On Christmas day, in the
year 1642, Isaac Newton was born at the small village of Woolsthorpe, in England. Little did his mother
think, when she beheld her newborn
babe, that he was destined to explain many matters which had been a mystery ever since the creation of
Isaac's father being
dead, Mrs. Newton was married again to a clergyman, and went to reside at North Witham. Her son was
left to the care of his good old
grandmother, who was very kind to him and sent him to school. In his early years Isaac did not appear to be a
very bright scholar, but was chiefly
remarkable for his ingenuity in all mechanical occupations. He had a set of little tools and saws of various
sizes manufactured by himself. With
the aid of these Isaac contrived to make many curious articles, at which he worked with so much skill
that he seemed to have been born
with a saw or chisel in hand.
The neighbors looked
with vast admiration at the things which Isaac manufactured. And his old grandmother, I suppose, was never
weary of talking about him.
"He'll make a capital
workman one of these days," she would probably say. "No fear but what Isaac will do well in the world and be
a rich man before he dies."
It is amusing to
conjecture what were the anticipations of his grandmother and the neighbors about Isaac's future life. Some
of them, perhaps, fancied that he
would make beautiful furniture of mahogany, rosewood, or polished oak, inlaid with ivory and ebony, and magnificently gilded. And then, doubtless, all
the rich people would purchase these
fine things to adorn their drawing-rooms. Others probably thought that little Isaac was destined
to be an architect, and would build
splendid mansions for the nobility and gentry, and churches too, with the tallest steeples that had ever
been seen in England.
Some of his friends, no
doubt, advised Isaac's grandmother to apprentice him to a clock-maker; for, besides his mechanical
skill, the boy seemed to have a
taste for mathematics, which would be very useful to him in that profession. And then, in due time, Isaac
would set up for himself, and would
manufacture curious clocks, like those that contain sets of dancing figures, which issue from the dial-plate
when the hour is struck; or like
those where a ship sails across the face of the clock, and is seen tossing up and down on the waves as
often as the pendulum vibrates.
Indeed, there was some
ground for supposing that Isaac would devote himself to the manufacture of clocks; since he had already
made one, of a kind which nobody had
ever heard of before. It was set a-going, not by wheels and weights like other clocks, but by the dropping
of water. This was an object of
great wonderment to all the people round about; and it must be confessed that there are few boys,
or men either, who could contrive
to tell what o'clock it is by means of a bowl of water.
Besides the water-clock,
Isaac made a sundial. Thus his grandmother was never at a loss to know the hour; for the
water-clock would tell it in the
shade, and the dial in the sunshine. The sundial is said to be still in existence at Woolsthorpe, on the corner
of the house where Isaac dwelt. If
so, it must have marked the passage of every sunny hour that has elapsed since Isaac Newton was a boy. It
marked all the famous moments of
his life; it marked the hour of his death; and still the sunshine creeps slowly over it, as regularly as
when Isaac first set it up.
Yet we must not say that
the sundial has lasted longer than its maker; for Isaac Newton will exist long after the dial--yes, and
long after the sun itself--shall
have crumbled to decay.
Isaac possessed a
wonderful faculty of acquiring knowledge by the simplest means. For instance, what method do you
suppose he took to find out the
strength of the wind? You will never guess how the boy could compel that unseen, inconstant, and
ungovernable wonder, the wind, to
tell him the measure of its strength. Yet nothing can be more simple. He jumped against the wind; and by the
length of his jump he could
calculate the force of a gentle breeze, a brisk gale, or a tempest. Thus, even in his boyish sports, he was
continually searching out the
secrets of philosophy.
Not far from his
grandmother's residence there was a windmill which operated on a new plan. Isaac was in the habit of
going thither frequently, and would
spend whole hours in examining its various parts. While the mill was at rest he pried into its
internal machinery. When its broad
sails were set in motion by the wind, he watched the process by which the mill-stones were made to revolve
and crush the grain that was put
into the hopper. After gaining a thorough knowledge of its construction he was observed to be unusually busy
with his tools.
It was not long before
his grandmother and all the neighborhood knew what Isaac had been about. He had constructed a model of the
windmill. Though not so large, I
suppose, as one of the box traps which boys set to catch squirrels, yet every part of the mill
and is machinery was complete. Its
little sails were neatly made of linen, and whirled round very swiftly when the mill was placed in a
draught of air. Even a puff of wind
from Isaac's mouth or from a pair of bellows was sufficient to set the sails in motion. And, what was most
curious, if a handful of grains of
wheat were put into the little hopper, they would soon be converted into snow-white flour.
Isaac's playmates were
enchanted with his new windmill. They thought that nothing so pretty and so wonderful had ever been seen in
the whole world.
