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Newton: the Man 15-21

Simplicity of Life

Still, we may ask, even if Newton did not draw, or paint, himself, he might have been fond of having some beautiful things to look at. Here again we must reply in the negative Even as regards furniture one might think that, in the age when such beautiful pieces were being made, the Master of the Mint and President of the Royal Society might have had some beautiful chests of drawers or fancy tables. Here again we are disappointed: there were no beautiful or valuable pieces of furniture anywhere. In fact, in Newton's own bedroom there was no cupboard, chest of drawers, nor even an oak case; so that I suppose Mrs. Conduitt must have taken charge of her uncle's clothes, and told him what he was to wear. In fact, in the whole house, the only objects (with the exception of the ivory portrait) which might, possibly have becn artistic, were two ``plaistered heads'' in Newton's workroom. They were, however, of no commercial value. There appears to have even been a complete absence in the whole house of anything approaching what we might call ``luxury'' For example, the use of jugs and basins in bed-rooms was not then uncommon. In Newton's house, however, the ablutions appear to have been performed with ``four pales and washing tubs.'' There was also only one pair of silver candlesticks (with snufrers and pan), the others being of brass. Newton only kept one manservant in the house, and he slept in the hall on a ``settle bedstead.''

No Collector

Newton was not a ``collector.'' In fact, Fr. Chute (Spence's Anecdotes) says that ``Sir Isaac Newton, though he scarce ever spoke ill of any man, could hardly avoid showing his contempt for your virtuoso collectors and antiquarians. Speaking of Lord Pembroke once, he said, `Let him have but a stone doll and he is satisfied. I can't imagine the utility of such studies: all their pursuits are below nature'.''

The Medals

Newton had a certain number of ``medals,'' but these (and other things) are described in the ``Inventary'' as :

``Item thirty nine silver medals one silver mould a round piece of brass one small copper medal six lead do. one onyx stone cut two small barrs of gold six gold rings some foreign coins and pieces of gold in a paper one hundred and fifty one ounces of foreign coins and pieces of silver, twenty six copies of English medals in plaister of Paris.''

It appears fairly evident that these were connected with his work at the Mint, and possible also with Newton's researches in Chronology.

Indifference to Poetry

We may say, therefore, definitely that Newton was not artistic, in the sense that we commonly speak of ``art.'' He appears to have had a contempt for the ``beautiful,'' preferring rather to study the strictly ``useful.'' Probably he was a bit like King George II, of whom it is said, ``He didn't like Boetry and he didn't like Bainting.''

Playing Philosophically

Did Newton play games? We know that, even as a boy, he did not take part in outdoor games, such as boys usually play. Brewster quotes Dr. Stukeley as saying that Newton rather strove to ``play philosophically''; or, as Dr. Paris has better expressed it, in the title of his charming little work, to make ``philosophy in sport science in earnest.'' With this view he introduced the flying of paper-kites, and he is said to have investigated their best forms and proportions, as well as the number and position of the points to which the string should be attached.

He constructed also lanterns of ``crimpled paper,'' in which he placed a candle, to light him to school in the dark winter mornings; and in dark nights he tied them to the tails of his kites, ``in order to terrify the country people, who took them for comets.''

Card-Playing

As regards indoor games, we find an entry in his list of expenses, dated 1665, ``Lost at cards twice . . . 0.15.0.'' As there do not appear to have been any other similar entries (and none at all of ``won at cards''), we may presume that he did not continue playing at cards.

Chess

Brewster also quotes from Conduitt's MSS. notes that in a paper book, dated 1659, Newton made an entry:

``Chessmen and dial . . £0. 1. 4.''
Apparently, therefore, Newton played a little at chess. Probably he ``played at chess'' rather than ``played chess.''

