Newton's Tyranny: The Suppressed Scientific Discoveries of Stephen Gray

Newton's Tyranny: The Suppressed Scientific Discoveries of Stephen Gray

by David H. Clark, Clark Stephen P. H.

One of the great figures in history, Sir Isaac Newton personifies the triumph of scientific reason over ignorance. Yet for all his contributions to the Enlightenment, Newton was a deeply complex man who sometimes aggressively tried to obscure the intellectual achievements of others.

Newton’s Tyranny is the story of two men who felt the full wrath of


One of the great figures in history, Sir Isaac Newton personifies the triumph of scientific reason over ignorance. Yet for all his contributions to the Enlightenment, Newton was a deeply complex man who sometimes aggressively tried to obscure the intellectual achievements of others.

Newton’s Tyranny is the story of two men who felt the full wrath of the great man’s hostility—the Reverend John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, and Stephen Gray, a humble dyer and amateur scientist. United not only by a love of science, but by a bitter and protracted conflict with Newton, the two men made significant contributions to science despite the obstacles that Newton placed in their path. Gray produced the first experiment in electrical communications, and Flamsteed pioneered observational astronomy and navigation.

Drawing upon letters and historical documents, Newton’s Tyranny vividly recreates the British scientific community of the early 18th century. It was an era of great achievement, but the crucible of science was often heated by Machiavellian intrigue, uncontrollable ambition, and larger-than-life personalities. Against this dramatic setting, the saga of Newton, Flamsteed and Gray unfolds, a story of loyalty and commitment against great odds.

A fascinating look at a forgotten piece of science history, Newton’s Tyranny exposes the dark side of a flawed genius while celebrating the ultimate triumph of two unsung heroes.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A fascinating new angle on an important episode in 17th century science."

—Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and author of Just Six Numbers

"This is an amazing, fascinating and beautifully written story of scientific intrigue and bullying. After reading this book I can guarantee that your view of Sir Isaac Newton as a person will never be the same again!"

—Colin Humphreys, Cambridge University

In a story reminiscent of Sobel's , an Engineering and Physical Science Research Council director and his Cambridge U. student son expose the unenlightened side of an Enlightenment genius while celebrating little-known pioneers in electrical communications and observational astronomy. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: The Complex Paths to Truth

"Sir Isaac worked with the ore I had dug."
--John Flamsteed

"If he dug the ore, I made the gold ring."
--Isaac Newton

"Stephen Gray was the Father, at least first propagator, of electricity."
--William Stukeley, contemporary biographer of Newton


It is a short but picturesque boat journey from the City of London, down the river Thames, to the village of Greenwich. On a bitterly cold spring morning in April 1704 it was a somewhat unusual and unexpected journey for Sir Isaac Newton to be making. Newton was one of the most famous people in the nation. He was the man who had revealed the nature of gravity, invented the calculus, unlocked the secrets of light, and brought a new understanding to the forces that control the universe.

Newton was acclaimed by his supporters to be the finest philosopher of this or any previous age. John Locke, a genius himself, referred to "The incomparable Mr. Newton." The simple myth that truth had been revealed to him by a falling apple added to an aura of veneration surrounding the great man. Such was Isaac Newton's fame, that the King of England had appointed him to one of the most important and highly paid positions in the land as the Master of the Royal Mint.

* * *

The appointment to the Mint was seen as an appropriate recognition and reward for the man who had redefined human understanding. Newton had taken on his new mantle of eminence with style, commitment and dignity. A knighthood from Queen Anne followed, with Newton being the first scientist to be so recognized. His journey to Greenwich this spring morning, however, had nothing to do with his official responsibilities at the Mint, or his new prominent position in London society. Its purpose was entirely sinister. The great Sir Isaac Newton was travelling to Greenwich to seek revenge, determined to rekindle the embers of an old feud.

* * *

Newton was visiting an old adversary, the Astronomer Royal--the Reverend John Flamsteed. Although Newton and Flamsteed had known each other for thirty years, and had once been close, the two men had barely communicated for the past eight years. It was a strange decision by Newton to renew contact now.

* * *

John Flamsteed viewed the pending arrival of his illustrious guest this April morning with deep foreboding. He had held the appointment of Astronomer Royal for almost thirty years and had, despite persistent ill health, dedicated that time to conducting careful and accurate observations of the heavens. Flamsteed was widely admired in the world of astronomy, but had been saddened to earn the wrath of the great Isaac Newton. Having been informed by penny post a few days earlier that Newton planned to visit about one hour before noon, Flamsteed was now waiting in the upper Octagon room of the observatory looking out over Greenwich park. The splendid Octagon room had been designed by Wren to house the telescopes and clocks needed for precision observations of the heavens. On a normal day, Flamsteed would have been asleep at this time following a full night's observing from either the Octagon room or an observing shed in the Observatory grounds. His disposition was therefore not improved by now being deprived of much deserved sleep. Catching his first glimpse of Newton climbing the hill, he went out to greet him.

