The Teddington Gardener

Gravity (and in a Sandra Bullock way too…) Isaac Newton’s Apple Tree


Isaac Newton’s Apple Tree – a direct descented to that fêted tree

I was going to wait until this unassuming little apple tree came into flower – soon – but couldn’t wait. It’s been given a feed (liquid seaweed) and a good water and we will wait and watch. For it is an Important Tree with a serious History.

“Propagated from a tree growing in Isaac Newton’s garden at Woolsthorpe Manor, nr Grantham, Lincolnshire. It appears identical to Flower of Kent, which was listed in 1629 by Parkinson but not mentioned again until 1802 by Forsyth.

Large, heavily ribbed fruit. Cooks to a sweet, declicately flavoured purée.

Newton’s early work on gravitation was done 1665-66 when he was staying at his mother’s house, Woolsthorpe, where he had gone to escape the plague. while sitting under an apple tree, the ‘notion of gravity came into his mind oaccasion’d by the fall of an apple’. This tree, eventually supported by props, died in 1814. Its wood was used to make a chair for the Wollsthorpe Library. Some years previously the Manor owners had propagated it and planted a new tree in Lord Brownlow’s garden at nearby Belton. Material from this tree, via Kew Gardens and EMRS, Kent (now just East Malling Research, EMR), has provided scion wood for Isaac Newton trees at National Physics Laboratory, teddington and Cambridge; also in the US and New Zealand.

Pollinating group 20. Picking mid-October. Stores November to January”

I’m quoting Joan Morgan, doyenne of the apple with an international reputation – the Queen of Apples!


For a bit of background, an article from The Independent newspaper in 2010 – and sight of the contemporary Stukeley documents from the Royal Society archive.–sir-isaac-newtons-apple-1870915.html

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

 Steve Connor

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.


The original Stukeley documents online – and much much more –


Space, the final frontier…

Meanwhile, back to Sandra Bullock/the film ‘Gravity’ – a piece of wood from the original tree has been sent into space!! Sandra Bullock and Isaac Newton in one sentence..

Newton’s famous apple tree to experience zero gravity

10 May 2010

A piece of Newton’s apple tree is being taken into space by British-born astronaut Piers Sellers on the next NASA mission STS 132.  The section of wood, taken from the original tree that inspired Newton to formulate his theory of gravitation, was released from the Royal Society’s archives and entrusted to NASA Astronaut Piers Sellers as part of the Society’s 350th anniversary year celebrations.  In addition to the piece of tree, the Society has also provided an image of Sir Isaac Newton, former President of the Royal Society, to accompany the historic item into space.

Piers Sellers said: “We’re delighted to take this piece of Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree to orbit. While it’s up there, it will be experiencing no gravity, so if it had an apple on it, the apple wouldn’t fall.  I’m pretty sure that Sir Isaac would have loved to see this, assuming he wasn’t spacesick, as it would have proved his first law of motion to be correct.  After the flight, we will be returning the piece of tree and a flown picture of Sir Isaac Newton back to The Royal Society.”

Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society and thus Newton’s modern-day successor, said: “We are both pleased and proud that such an extraordinary part of scientific history and important element of the Royal Society’s archive collection can make this historic trip into space.  Upon their return the piece of tree and picture of Newton will form part of the History of the Royal Society exhibition that the Society will be holding later this year and will then be held as a permanent exhibit at the Society.”

The original version of the famous story of Newton and the falling apple was made available by the Royal Society for the first time in manuscript form earlier this year.  The story – in which Newton claims to have received inspiration for the theory of gravitation from seeing a falling apple in his garden – was told by Newton to William Stukeley and originally appeared in his 1752 biography, ‘Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life’.  The most celebrated anecdote in science exists as a fragile paper manuscript in the Royal Society’s archives, but it can now be viewed in a fully interactive format by anybody with internet access here.

NASA’s Space Shuttle Atlantis will lift off for its final, 12-day mission on 14th May 2010 (launch target), with six crew members including British-born Mission Specialist Piers J. Sellers.   Piers has been into space twice before and will, on this mission, be responsible for working with the station arm, supporting the space walks.




























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