Isaac Newton's falling apple tale drops into the web

Royal Society publishes memoirs of William Stukeley, 18th century author with firsthand account of scientist's discovery

It is the most famous apple in science. The fruit that bounced from Sir Isaac Newton's head, as he pondered the universe in his orchard, supposedly inspired the great scientist to develop his theory of gravity. Unfortunately, like so many tempting tales, this one is not quite true.

Now, anyone who wants to study the best original source of one of science's key insights can do so. The Royal Society is making available online for the first time a 100-page manuscript by the physician William Stukeley, who wrote the Memoirs of Newton's Life.

"After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank tea, under the shade of some apple trees," wrote Stukeley, in the papers published in 1752 and previously available only to academics. "He told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. 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."

Keith Moore, the Royal Society's head of library and archives, said: "Scholars know where the apple story comes from, and clearly it's an anecdote Newton polished. What we want is for the public to see the manuscript itself. It wasn't just Newton that polished it, succeeding generations put a gloss on it as well – that story just humanises him just a little bit."

The manuscript is one of seven documents to go online as part of the Royal Society's 350th anniversary celebrations. Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, said other treasures from the archives were also being published online.

Robert Iliffe, editorial director for the Newton Project, based at Sussex University, said that Stukeley had some of the best known insider knowledge of Newton's foibles, such as the great man's forgetfulness. "There's a story in the book of Newton leading a horse up a hill just outside Grantham and he's reading a book with his left hand at the same time," he said. "When he gets to the top of the hill he finds out that, as he's been reading the book, the horse has long bolted."

The Stukeley papers include stories from Newton's childhood; one is about how he built a model of a windmill, based on a full-scale one near his Grantham home. Unimpressed by his own wind-driven machine he went on to build a fully functional version – powered by a mouse. "Isaac was not content with this bare imitation. His sp[iri]t prompted him to go beyond his prototype...He could put a mouse into it wh[ich] worked it as naturally as the wind. Thus he used to style his mouse-miller & complain'd jokingly what a thief he was; for he ate up all the corn put into the mill."

Other documents released by the Royal Society today include drawings of English wildflowers by Richard Waller, anatomical drawings based on early dissections of the human body and sketches of fossil trilobites made by Sir Henry James around 1843. "[Waller's drawings] deserve to be better known — they're a record of a scientist trying to grasp how botanical specimens should be shown," said Moore. "Waller was tremendously interested in how to reproduce colour, which was very advanced for the period."

There are also important historical documents. "Fellows of the Royal Society in the early days weren't just scientists as we define them now, they were interested in all kinds of things. John Locke, who is well known these days as a philosopher, was a fellow and [in 1681] was involved in drafting a constitutional document for one of the American colonies, the Carolinas. We thought that we would reproduce that so that people in the US could see it," said Moore.

The Royal Society holds more than 250,000 manuscripts and pieces of paper in its archives, and today's publication is the start of an attempt to make all of that available one day. "This is just a baby step towards bringing our archives to a wider public," said Moore.

"The manuscripts are of worldwide importance and we hold these things in trust for the international scene."

Further events this year to mark the Royal Society's anniversary will include public lectures and debates, collaborations with artists and performers, and a nine-day science exhibition at London's South Bank in the summer.


Alok Jha

The GuardianTramp

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