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Newton and the scientific establishment

Newton and the scientific establishment

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Reproduced from frontispiece of: Isaac Newton, Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica. 3rd ed. (Londini : apud Guil & Joh. Innys, 1726) Engraved by George Vertue (1684–1756) after painting by John Vanderbank (1694?–1739), Whipple Library STORE 70:7. Click on an image to enlarge




In British institutions such as the Royal Society of London, representations of Isaac Newton and his work changed significantly in the century after his death, reflecting the shifting interests of elite natural philosophers and men of science. His international fame and the continuing relevance of the world system he and his followers erected meant that he was always used as a triumphant figurehead, but according to the intellectual circumstances subtly different aspects of Newtonianism were appropriated.








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Colin Maclaurin (1698–1746)
An account of Sir Isaac Newton's philosophical discoveries, in four books. Published from the author's manuscript papers... 2nd edition. (London : Printed for A. Millar, 1750). STORE 71:14. Maxwell, James Clerk, 1831–1879, previous owner.

A lineage of fundamentally British scientific ideas is encapsulated in this copy of Colin Maclaurin's Newton's Philosophical Discoveries (1750), owned by another momentous scientific figure, James Clerk Maxwell – like Newton, educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. This text offers a physical, as well as intellectual, link between the ideas of 1689's Principia and Maxwell's 1873 Treatise.

Maclaurin, a British mathematician and fellow of the Royal Society who owed his career to Newton's patronage, gives a hagiographical and nationalistic account of the philosophical importance of Newton, presenting him as a great synthesiser of ideas. The empirical work of others such as the continental astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler is noted but subordinated, the 'philosophical improvement' of their work 'reserved' for Newton. Also notable is a lengthy discussion of Newton's theology, showing the persistent relevance of this facet of Newtonianism to the gentlemanly natural philosopher.


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Henry, Baron Brougham and Brougham (1778–1868) & Edward Routh (1831–1907)
Analytical view of Sir Isaac Newton's Principia (London : Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1855) STORE 70:4

Lord Brougham's Analytical View of Newton's Principia (1855) takes a more parochial view of Newton's importance, taking the wide mass of speculations he made and distilling them to the bare mathematical essentials. Brougham, the founder of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge earlier in the nineteenth century, here caters to a very different audience of educated Cambridge undergraduates aspiring to be 'wranglers' in the Mathematical Tripos. Filled with pages and pages of abstract equations, this educational text reflects the disciplined, efficient and competitive culture surrounding it.






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David Brewster (1781–1868)
Memoirs of the life, writings, and discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton (Edinburgh : T. Constable and Co. ; London : Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1855) STORE 121:17

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Frontispiece from David Brewster's Memoirs after painting by Godfrey Kneller.

David Brewster, another respected man of science and university administrator, offers a lighter view of Newton in this biography from the same year. A near-mythical figure of popular folklore is erected with the increased historical distance. Epitaphs and poems in praise of Newton the national hero are brought together with an account of his life.