Flamsteed was four years Newton's junior, but in physical appearance looked very much older. He had suffered poor health since childhood, and was now crippled with gout.

* * *

The burden of physical weakness and persistent ill health led to frustration and a sharp temper. He was humorless and cantankerous. These life-long unattractive characteristics can be explained in part by his having to endure almost constant physical pain. His family and friends quickly learned that one should stay well clear when young John was suffering from one of his frequent migraine headaches. His father had sent him to Ireland in search of a miracle cure for his rheumatic limbs from a faith healer. Undeterred by failure, he visited the faith healer a second time when he visited Liverpool--with a similar outcome. Being confined to home with ill health gave him time to study astronomy, which rapidly became an obsession. Astronomy provided Flamsteed with an intellectual escape from the misery of persistent illness.

Flamsteed met Newton at the observatory gate. The greeting between the two old adversaries lacked warmth, but they each observed the standard courtesies; inquiring after each other's health and commenting on the severity of the frost. Flamsteed escorted his guest to the domestic quarters beneath the observatory, where Mrs. Flamsteed was preparing coffee for their honored guest.

* * *

After serving coffee, and adding more wood to the fire, Mrs. Flamsteed excused herself. She was an intelligent woman with scientific interests in her own right. She had been a diligent assistant to John Flamsteed in his astronomical observations, frequently sitting through cold nights with him recording his measurements. Mrs. Flamsteed was fiercely protective of her husband's work, and shared his concern about the possible purpose of Newton's visit. However she realized that her further presence at their meeting would have been inappropriate.

The purpose of Newton's visit was to insist that Flamsteed should publish the results of his thirty years of observing at Greenwich. Flamsteed was a perfectionist, and did not wish to publish his results until the heavens had been completely surveyed and he could produce a definitive catalogue of the stars. But Newton still wanted to get Flamsteed's data, to produce a theory of the Moon's motion that he could include as the centerpiece of a new edition of the Principia that he had been planning for some time. Newton was convinced that Flamsteed possessed observations that would enable him to develop a valid theory for the Moon's motion, and that Flamsteed had deliberately withheld these observations in their earlier interactions. Newton believed that Flamsteed already held the key to the final validation of his grand theory of gravity and to the solution of the longitude problem. The reality was that Flamsteed had in 1694 and 1695 passed to Newton all the lunar data he genuinely felt were valid; there was no withheld treasure chest of lunar data. But so deep were Newton's suspicions, that he would never accept this fact.

Over the preceding months Newton had developed a Machiavellian plan to extract from Flamsteed all of his data. He knew he could get royal support to force an early publication of Flamsteed's results; or at least those lunar and planetary observations that Newton needed to complete a new version of the Principia. As a second part of his plan, Newton was working with others to get a new astronomical observatory established at his old Cambridge College, Trinity, to challenge the status of Flamsteed at Greenwich as the prime source of astronomical observations. Newton's plan was a complex one, and its true complexity would certainly not be revealed to Flamsteed.

Newton's confidence of securing royal support for an early publication of Flamsteed's results was based on a rather unusual family connection to the inner sanctums of the Royal Court. Newton had an attractive young niece called Elizabeth Barton. She was the daughter of one of Newton's stepsisters, from his mother's marriage to Barnabas Smith. When Newton moved to London, Elizabeth Barton was sent to housekeep for her uncle. Such was her beauty and flirtatious wit, that she acquired many suitors amongst the social visitors to Newton's house. A most unlikely suitor was Baron Halifax. As Chancellor of the Exchequer (the government minister in charge of the Treasury) Halifax was as close to the monarch as anyone in the Kingdom. It was Halifax, whom Newton had known at Cambridge as Charles Montague, who had organized the position for him at the Mint. After leaving Cambridge Montague had risen quickly to become a political star, and King William had made him a Baron. He became infatuated with Newton's pretty niece. Halifax was fat, forty, and far from handsome. But he was rich and powerful, and by 1703 he and Elizabeth Barton were lovers. Voltaire, who was a supporter of Newton and promoted the importance of his work throughout Europe, was later to observe:

"In my youth I thought that Newton had made his fortune by his great merit. I had supposed that the Court and the City of London had named him Master of the Mint by acclamation. Not at all. Isaac Newton had a very charming niece: she greatly pleased the Lord of the Treasury, Halifax. The infinitesimal calculus and gravity would have availed nothing without a pretty niece."