Backgammon

In later years Seward tells us that ``Backgammon was a favourite recreation with him, at which he used to play with Flamsteed.'' We can picture to ourselves Flamsteed going to call on Newton in the early morning, being shown into his bedroom, their adjourning to ``The Closet'' (Newton, possibly, in his ``double night cap''), and sitting at the card-table playing backgammon¹ whilst drinking chocolate. We may even imagine, later, the barber arriving to shave Newton, Newton reclining on the ``crimson sattee'' for that purpose.

Continuing our dream, we may imagine Mrs. Conduitt coming into his room in order to tell ``Uncle Isaac'' what clothes he was to wear; and, possibly, reminding him that as the King was going to the Mint, he must not forget to put on his sword. In due course the manservant brings up his master's well-brushed and combed wig on its ``perruque stand,'' and Newton, having ordered his sedan-chair to be brought round, the servant hails chair-porters for that purpose. Finally, Newton, having selected one of his two sticks, goes downstairs and enters his sedan-chair, on his way to the Mint. In going to the Mint, it would appear most probable that he went by the river - from a spot near Charing Cross, say. It is not known if the Master of the Mint had an official ``barge'' or ``galley'' in those days. It is not improbable.

``Diamond'' a Myth

Was Newton fond of animals and children? As far as we can ascertain at present he was not. We are told that he never had any pet animal. The oft-repeated story of his dog ``Diamond'' is therefore somewhat apocryphal. Maude, in his Wensleydale, says that there was a person then living who was prepared to vouch for the truth of the story. As the date of this book is 1787, and the ``Diamond'' incident is supposed to have occurred more than one hundred years before this, I should not be inclined to value the evidence of this person very highly.

The Story of the Candle

If the tale is really true (and it is not impossible) it must have had reference to somebody else's dog, which went into Newton's room. The story appears to improve with time, since an American author has, quite lately, told us that the dog was called ``Diamond'' because it had a black spot shaped like a diamond just at the root of its tail. Also, in the Rev. Isaac Hartill's The Life Story of Sir Isaac Newton, the dog ``Diamond'' is portrayed as a sort of a spaniel with a white diamond on a black background on its forehead. Newton, apparently, did not like animals. This does not mean to imply that he disliked them, for we cannot imagine his having been unkind to anything.

Family Relations

We likewise have no records that he cared for children - as children - though he was very kind and thoughtful towards his relations, since we have records that he bought oranges for his sisters, and other such nice little attentions.

The ``Desire for Gain''

And now as to Newton's love of money, or, as some have it, Newton's ``desire of gain,'' about which there has been a good deal of discussion. Seward, in the Supplement to the Anecdotes of Some Distinguished Men (1797), under the heading ``Sir Isaac Newton,'' says :

``Sir Isaac Newton, indeed, was in one respect but too like the common race of mortals; his desire of gain induced him to have some concern in the fatal Bubble of the South Sea; by which (as his niece used to say) he lost twenty thousand pounds. Of this, however, he never much liked to hear; nor, perhaps, should it ever be mentioned, but to warn mankind against the indulgence of a passion which rendered the character of this wonder of humanity imperfect, and which has, too often, entailed disgrace and ruin on those who have improvidently suffered themselves to be governed bv it.''

The Charge of Gambling

The suggestion here - it is really more than a ``suggestion,'' since it is a deliberate statement - is that Newton indulged in ``gambling'' from ``greed of gain.'' I use the words ``gambling'' and ``greed of gain,'' since ``desire of gain'' does not express what Seward really means. ``Love of gain'' is natural and commendable; ``greed of gain'' is quite another and very vicious quality. Further, Newton is supposed to have muddled the affair and lost £20,000. Consequently he never liked to speak or hear of this. From this Seward says that ``this wonder of humanity'' was ``imperfect.''

The South Sea Transaction

That Newton had dealings in South Sea Stock is beyond doubt; this is a fact, since at his death he held £5,000 in South Sea ``Capital Stock'' and £5,000 in South Sea ``Annuities.'' We have sworn evidence of this; but there is no suggestion of ``greed.'' What are the other facts of the case, as far as one can recover them at the present day?

