Isaac Newton is one of the most famous scientists of all time. He is best known for his theory of gravity and laws of motion, work he did while he was an academic professor in Cambridge. But he had a second life – as a public figure in London.
There he became involved in practical matters, such as coin making, politics and scientific administration.
London shaped Newton’s reputation, as he rose to new heights of influence and power.
Why did Newton swap university life for the capital?
In 1696, while in his mid-fifties, Newton decided to swap his relatively private, scholarly routine in Cambridge for a much more public one in London. It was a move that would transform his life.
Stories of Newton from his Cambridge years fit – and partly inspired – our image of the abstracted professor or scientific genius. His fellow students and colleagues recalled him as someone so lost in thought that he would forget to finish dressing or know whether he had eaten.
One of Newton’s motivations for leaving Cambridge may have been a recent nervous breakdown, perhaps caused or exacerbated by his intense study of alchemy and theology, as well as the physical sciences.
Feeling that his creative days were behind him, and perhaps also for more personal reasons of friendship and his nonconformist religious belief, he sought alternative employment in the capital.
The Royal Mint
In contrast to his formerly theoretical pursuits, Newton’s first job in London was at the state’s company for coin production, the Royal Mint, based in the Tower of London.
Newton had been recommended by his powerful friend, Charles Montagu, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and President of the Royal Society. As it turned out, Newton was adept in swapping Cambridge scholarship for institutional administration. At the time, the Mint, and consequently Britain's finances, was in crisis. Forgeries were widespread – up to one in ten of all coins.
As Warden of the Mint, Newton rooted out and prosecuted notorious counterfeiters (sending some to the gallows), improved the techniques for the way coin quality is checked (known as assaying), and greatly refined the weights and measures used at the Mint.
He was soon promoted to Master of the Mint – the highest officer in the company and a position of considerable political influence.
Following the Union of England and Scotland in 1707 Newton brought Scottish coinage in line with that of the English. He also improved the purity and accuracy of coin making to a standard that earned the Royal Mint its highly respected international reputation, which it still enjoys today.
The Royal Society
After just five years in the capital, Newton had become an influential political figure as Master of the Mint. In 1702 he completed a second spell as an MP in the House of Commons.
The following year saw him elected to the most prestigious scientific role in Britain, President of the Royal Society of London.
Founded in 1660, the Royal Society had been a hub for the world’s scientific thinkers, publishing reports in its journals and conducting experimental research. By the end of the 1600s, the Society had somewhat stagnated, with membership lower than ever before and lacking leadership or direction.
While his election was not unanimous among the Royal Society’s Council, Newton would win over his critics in galvanising the Society’s activities through his administrative skill and energy.
Unlike his presidential predecessors, he attended almost all council meetings. He also initiated new exciting areas of experimental research, such as the first demonstrations that made electricity visible.
Newton provided stability to the Society, serving as President for 24 years until his death, far longer than any of his predecessors.
Life in London
Newton first resided in Haydon Square, close to the Mint in the Tower of London. After becoming President of the Royal Society and knighted, he moved in 1710 to the fashionable West End district of Leicester fields (now Leicester Square), taking up a grand four-storey town house in St Martin’s Street.
Newton showed little interest in the city’s artistic scene, shirking theatres or music. According to one friend, he ran out halfway way through an opera – the first and last that he attended.
His view on art was similar. Upon seeing the Earl of Pembroke’s renowned collection of statues, he remarked that his host was ‘a lover of stone dolls’. Literature and poetry apparently did not impress him either, the latter he deemed as ‘a kind of ingenious nonsense’.
Instead of artistic leisure, Newton spent his private time studying, following the same philosophical interests he had in Cambridge.
However, his life was not without some aesthetic preferences. In his furnishings, he had a passion for the colour red – crimson draperies, crimson mohair bed with crimson curtains, crimson sofa – in fact, crimson was the only colour mentioned in the inventory of his belongings.
Newton’s London legacy
Newton’s fame at his death is testified to by his celebration in London and beyond. He was buried with due pomp in Westminster Abbey, where his memorial was later erected.
He was eulogised at the Académie des sciences in Paris and celebrated in verse, prose and paint across Europe. Alexander Pope, London’s sharpest poet and satirist at the time of Newton’s death, penned this now-famous epitaph:
Nature, and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night;
God said, Let Newton be! and All was light.
Newtonian philosophy dominated 18th century scientific thought, discussed and disseminated in London’s coffee houses, lecture halls and learned societies.
Newton’s cultural influence on the city is visible today. Outside one of London and Britain’s foremost scholarly institutions, the British Library, sits Eduardo Paolozzi’s giant bronze sculpture depicting Newton with a pair of dividers plotting the universe – inspired by the painting by another famous Londoner, William Blake (1757-1827).