The Halifax-Barton affair scandalized London society, and with his puritan upbringing Isaac Newton could hardly have condoned it. Nevertheless he was prepared to use this unlikely family connection when it suited his purposes.

From Halifax, Newton had established that Prince George of Denmark, the consort to the newly crowned Queen Anne, was interested in astronomy. Halifax, with Newton's encouragement, was able to ascertain that Prince George would be willing to support the early publication of Flamsteed's work. Indeed he would make the monies available to pay for the publication. He would also agree that the Royal Society should be given the job of overseeing the publication. What could be more natural than the work of the Astronomer Royal being published with Royal patronage, under the control of the Royal Society (with Newton as its President)? The scheme seemed to be perfect. How could Flamsteed, as the Astronomer Royal, possibly refuse such Royal interest in his work?

Newton's manner was one of forced courtesy during the discussions with the Astronomer Royal. He inquired as to how Flamsteed's catalogue of the stars was progressing. The survey had already taken almost thirty years, so it was not unreasonable to assume that it was nearing completion. Newton raised the issue of how quickly Flamsteed might make his results available for printing, should royal support be forthcoming. Newton knew, but Flamsteed did not, that royal funding would almost certainly be forthcoming. Flamsteed, not wishing to display any misgivings about his own work (although much still remained to be done, even after three decades, to bring his observations to his desired state of perfection), gave a reasonably encouraging reply. And he was flattered to learn that Newton was prepared to seek royal funding for the publication.

Mrs. Flamsteed interrupted the lengthy conversation, returning to inquire whether Newton would be staying for a meal. He would take some more coffee and eat a little cold meat with some bread. However he did not have time for a more substantial meal, since he had arranged for the boatman to return to collect him an hour after noon. Newton agreed to write with further proposals on how progress should be made.

And so Newton bade his farewell, urging Flamsteed to "Do all the good in your power". Flamsteed assured him that that had always been his intent, but caustically noted in his record of the meeting "though I do not know that it ever has been of his."

Flamsteed returned to the Octagon room, and peered after the retreating figure of Newton walking down the hill towards the river. He could see no good coming from the visit. He was right to be concerned since Newton's plans would precipitate a series of events that would set back the cause of science by decades.

Newton, reflecting during the boat journey back to the Mint on the events of the morning, was well pleased. His plans were taking shape. This time Flamsteed would be forced to do his will. There would be no escape for the irascible Astronomer Royal.

Canterbury Tales

Some sixty miles southeast of Greenwich is the ecclesiastical City of Canterbury. The magnificent cathedral dominates the City. There has been a monastery on the site since the 7th century, but the cathedral dates from Norman times (with later extensions and embellishments). Walking around the Cathedral is like stepping back into the history books, and into the monumental events of the Middle Ages. For centuries, following the murder in the cathedral of Archbishop Thomas Becket on 29th December 1170 (supposedly at the behest of King Henry II), the cathedral became the most popular site of Christian pilgrimage outside of Rome. Travelers flocked to the shrine where King Henry II had sought penitence in 1174 for his treachery against Becket. The stone steps to the martyr's shrine display the wear of millions of pilgrims approaching on their knees. The city had scores of inns and taverns for the pilgrims, and the atmosphere of pilgrimage was immortalized in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

With King Henry VIII's break with Rome, and his dissolving of the monasteries, the cult of Becket was discouraged and the city of Canterbury fell into decline with the loss of business as the flood of visiting pilgrims slowed to a trickle. In the 17th century it re-emerged as a center of commerce, in part due to an influx of French Protestants fleeing the persecution of Louis XIV. Amongst the refugees were skilled silk weavers, and Canterbury became a major silk center. Dyers were needed for the new trade.

A dyer of Canterbury would unexpectedly be caught up in the consequences of Newton's visit to Greenwich in 1704. His name was Stephen Gray. Gray was a keen amateur scientist as well as earning his living in dyeing. The great Isaac Newton would not normally associate with someone of so lowly a social station as a dyer; but Gray was a friend and scientific collaborator of John Flamsteed and would soon become enmeshed in Newton's plans to call the Astronomer Royal to account. Newton had no direct argument with Gray. But Gray would stand beside Flamsteed throughout his feud with Newton; and for Newton the friend of an enemy was also his enemy--it was as simple as that.

