain weight of water. The scientist is said to have jumped out of the bath and run naked through the streets of Syracuse in Sicily shouting: "Eureka, eureka!" ("I have found it!"). Doubt has since been cast on the authenticity of this story, given that Vitruvius was writing nearly 200 years later.



*Otto Loewi, the German physiologist, spent 17 years trying to come up with definitive proof that nerve impulses were transmitted chemically, and was finally struck by inspiration one night when he had a dream showing him how to carry out a key experiment using a frog's heart. He immediately went to his laboratory to conduct the experiment, noting that electrical stimulation of a frog's vagus nerve released a chemical, now known to be the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which controlled the heart rate.



*Although it is commonly thought that Charles Darwin came up with his theory of natural selection while on the Galapagos Islands in 1835, he only started to believe in evolution after he returned to England. Instead of being struck by a single "Eureka moment", the scientist spent two decades pondering his observations, finally presenting his controversial theory in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species. Sofia Mitra-Thakur

News
Shoppers at Selfridges department store in central London
black friday
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
filmDirector said film would 'never have been financed' with ethnic minority actors in key roles
Life and Style
View of champagne glasses at a beach bar set up along the Croisette during the 66th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes on May 17, 2013
food + drink(and for now, there's a clear winner)
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
Irradiated turkey and freeze dried mash potato will be on the menu this thanksgiving
video
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Associate Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree are seeking Associate Recruitm...

SThree: Associate Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree are seeking Associate Recruitm...

Citifocus Ltd: ACA - Financial Reporting

£Attractive Package: Citifocus Ltd: Chartered accountant (ACA or CPA), must be...

Langley James : Senior Infrastructure Engineer; VMWare, Windows; Disley; £40k

£40000 per annum + benefits: Langley James : Senior Infrastructure Engineer; V...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?