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Teaching Newton at the University of Cambridge.

‘After having dispatch’d the Matters of pure Astronomy, we proceed unto the other Part of our Work, the Philosophy of the Famous Sir Isaac Newton. For we are purpos’d to trace the Steps of that Great Man, and to set forth his principal and most noble Philosophical Inventions in a more easy Method; so that we may bring that (as I may say) Divine Philosophy within the Reach and Comprehension of those, who are but indifferently perhaps exercis’d in the Mathematicks, and communicate the Knowledge thereof as far as may be,’

William Whiston, Sir Isaac Newton’s Mathetmatick Philosophy More Easily Demonstrated (London, 1716), p. 1.

cambridge Newton1

Whiston’s Sir Isaac Newton’s mathematick philosophy more easily demonstrated (London, 1716), detail.

It is perhaps ironic that the first professor to teach Newtonian ideas at Cambridge was perhaps the least able to communicate his ideas to a young undergraduate audience: Newton himself. We are told by Newtonians such as William Whiston (1667-1752) that though he had on occasion attended lectures by Newton he (and the rest of the student body) could make little of them and at times Newton was reduced to lecturing to an empty hall. Whiston had entered Clare College in 1686 and graduated BA in 1689. By 1693 he was a senior fellow in Exeter College but it was only in the following year that he began to study the Principia, encouraged to do so by a paper by the Scottish Newtonian, David Gregory (1659-1708). Thereafter he approached the promotion of Newtonianism with the zeal of a convert. Today he is best known, not only for the plethora of texts he produced in order to attain this goal, but also for his application of Newtonian astronomical theory to theology and his too zealous adherence to aspects of Newtonianism which Newton himself had rather left covert.

Whiston’s initial work, his A New Theory of the Earth was published at London in 1696. During his university career Whiston concentrated on producing guides to Newton’s works, whether it was in the form of publishing Newton’s own lectures (Arithmetica Universalis of 1707) or his own astronomical lectures, the Praelectiones astronomicae (Cambridge, 1707) or the Praelectiones physico-mathematicae (Cambridge, 1710) three years later which presented Newtonian ideas on astronomy, physics and mathematics in an easily digestible form for undergraduates. These two sets of lectures by Whiston were later translated into English asAstronomical lectures, read in the publick schools at Cambridge> (London, 1715) and Sir Isaac Newton’s Mathematick Philosophy More Easily Demonstrated (London, 1716) and were collected by Worth in their English translations. Their subsequent editions attest to the popularity of the texts, not only among young Cambridge undergraduate but also in the wider world. These textbooks represent Whiston’s academic teaching at the height of his career as third Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. With Newton’s support he had been appointed to this prestigious post in May 1702 and even before this had acted as Newton’s deputy in the post. His thirty-one astronomical lectures cover the period 27 January 1701 to 6 December 1703 while his forty-one lecture series on Newtonian mathematical physics lasted from 7 February 1704 to early December 1708. By February 1709 Whiston had moved on to study solar and lunar eclipses, and from 1707 onwards he had accompanied his lecture series with a course on experimental philosophy, which he taught with Roger Cotes, the Plumian Professor of Astronomy. 1707 was a good year for Whiston: he was invited to give the prestigious Boyle Lectures for that year and he also produced an edition of Newton’s own lectures on algebra, the Arithmetica Universalis at Cambridge.

By October 1710, everything had gone wrong for Whiston. Beginning c. 1706-7 Whiston had begun to doubt the doctrine of the Trinity. He was probably influenced in this regards by both Newton and Samuel Clarke but unlike Newton, Whiston went public about his new beliefs and in October 1710 was expelled from the University of Cambridge for heresy. He moved to London and became involved in the lucrative business of experimental lecturing, forming a partnership with Francis Hauksbee the Younger and endeavouring to spread his anti-Trinitarianism and Newtonianism with equal zeal. Indeed, as is made clear in the investigation of some of his theological works in the ‘Newton and Theologians’ section of this website, Whiston did not see them as being separate entities. He was well aware that Newton’s own theology was heterodox. Whiston’s theological outpourings subsequently led to a breach with Newton. They did so not because Newton disagreed with Whiston’s anti-Trinitarianism, but because Newton was desperate to keep his unorthodox views secret. He therefore strongly disapproved of Whiston’s activities in London and elsewhere.

Whiston’s astronomical and natural philosophical lectures at Cambridge were considerably less controversial, though he did at times present Newtonian ideas with rather more certainty than their original author had done so. Worth’s purchase of Whiston’s Sir Isaac Newton’s mathematick philosophy more easily demonstrated is not surprising, given that it was, as Cohen (1972) reminds us ‘the first extended commentary on the Principia to have been published’. It is important to realise that it was appealing to ready market. Even before Whiston’s popular lecture courses at Cambridge, Newtonianism had been steadily overtaking Cartesianism in natural philosophical teaching there. In 1695, Samuel Clarke, a student at Caius College, had presented the first Newtonian thesis at Cambridge and, as Hall (2001) demonstrates, centres of Newtonianism were developing at Trinity, Clare and Corpus Christi Colleges from the late 1690s onwards.


Cohen, I. B. (1972), Introduction in William Whiston’s Sir Isaac Newton’s Mathematick Philosophy More Easily Demonstrated.

Hall, A. Rupert (2001), ‘Cambridge: Newton’s Legacy’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 55, no. 2, pp. 205-26.

Snobelen, Stephen D. (1998), ‘On reading Isaac Newton’s Principia in the 18th Century’, Endeavour 22 no. 4, pp 159-163.

Snobelen, Stephen D. and Stewart, Larry (2003), ‘Making Newton easy: William Whiston in Cambridge and London’, in Kevin C. Know and Richard Noakes (eds) From Newton to Hawking. A History of Cambridge University’s Lucasian Professors of Mathematics (Cambridge), pp. 135-170.

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