* * *

Canterbury in the mid-seventeenth century was a city of fewer than 3,000 inhabitants within the city wall--it was a busy market center, with its ecclesiastical sideshow. It was a city, despite its modest size, by virtue of having a cathedral. Stephen Gray was born in 1666. This was the year of the Great Fire of London that cleared the slums of the rats and brought an end to the plague (allowing Isaac Newton to return to Cambridge). Stephen Gray was baptized on Boxing Day 1666 at All Saints church in Best Lane, over three months after the Great Fire. His date of birth is not recorded, but presumably it was just a few weeks, or perhaps merely days, earlier. Infant mortality was so high during these times that parents rarely lingered in arranging a baptism. The Gray family dyeing business in Best Lane later moved to nearby Stour Street. A river ran behind their shop, providing a ready source of the water needed for dyeing and a handy channel of transport. The 17th century cottages in Best Street and Stour Street were of the Kent half-timbered style; a characteristic form of architecture of the period, so solid in the construction of their oak frames as to withstand the weathering of centuries. The narrow streets were all that was needed for horse and carriage. The ritual of disposing of waste into the streets to be dealt with by the weekly rakers had supposedly been discontinued by the decree of King Henry IV in 1407, but the streets of 17th century Canterbury were still littered and filthy.

Dyeing and Living

Stephen Gray's youth included many periods of sorrow. His sisters Elizabeth and Mary had died before he was ten years old, and his father died when he was just seventeen. The oldest son, Thomas, took over the dyeing business. Their mother Anne Gray died just a few years later.

There were two schools in Canterbury at the time. The King's School adjacent to the Cathedral was re-established by King Henry VIII in 1541 around a foundation that dated back much earlier to probably the 7th or the 8th century. The Poor Priests Hospital, next door to the Gray's dyeing shop, was an arms house for the poor with schooling for the children of tradesmen. There is no record of a pupil named Gray in the King's School archives of scholars. Stephen might have attended as a commoner (a fee paying student, although fees were modest). Education at the King's School was centered on the classics (and Stephen Gray did have a sound working knowledge of Latin), but there was no mathematics. Gray in later life was comfortable with relatively complicated calculations, suggesting that he was probably educated somewhere other than the King's School (or gained mathematics training elsewhere). The Poor Priests Hospital may be the more likely site of his education. Schooling was far from universal, but Gray senior, establishing himself as a Canterbury artisan, would no doubt have been eager to demonstrate his commitment to the education of his children.

Since Stephen Gray's great-grandfather had purchased the freedom of the city to trade, as a blacksmith, for the princely sum of thirty shillings, his descendants would also enjoy the privilege to trade should they apply for "freedom" of the city. Stephen followed his brother Thomas into the family dyeing business, and he was awarded the freedom of the city to trade as a dyer in 1692. When Thomas, who was seven years older than Stephen, died in 1695 at age 36 Stephen took control of the dyeing business. The older brother, Mathias, started a grocery business, and was later to become mayor of Canterbury (a position of some eminence). The youngest brother, John, was a carpenter. Whilst his three brothers all married, there is no evidence that Stephen ever took a wife. The only details of his personal circumstances to be gleaned from his letters are his impoverished state and his sickly nature.

Dyeing was a hard life, demanding long hours of toil and contact with a range of harsh chemicals. At this time natural dyes were the only ones used. The dyers, spending hours with their hands immersed in dye solutions, suffered from dermatitis. The inhalation of toxic fumes meant that respiratory illnesses were common amongst dyers. Lifting the heavy bolts of cloth could cause back strain. It is not surprising that Stephen Gray suffered from ill health throughout his life. In writing to Flamsteed he noted:

"I have been much afflicted with the Dolor Ischiadis for near a quarter of a year but thanks be to God am now almost free from it feeling no pain except I attempt to labor hard."

Several years later he was still complaining of:

"a strain I received in my back some years ago which brought on me the Dolor Coxendicis ... The difficulty and pain caused by my work is more than in former years."

Despite the tough life as a dyer, Stephen Gray still found time for science. He was fascinated by astronomy, and by 1695 was corresponding regularly with John Flamsteed about his astronomical observations. How Stephen Gray developed his love of science is unknown. Possibly it was the chemistry of dyeing that sparked his interest; the mixing of the natural dye-stuffs to achieve the desired hue, and the treatment of the yarns to enable them to absorb the dyes, perhaps generating a fascination with natural materials and phenomena. Silk was to figure in many of Gray's later scientific experiments. Also unknown is just how Stephen Gray first made contact with John Flamsteed. Margaret Flamsteed may provide the link. She certainly had friends in Canterbury with whom she corresponded, and might have made initial contact with the Gray brothers through mutual Canterbury friends. Mathias, Stephen and John all visited the Flamsteeds at Greenwich at some time after they married, and this might be explained by an established Gray family friendship with Margaret Cooke before her marriage--although this is merely speculation.

