Isaac Newton

The superb Celebration of Britain Series contains 18 coins each honouring Britain's past, people and places. This magnificent new £5 coin is an official product of London 2012 and celebrates the life of Sir Isaac Newton.

Born in 1642 at Woolsthorpe near Grantham in Lincolnshire, Sir Isaac Newton came to be one of the foremost mathematicians and physicists the world has ever seen. The discoveries that he made in the second half of the seventeenth century changed our understanding of the natural world forever. His explanation of gravity and his investigations into the properties of light had a profound impact and he is rightly regarded as one of the greatest scientists of his or any other generation.

Isaac Newton was one of Britain’s greatest scientists and made major contributions in several fields.

Coin Design

Coin depicting Eduardo Paolozzi's sculpture of Isaac Newton

This official UK £5 coin depicts Eduardo Paolozzi’s popular sculpture of Newton along with the quote ‘Make not your thoughts your prisons’ by William Shakespeare and features the Olympic Rings and the London 2012 logo.

The Life of Isaac Newton

Early Life

Isaac Newton was born on 25 December 1642 (Julian/old calendar), to a relatively poor farming family. His father died three months before he was born. His mother later remarried and went to live with her new husband, leaving Isaac in the care of his maternal grandmother.

The young Isaac was educated at Grantham Grammar School in Lincolnshire. He was a top student, but before completing his studies his mother withdrew him from school, so he could work as a farmer. It was only through the intervention of the headmaster, Henry Stokes, that Isaac was able to return to finish his studies.

Cambridge Years

Isaac Newton attended Trinity College, Cambridge where he became interested in mathematics, optics, physics and astronomy.

The years he spent studying and lecturing at Cambridge University were said to be his most productive, however it was the outbreak of the Great Plague in 1664 that indirectly led to his most creative period. At this time the university was closed down and it was in the isolation of his Lincolnshire home that Newton laid the basis for all his great discoveries.

In 1665 Newton began to investigate the phenomenon of gravitation, inspired; legend has it, by seeing an apple fall from a tree in his orchard. During 1665-66 he also developed the binomial theorem and differential and integral calculus.

In 1667, Newton was made a fellow of Trinity College and two years later he was appointed second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. Newton was also interested in the nature of light and the construction of telescopes. From the mid-1660s, he conducted a variety of experiments on the composition of light and discovered that white light is composed of the same system of colours that can be seen in a rainbow. It was Newton's reflecting telescope, made in 1668, that finally brought him to the attention of the scientific community. In 1672 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society.

By 1684 Newton had demonstrated the whole gravitation theory which he published first in De Motu Corporum (1684) and later in Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (1687). This showed how a universal force, gravity, applied to all objects in all parts of the universe.

Later Life/Royal Mint Years

A painting of Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton was appointed Warden of the Royal Mint in the spring of 1696 on the recommendation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Montague.

At first sight this may seem a somewhat curious, even backward, step for a man in his early fifties whose life had been spent in the academic surroundings of Trinity College, Cambridge. Public office was something new to him, but it was actually something that he had sought, and so the offer of the position of Warden of the Mint would not have been unwelcome.

In 1699 Isaac Newton became Master of the Royal Mint; a post which he occupied until his death in 1727. During this time Newton took an active role in reforming the nation’s coinage.

Scrupulously exact, he was an honest and respected man who cared for his reputation. There is no doubt that throughout his 30-year career at the Royal Mint he set a high standard and raised its status by his presence. He is indeed a distinguished part of a distinguished history. In 1704 Newton’s research on light and colour was published in Opticks. He also studied and published works on history, theology and alchemy. Isaac Newton was knighted by Queen Anne in Cambridge in 1705 and is buried at Westminster Abbey.

Front cover of the Isaac Newton story card

Download the Isaac Newton story card

Did you know?

Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day 1642, however there is controversy about this date, some say that he was born on January 4, 1643. The discrepancy is due to the adoption of the new Gregorian calendar.

French writer Voltaire first recorded the story that a falling apple gave Newton the inspiration for his theory of gravitation. Voltaire cited Newton’s niece as his source for the story.