Falling Apple Story

Description: Quotes about the story of Newton and the apple. Not a demonstration.

from Augustus De Morgan "A Budget of Paradoxes"(SFU PN 6361 D45 1915 2 vols):

"Greene is one of the sources for Newton being led to think of gravitation by the fall of an apple: his authority is the gossip of Martin Folkes. Probably Folkes had it from Newton's niece, Mrs Conduitt, whom Voltaire acknowledges as his authority. It is in the draft found among Conduitt's papers of memoranda to be sent to Fontenelle. But Fontenelle, though a great retailer of anecdote, does not mention it in his eloge of Newton; whence it may be suspected that it was left out in the copy forwarded to France. D'Israeli has got an improvement on the story: the apple "struck him a smart blow on the head": no doubt taking him just on the organ of causality. He was "surprised at the force of the stroke" from so small an apple: but then the apple had a mission; Homer would have said it was Minerva in the form of an apple. "This led him to consider the accelerating motion of falling bodies," which Galileo had settled long before: "from whence he deduced the principle of gravity," which many had considered before him but no one had deduced anything from it. I cannot imagine whence D'Israeli got the rap on the head, I mean got it for Newton: this is very unlike his usual accounts of things. The story is pleasant and possible: its only defect is that various writings, well known to Newton, a very learned mathematician, had given more suggestion than a sackful of apples could have done, if they had tumbled on that mighty head all at once. And Pemberon, speaking from Newton himself, says nothing more than that the idea of the moon being retained by the same force which causes the fall of bodies struck him for the first time while meditating in a garden. One particular tree at Woolsthorpe has been selected as the gallows of the apple shaped goddess: it died in 1820, and Mr Turnor kept the wood; but Sir D Brewster brought away a bit of root in 1814, and must have had it on his conscience for 43 years that he may have killed the tree.

and from Derek Gjertsen "The Newton Handbook", Routledge and Kegan Paul Inc, London, 1986 (SFU QC 16 N7 G54):

Apples and apple trees

The subject of comedy sketches and cartoons as well as learned articles, the story of Newton and the falling apple is undoubtedly the best known anecdote in the entire history of science. Inevitably the current 1 pound note displays with the other familiar Newtonian icons - a prism, a reflecting telescope - a spray of apple blossom. Inevitable also has been the often-drawn comparison between the apples in the gardens of Eden and Woolsthorpe:

And this is the sole mortal who could grapple,
Since Adam, with a fall, or with an apple.
BYRON, Don Juan, canto X
Was Newton's apple any less mythical than Eve's? David Brewster, Newton's first biographer, thought not. As the story 'is menrioned neither by Dr Stukeley nor by Mr Conduitt, and as I have not been able to find any authority for it whatsoever,' Brewster concluded in 1831, 'I did not feel myself at liberty to use it.' He could have added that Fontenelle and Whiston ignored the story completely, while Henry Pemberton (1728) spoke of a meditation in a garden without ever mentioning an apple tree.

None the less, Brewster's hesitation was misplaced. A more comprehensive search of the early literature has produced several accounts. The most detailed is that of Stukeley, not published in full until 1936. On the 15 April 1726 he had dined with Newton in Kensington. After dinner, he reported:

The weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank tea, under shade of some apple trees, only he and myself. Amidst other discourses, 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. Why should it not go sideways or upwards, but constantly to the earth's center.(pp19-20)
Conduitt's account confirmed Stukeley.
& whilst he was musing in a garden it came into his thought that the power of gravity (wch brought an apple from the tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from the earth but that this power must extend much further ... Why not as high as the moon said he to himself.
But Conduitt does not actually declare that an apple fell in Newton's presence, although such an event is compatible with the passage; the falling apple could be an illustration of a thesis and not the observation leading to the thesis.

There were, however, two earlier published accounts. Voltaire, writing in English in his Essay on the Civil War in France (1727), spoke of 'Sir Isaac Newton walking in his Garden had the first thought of his System of Gravitation, upon seeing an Apple falling down from the Tree'. He repeated the story in his better known and more accessible 1733 Letters concerning the English Nation (Voltaire, 1980) although in this work he spoke not of an apple but of 'fruit falling from a tree'. Voltaire's source was probably Catherine Barton. The final early source was Robert Greene, on the authority of Martin Folkes, in his Philosophy of the Expansive and Contractive Forces (1727).

It thus seems likely that Newton some time in the 1720s told a similar story, describing events of half a century before, to four close friends and relatives - Catherine Barton, Martin Folkes, John Conduitt and William Stukeley. There is no reason to believe that an eighty year old Newton could not remember with reasonable accuracy such distant events. If there is a problem, it is why he waited so long to tell the story. Why had not an earlier generation of friends - a Halley, a David Gregory or a Fatio - been told of the falling apple?

The story inevitably attracted later additions. Isaac D'Israeli, for example, noted that 'the apple struck him a smart blow on the head'. Accurate the story may be; if, however, it is taken as anything more than a pleasing anecdote and even thought to be capable of explaining Newton's ideas on universal attraction, then it is indeed, in Westfall's phrase, 'a vulgar myth'.

As to the actual tree at Woolsthorpe, its fate and nature are well documented. Edward Turnor, the manor owner, reported in 1806 that the tree had survived and that he showed it to visitors. In the eighteenth century it grew pear shaped apples with a very distinctive flavour.

Brewster saw the tree in 1814. It was badly decayed, he noted, and was taken down in 1820. An account of this incident was later published by C.W. Walker in 1912. His father, born in 1807, attended school in Woolsthorpe. One night, presumably in 1820, after a severe storm, the apple tree was found lying on its side. It had been propped up for several years before but the wind had finally been too strong for the decaying tree. The teacher, a Mr Pearson, 'sawed a good many logs from the branches. My father got one of these pieces . . . various friends and other people often tried to induce my father to part with this, but he always refuesd, as he prized it very much indeed.' Walker presented the fragment to the Royal Astronomical Society in 1912.

Scions had been taken from the tree and grafted on trees belonging to Lord Brownlow at Belton. Grafts were sent to the Fruit Research Station at East Malling, Kent. At a meeting of the Royal Society Club on 3 November 1943, with J.M. Keynes present, E.J. Salisbury of Kew produced two apples from the Belton tree. He went on to identify the Woolsthorpe tree. A further graft was sent to the US in 1944 to the orchard of Pennsbury Manor, Morrisville, Pa., the home of William Penn. A scion taken from this thriving tree in 1954 was planted in the driveway leading to the Babson Institute Library. The apples produced by the tree have been identified as a variety of cooking apple known as Flower of Kent. Pear shaped, the apples have been described as flavourless and coloured red with streaks of yellow and green.

Fuller details of the story are available in McKie and de Beer (1951;1952).

Gjertsen gives this reference as:
McKie, D and de Beer, G (1952) 'Newton's apple', Notes and Records of the Royal Society, vol 9, pp 46-54, 333-5

References: PIRA 1L10.01

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