Newton’s apple moment among original documents now online

Everyone knows the story of how Isaac Newton came to develop his understanding of gravity, but now a contemporary account of the incident is available to read in its original form.

It’s part of a series of documents published by the Royal Society, a British scientific institution. Unlike most such projects, this involved publishing scans of the original documents in a format which allows the user to navigate them page by page, hence the project name “Turning the Pages”.

The documents include a 1752 manuscript of a biography of Newton by William Strukely. Describing the fateful moment he wrote:

“It was occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself. 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.”

The collection also includes Henry James‘ notebook containing his drawings of fossils. Rather than the American novelist, this is the man who was among the most eccentric director generals of Ordnance Survey, Britain’s government-backed mapping company.

The highlight of the remaining documents, which include anatomical drawings and a letter from Thomas Paine (on, of all subjects, an iron bridge design) is the “fundamental constitutions of Carolina”. Developed largely by English philosopher John Locke, they called for the region — then under British control — to hold elections by secret ballot with votes extended to a wider range of landowners, measures which were comparatively radical at the time. The documents were never ratified, but the ideas influenced the eventual principles of North and South Caroline when they became states.

(And if you’re wondering, yes, that is where the Lost character got his name: many characters in the show take part or all of their name from noted philosophers, physicists and other historical figures.)

The project follows the Royal Society publishing the text of 60 notable articles from its journal Philosophical Transactions, including the invention of fingerprinting, the first electric battery, and Benjamin Franklin flying a kite in an attempt to harness lightning.

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