Growing in a courtyard garden within the School lives a remnant of Isaac Newton's past - an ancient apple tree.
This growing apple tree started life as a grafted cutting, which was taken from Newton's garden at his home Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire. In the late summer of 1666, that very tree helped Isaac Newton to question the nature of gravitation.
Our tree started its life in Newton's garden at Woolsthorpe Manor in about the year 1820, where it was propagated by Rev. Charles Turnor. From Newton's garden our tree cutting travelled to: Belton Park in the 1930s, then a Fruit Research Station in East Malling in Kent, to Cambridge Botanical Gardens and finally to Kew Gardens who gifted the tree to us in 1976.
The apples our tree grows are an extremely rare variety called ‘Flower of Kent’, which were first mentioned in the 15th century.
Isaac Newton's discovery of universal gravitation by observing the fall of an apple is universally known. Some people dismiss it as a lucky encounter, but in fact there is value in the story.
Newton gave the account of this discovery to several acquaintances who include: Voltaire (French philosopher and essayist), John Conduitt (his assistant at Royal Mint), Catherine Barton (his niece), William Stewkeley (friend and antiquarian) and Christopher Dawson (a student at Cambridge) among 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: "he first thought of his system of gravitation which he hit upon by observing an apple fall from a tree".
The event occurred in the late summer of 1666. Other accounts state that Newton was sitting in his garden at Woolsthorpe Manor when the event occurred. The first account of there 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 the footnote of page 160: 'The tree is still remaining and is showed to strangers'.
Edmund Turnor's brother, Rev. Charles Turnor, drew the accompanying picture of the tree in 1820 showing its position with respect to the manor house.
Although Newton did not specify which tree he observed the apple fall from, there was only one tree growing in Newton’s garden. This is first noted by Sir David Brewster when he visited the house in 1830, mentioned in an account given by George Forbes (Professor of Physics, University of Glasgow).
Generations of the Woolerton family cared for the tree; they were tenant farmers and lived in the house from 1733 to 1947. Sadly, in 1816 despite their best efforts, the tree was blown down in a storm. Some branches were removed but a large portion of the tree was left and re-rooted. Surprisingly, this tree is still growing at Woolsthorpe Manor today and now is over 350 years old.
Our tree at the University of York remains rooted in the present day, but it serves as a reminder that questioning the conventional can lead to extraordinary discoveries. Our apple tree is a slice of history, but Isaac Newton's thinking resonates to this day.
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