Newton, Apples and the Memoirs of Stukeley


I saw a comment on the other day; a reader had not enjoyed my reference to Newton and the apocryphal apple incident. It is a passing remark that the Colonel makes during a drunken evening:

They both drank then to ‘an interesting death’ and sank into quiet contemplation of their own mortality and those they had lost. Josh found himself thinking about Gossy and wondering what it would have been like if he hadn’t died.

With his new abilities, it should be a simple exercise to go back and change it, but it was forbidden – the colonel was very clear on that point, and Josh was in enough trouble already.

Selephin’s snigger broke his reverie. ‘Do you remember that time we had to inspire Newton?’ he asked, wrapping air quotes around ‘inspire’.

‘How many apples did you have to drop on him in the end?’

‘Fourteen. He was never the sharpest knife in the drawer.’

The reader thought I had been lazy to use such an obvious myth, and in truth it probably was – although in my defence it was meant as a piece of comic relief. I know that one shouldn’t ever really take criticism to heart, but I have spent a long time trying to make the history in the books feel realistic and it irked me that I had failed in this instance.

So I had a look into the background of the now famous apple, and this is what I found:

According to an article by the NewScientist, the only actual document referencing the apple was in a memoir written by William Stukeley, an archaeologist and one of Newton’s first biographers, and published in 1752.   In it Stukeley wrote:

“After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank thea, under the shade of some apple trees…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…”

If you like old documents you should have a look at the beautiful original that has been digitised by the Royal Society archives and can be viewed online.

It seems that Newton was indeed influenced by the idea of apples falling – as a story it was adopted by others of his time (Voltaire made reference to ‘Newton seeing an apple falling from his tree’ in an Essay from 1727) and fifty years later Newton was still said to be using it in conversation (albeit with more embellishment) whilst overseeing the running of the Royal Mint.

What is interesting is the power it had to illustrate a concept in a simple an effective way. The best ideas are usually the ones that are easiest to explain, perhaps that is why it has survived so well through history, not so much myth as a meme, something even Newton himself saw the power of.

There is no doubt I could have used a different anecdote for that particular evening, the men were boasting in front of Josh, a new recruit, I wanted them to make grand claims about their past victories, for me, it worked but I could have written it differently. Choosing obvious points in history has its advantages, the lack of needing to explain them for one. I’m sure Newton did find some inspiration from the fall of an apple – as to whether one hit him on the head – that has never been proved.