"But, Isaac," said one
of them, "you have forgotten one thing that belongs to a mill."
"What is that?" asked
Isaac; for he supposed that, from the roof of the mill to its foundation, be had forgotten nothing.
"Why, where is the
miller?" said his friend.
"That is true,--I must
look out for one," said Isaac; and he set himself to consider how the deficiency should be
He might easily have
made the miniature figure of a man; but then it would not have been able to move about and
perform the duties of a miller. As
Captain Lemuel Gulliver had not yet discovered the island of Lilliput, Isaac did not know that there were
little men in the world whose size
was just suited to his windmill. It so happened, however, that a mouse had just been caught in the trap;
and, as no other miller could be
found, Mr. Mouse was appointed to that important office. The new miller made a very respectable appearance in
his dark gray coat. To be sure, he
had not a very good character for honesty, and was suspected of sometimes stealing a portion of the grain
which was given him to grind. But
perhaps some two-legged millers are quite as dishonest as this small quadruped.
As Isaac grew older, it
was found that he had far more important matters in his mind than the manufacture of toys like the
little windmill. All day long, if
left to himself, he was either absorbed in thought or engaged in some book of mathematics or natural
philosophy. At night, I think it
probable, he looked up with reverential curiosity to the stars, and wondered whether they were worlds like our
own, and how great was their
distance from the earth, and what was the power that kept them in their courses. Perhaps, even so early in life,
Isaac Newton felt a presentiment
that he should be able, hereafter, to answer all these questions.
When Isaac was fourteen
years old, his mother's second husband being now dead, she wished her son to leave school and
assist her in managing the farm at
Woolsthorpe. For a year or two, therefore, he tried to turn his attention to farming. But his mind was so bent
on becoming a scholar that his
mother sent him back to school, and afterwards to the University of Cambridge.
I have now finished my
anecdotes of Isaac Newton's boyhood. My story would be far too long were I to mention all the splendid
discoveries which he made after he
came to be a man. He was the first that found out the nature of light; for, before his day, nobody could
tell what the sunshine was composed
of. You remember, I suppose, the story of an apple's falling on his head, and thus leading him to discover
the force of gravitation, which
keeps the heavenly bodies in their courses. When he had once got hold of this idea, he never
permitted his mind to rest until he
had searched out all the laws by which the planets are guided through the sky. This he did as thoroughly as if
he had gone up among the stars and
tracked them in their orbits. The boy had found out the mechanism of a windmill; the man explained to his
fellow-men the mechanism of the
While making these
researches he was accustomed to spend night after night in a lofty tower, gazing at the heavenly
bodies through a telescope. His mind
was lifted far above the things of this world. He may be said, indeed, to have spent the greater
part of his life in worlds that lie
thousands and millions of miles away; for where the thoughts and the heart are, there is our true
Did you never hear the
story of Newton and his little dog Diamond? One day, when he was fifty years old, and had been hard at
work more than twenty years studying
the theory of light, he went out of his chamber, leaving his little dog asleep before the fire. On the
table lay a heap of manuscript
papers, containing all the discoveries which Newton had made during those twenty years. When his master was
gone, up rose little Diamond,
jumped upon the table, and overthrew the lighted candle. The papers immediately caught fire.
Just as the destruction
was completed Newton opened the chamber door, and perceived that the labors of twenty years were reduced to a
heap of ashes. There stood little
Diamond, the author of all the mischief. Almost any other man would have sentenced the dog to immediate
death. But Newton patted him on the
head with his usual kindness, although grief was at his heart.
"O Diamond, Diamond,"
exclaimed he, "thou little knowest the mischief then hast done!"
This incident affected
his health and spirits for some time afterwards; but, from his conduct towards the little dog, you
may judge what was the sweetness of
Newton lived to be a
very old man, and acquired great renown, and was made a member of Parliament, and received the
honor of knighthood from the king.
But he cared little for earthly fame and honors, and felt no pride in the vastness of his knowledge. All that
he had learned only made him feel
how little he knew in comparison to what remained to be known.
"I seem to myself like a
child," observed he, "playing on the sea-shore, and picking up here and there a curious shell or a
pretty pebble, while the boundless
ocean of Truth lies undiscovered before me."
At last, in 1727, when
he was fourscore and five years old, Sir Isaac Newton died,--or rather, he ceased to live on earth. We may
be permitted to believe that he is
still searching out the infinite wisdom and goodness of the Creator as earnestly, and with even more
success, than while his spirit
animated a mortal body. He has left a fame behind him which will be as endurable as if his name
were written in letters of light
formed by the stars upon the midnight sky.