Manuscript recalling Newton apple story lands online

Manuscript of 1752 biography of Isaac Newton, which recounts how a falling apple led him to the theory of gravity, is available on U.K.'s Royal Society Web site.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
2 min read

Another famous apple has been in the news this week. A 1752 manuscript revealing how Sir Isaac Newton formulated the theory of gravity is now online for people to view and read.

A conversation between Newton and scholar William Stukeley about Newton's life, notably his alleged encounter with a falling apple, prompted Stukeley to write Newton's 1752 biography "Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton's Life." Experts carefully transformed the delicate 250-year-old book into an electronic version that now is on display at Britain's Royal Society Web site.

The Royal Society

The online interactive manuscript can be viewed in full 3D or as a Microsoft Silverlight presentation where you can turn each page, zoom in or out, and magnify any section. Some of the passages beautifully handwritten by Stukeley can be a bit difficult to read, but floating commentaries along the way do a fine job of explaining key sections. The interactive 3D effect is nicely done--you do feel as if the actual manuscript is sitting in front of you.

The Royal Society

Most scholars had always thought of Newton's falling apple story as mere folklore, like George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. And judging from the manuscript, the tale does seem to have been embellished by Newton and probably others. But like most folklore, it has some basis in the truth. Though the apple may not have knocked Newton on his noggin, the thought of a falling apple did appear to trigger in him a need to investigate why items dropped down to the earth.

In the biography, Stukeley recalled how the apple anecdote came up during one of the times he spent with Newton.

"After dinner, the weather being warm, we went out into the garden and drank tea under the shade of some apple trees, only he and myself," recalled Stukeley. "Amidst other discourse, he told me he was just in the same situation as when formerly the notion of gravitation came into his mind. 'Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,' thought he to himself, occasion'd by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood. 'Why should it not go sideways or upwards, but constantly to the earth's centre? Assuredly, the reason is that the earth draws it.'"

In addition to Stukeley's Newton biography, the Royal Society Web site is displaying other historical documents, including Richard Waller's watercolors of English flowers, Henry James' sketches of fossils, and Thomas Paine's iron bridge design.

As the world's oldest scientific academy, the Royal Society holds a vast collection of documents dating back to 1660, a small portion of which the group is making available online. Members of the society have included Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking.