It’s fascinating to hear the stories behind the discoveries and inventions of ‘miracles’ in science. When we do, none of the anecdotes come close to being as simple and popular as the Apple story that led to the discovery of Gravity by Newton. However, did you know that not everyone believes that story? People believe it to be an apocryphal story that is made-up as a tool to make the presentation of the ‘idea of gravity’ more plausible.
First, he came up with a claim of ‘falling of apple on the head’ and then Newton having an epiphany that everything on earth falls towards the center of the Earth. He also claimed that gravity is the reason why the Moon never leaves the Earth, and why the Earth never leaves the Sun. There is no evidence to prove that this happened, although London’s Royal Society holds a manuscript that may lead us to the truth. The manuscript has been made digitally available here. However, Keith Moore, the head of the archives at the Royal Society, suspects that the story may not be entirely true.
“Newton cleverly honed this anecdote over time, 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.
The story in the manuscript places Newton at his mother’s house in Lincolnshire in 1666 where the apple fell from an apple tree in his mother’s garden. It was during that time that he was contemplating the complex workings of the Moon orbiting the Earth. After witnessing the fall of the apple in the garden, it took him years to derive the mathematical relationship of gravitational force with the distance. Did the apple hit his head? Did he leave any documentation on the story?
The answer is simple; No! According to historians, the only written document about Newton’s apple story comes from one of Newton’s younger fellows of the Royal Society, William Stukeley, an antiquarian and proto-archaeologist. Stukeley has the first biography of Britain’s most notable scientist called ‘Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life.’ So the older Newton would meet with Stukeley regularly and talk. In one particular incident in 1726, Stukeley recalls the dinner.
“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 should 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.”
The story was told to Stukeley after 50 years of the actual incident. Around the same time, John Conduitt, husband of Newton’s niece, also supported the Stukeley’s narrative.
There is a house steward at the Woolsthorpe Manor, currently owned by the National Trust. Margret Winn states that still, the same apple tree known as Flower of Kent grows in the front of the house. The tree would have been in Newton’s sight from his bedroom window.
“He did tell the story as an old man but you do wonder whether it really happened,” said Ms Winn.
The story may have been dramatized by an old man, yet the story of fallen apple is the second best moment in the history of science. First being the Archimedes discovery of the ‘volume of objects’ while in the bath.