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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Marks, MA

A Brief History of Newton’s Apple Tree in Cambridge

What is Newton’s Apple Tree?

Newton’s Apple Tree in Cambridge is a clone of the tree from which an apple (supposedly) fell onto the head of Sir Isaac Newton, inspiring his theory of gravity.

Newton's apple tree clone at Cambridge.

Newton’s Apple Tree History

The scientific legend goes as follows: one bright autumn day in the 1660s, a student of Trinity College, Cambridge, was quietly relaxing in the garden, sitting beneath the canopy of an apple tree. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the wind caused an apple to fall on his head, inspiring him to formulate the theory of universal gravitation. His theory was that all the particles of matter in the universe attract each other through the force of gravity. ‘This is why’, he mused, ‘the apple falls to the ground, and not sideways or upwards, because it is attracted to the earth, and vice versa’. This ‘eureka’ moment would permanently change the way in which scientists thought about the universe, and is still taught today as part of the science curriculum in schools around the world.

This student was, of course, the Enlightenment physicist who we now know as Sir Isaac Newton. And this story, like most legends, is only dubiously based in fact. We know from historical documents, such as the diaries and letters of Newton’s friends, that Newton was certainly fond of telling ‘the apple’ anecdote to describe how he came up with the concept of gravity. However, the question of the location of the tree, as well as when or whether an apple actually fell on Newton’s head, is one which we’ll never be able to answer. It’s more likely that Newton only witnessed an apple falling from a tree, rather than it landing on his head – though the latter makes for a more amusing story.

Across the country, there are a number of trees which scholars and historians think might have a claim to being the one from Newton’s myth. However, popular opinion seems to agree that the most likely ancestor is the ‘Flower of Kent’ apple tree on the Woolsthorpe estate in Lincolnshire. This manor, which is now owned by the National Trust, was Newton’s birthplace and family home, and we know that he spent a great deal of time exploring outdoors, developing his scientific ideas.

Luckily, there’s no need to take the train up to Lincolnshire to commune with Newton’s legacy. In the 1950s, cuttings were taken from the Woolsthorpe tree and planted in both the Cambridge University Botanic Garden and here outside Trinity College, to serve as reminders of Newton’s discovery and his connection to the city. While you’re unable to get too close to the tree, you can still admire it from a distance. Perhaps, if you’re fortuitous, and visiting during autumn, you might also get to see an apple fall from its branches, just like Sir Isaac Newton did 400 years ago.

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