A Brief History of Isaac Newton's Apple Tree

Growing in a courtyard garden in the Physics Department here in the University of York we have a grafted cutting from an ancient apple tree which still survives in Newton's garden at Woolsthorpe Manor, his birthplace in Lincolnshire. This is the tree from which it is reputed that Newton saw an apple fall in the late summer of 1666 and which caused him to speculate upon the nature of gravitation. Our tree was given to us by Kew Gardens in 1976.

Newton's Apple Tree growing in the courtyard at the Physics Department, University of York.

The account of Isaac Newton's discovering the principle of universal gravitation by observing the fall of an apple is very well known and usually dismissed as apocryphal. However little can be further from the truth for Newton gave this account of his discovery to several acquaintances which include Voltaire (French philosopher and essayist), John Conduitt (his assistant at the Royal Mint) Catherine Barton (his niece) William Stewkeley (friend and antiquarian), Christopher Dawson (a student at Cambridge) amongst others. The first written account appears in notes on Newton's life collected by John Conduitt in 1726 the year of Newton's death. It states that;

Notes on Newtons life collected by John Conduitt in 1726

he first thought of his system of gravitation which he hit upon by observing an apple fall from a tree,

The incident occurring in the late summer of 1666.

In other accounts it is stated that Newton was sitting in his garden at Woolsthorpe Manor near Grantham in Lincolnshire when the incident occurred.

The first account of their being a specific tree in his garden from which Newton saw the apple fall appears in the book ‘A History of the Town and Soak of Grantham’ by Edmund Turnor FRS (1806) in which there appears the footnote on p160:

The tree is still remaining and is showed to strangers.

His brother the, Rev. Charles Turnor, drew the accompanying picture of the tree in 1820 showing its position with respect to the manor house.

Charles Turnor drawing of the apple tree showing its position with respect to the manor house

Although Newton did not specify from which tree he observed the apple fall it turned out that it was the only apple tree growing in his garden and thus it selected itself.

This was first mentioned by Sir David Brewster when he visited the house in 1830, the account of which was given by George Forbes (Professor of Physics University of Glasgow)

George Forbes account of Sir David Brewster's visit to the house in 1830.

The tree had been cared for since the 1750’s by generations of the Woolerton family, who were tenant farmers who lived in the house from 1733 to 1947. Despite all their efforts to prop the aged tree up, it blew down in a storm in 1816. Some branches were removed but the major portion of the tree was left and re-rooted. The surprising fact is that this tree is still growing at Woolsthorpe Manor today and now must be over 350 years old.

The apple tree at Woolsthorpe Manor, pictured in 1998.

Isaac Newton’s Apple Tree is now on its third set of roots but still provides a good crop of apples each summer. Its appearance in 1998 is shown in the above photograph.

Our Newton Apple Tree Pedigree:

The apple is the extremely rare variety ‘Flower of Kent’ which was first mentioned in the fifteenth century. The tree we have growing here in The Physics Department was provided for us by Kew Gardens in 1976. It came from the Cambridge Botanical Gardens who obtained it from the Fruit Research Station at East Malling in Kent. They obtained their stock from a tree at Belton Park in Lincolnshire in the 1930’s which had been propagated there from Newton’s garden at Woolsthorpe Manor by the Rev Charles Turnor about the year 1820.

Dr Richard Keesing, Department of Physics, University of York.

Godfrey Kneller's 1689 portrait of Sir Isaac Newton aged 46

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