The Order

Among the Royal Society's Newtoniana there is a note by Newton, which is as follows:

``MINT OFFICE, 27th July, 1720.

``Sir,
I desire you to subscribe for me and in my name the several Annuities you have in your hands belonging to me amounting in the whole to six hundred and fifty pounds per ann. for which this shall be your warrant.
``ISAAC NEWTON. ``To Dr. John Francis ffauquier.''

Wollaston's Letter

This note was presented to the Royal Society by Dr Wollaston with the following letter:

DORSET STREET, December 4, 1828.

``Dr. Wollaston has desired that an autograph of Sir Isaac Newton be presented to the Royal Society.

``It is an order, addressed by Newton to Dr. Francis Fauquier¹, directing him to supply certain sums in his possession belonging to Newton in purchasing on Newton's account South Sea Stock; and is dated July 27th, 1720, a time when the price of that stock had nearly reached its maximum.

Suppression of the Transaction

``Dr. Wollaston, not knowing that any such occurrence in the life of Newton had ever been made public, was for many years unwilling to divulge this transaction; but, having found that the losses which Newton sustained by the South Sea scheme have been noticed in the biographical memoir drawn up on the authority of Mr. Conduitt, who married the niece of Newton, he no longer hesitates to present the document; being satisfied that it will be considered by every reflecting mind an instructive instance of the soundest understanding being liable to have its judgment perverted by the appearance of enormous profit; and to forget that such profit can only be aimed at with proportionate risk of failure.''

Gambling Charge Refuted

These reflections of Dr. Wollaston on this transaction are certainly not warranted by the facts. His suppression of this note for so many years - his suppressio veri, to put it brutally - I will not comment on; but his deductions from it, which are the important thing, I certainly cannot accept. His idea is, apparently, that Newton bought (with cash) South Sea Stock when it had ``nearly reached its maximum''; and therefore he lost money! That, in fact, Newton gambled wildly - for it would have been an extraordinary wild gamble to have bought stock at such a very inflated price. The suggestion also that one could thus make ``an enormous profit'' from such a transaction is more than childish; such a suggestion appears to me to approach midsummer madness. Could I believe such a thing I should be inclined to think that Newton in his old age had become a ``greedy old fool.''

Newton's Cool Temperament

Newton was essentially of a phlegmatic disposition; he was of a cool, nol to say cold, temperament. We never hear that he was excited over anything; the well-known and oft-repeated ``moon-calculation'' story I consider absurd. That at seventy-eight years of age he should suddenly give way and risk a very large sum of money on a chance that was heavily weighted against him surpasses belief. That he was well aware of the situation is quite evident, for Lord Radnor (Spence's Anecdotes) relates that : ``When Sir Isaac Newton was asked about the rising of the South Sea Stock, he answered that he could not calculate the madness of the people.''

The Explanation

Luckily there is another reading of this transaction which is not so wild, and which agrees well with Newton's character, as we know it. Further, it does not involve any gambling in the transaction at all Dr. Wollaston is very inaccurate in his statement of the facts. Newton's note does not mention either of the words ``sum'' or ``purchase.'' His words are ``Annuities'' and ``subscribe''; the exact meaning of these words is very important, and will be evident later. To make a parallel case. Supposing that a farmer had some pigs of mine, and I wanted to exchange them for sheep, you would not call my pigs a ``sum of money''; nor would you say that I had, purchased ``sheep with this ``sum of money.'' The word ``subscribe'' (as will appear later) was really equivalent to ``exchange,'' and not to ``purchase.''

In order to explain myself properly, let me recapitulate a few of the leading facts about the South Sea Company, as given by the best authorities who have written on it. These facts can easily be verified by reference to the ``Minutes'' of the Company, which are in the British Museum.

Back to pages 7-15 or Forward to pages 22-29


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