Since Gray undertook quite complex astronomical calculations, with obvious ease, it has been suggested that John Flamsteed might have taught him mathematics. It is known that Flamsteed had to take on the tutoring of private students, as well as the position as rector at Burstow, to supplement his modest stipend as Astronomer Royal. The tutoring commitment had started as part of his appointment at Greenwich, which required him to tutor two boys from the Royal Mathematics School within Christ's Hospital in London each year. Flamsteed recorded his surprise when, shortly after taking up his appointment at Greenwich, two boys were delivered to his door by a Christ's Hospital master and abandoned. His tutoring soon extended beyond the basic requirement of two students, since it was a welcome source of additional income. A student-tutor relationship would certainly explain the origin of the friendship between Gray and Flamsteed, and also the great respect that Gray displayed for Flamsteed. However Flamsteed left a record of the names of his students between 1676 and 1708 "as far as my memory will serve me", and Gray's name is not listed. Since Gray was writing frequently to Flamsteed at the time he prepared the list, it appears highly unlikely that Flamsteed's memory would have failed him as far as Gray was concerned. In addition, it is far from obvious how an impoverished dyer could have afforded to pay for personal tutelage from the Astronomer Royal. Gray was to complain often in his letters about his scant income from dyeing, noting "my mean circumstances" and complaining of the difficulties caused by the "charge for books, instruments and other materials". A family friendship with Mrs. Flamsteed could explain gratis tutelage from her husband.

Stephen Gray's early scientific research, pursued late at night after a busy day in the dyeing shop, covered a broad range of interests. Henry Hunt, a boyhood friend from Canterbury, had moved to London to work as an assistant to Robert Hooke who was curator at the Royal Society at the time. (The role of the curator was to prepare experiments and demonstrations for meetings of Fellows.) Gray used this Canterbury connection to communicate the results of his early experiments to the Royal Society, hoping that his letters to Hunt (and later to other officials of the Royal Society) would be published in the Society's Philosophical Transactions--the "bible" of science of the time.

Gray's early letters covered optical experiments, strange properties of certain materials, and some simple astronomical observations. Although there were no results of significance in these early experiments, they do display the attention to detail and great care with experiments that typified Gray's scientific research throughout his life. His experiments were often inspired by the contributions of others in the Philosophical Transactions.

Like many of the scientists of the time, Gray became interested in questions of paleobiology. Some bones and teeth were found in a well on the property built for the former husband of his brother Mathias' wife. The Royal Society sought more information on the find from Stephen Gray. In his reply to the Society, Gray paints a delightful picture of old Mr. Sommer, the father of the previous owner, being lowered in a basket into the well where the bones were found. Some care had been taken in the investigation as a professional "limmer", or portrait painter, had been hired to make an accurate drawing of the find. It was speculated that the bones might have belonged to an elephant brought over by the Romans; but Gray inclined to Mr. Sommer's explanation that they were the bones of a hippopotamus deposited during the Great Flood!

Gray demonstrated a fascinating ability to utilize his limited experimental resources. For example, in following up reports of observations of "insects" (protozoa) that appeared in long-standing water viewed through a microscope, he extended his observations to all other fluids readily available to him:

"I have examined many transparent fluids as water, wine, brandy, vinegar, beer, spittle, urine etc., and do not remember to have found any of these without more or less of the bodies of these insects..."

Gray's letters reveal a modest man, lacking confidence and self-respect, who found it difficult to converse with strangers; yet a man who was able to confront great intellectual challenges. He was a gifted experimenter, and a careful observer of natural phenomena. His unlikely friendship with John Flamsteed brought together two men separated in age by twenty years, and from very different backgrounds. Gray was able to give Flamsteed the scientific respect he craved; and Flamsteed was able to provide the younger Gray with a link to legitimate science that would normally have been beyond someone of so lowly a social station and of such modest means. Only the uncontrolled ambition and flagrant paranoia of Isaac Newton would ultimately stand between the two men and the due recognition of their peers.

By 1704, the year a scheming Isaac Newton visited John Flamsteed at Greenwich, Stephen Gray was thirty-eight years old. He was poor, single, over-worked, and in poor health. However his impoverished and sickly state could not diminish his fascination with natural philosophy. Gray's genius could not be suppressed by his modest circumstances, or by his lack of self-esteem. By this time Gray and Flamsteed were regularly exchanging letters about their scientific ideas; and Flamsteed and Newton were on the verge of a major conflict over Newton's access to the Astronomer Royal's observations. The complex paths towards truth were becoming further intertwined. However, friends and foes had been firmly identified in the events of the previous decades. No good could come from Newton's renewed scheming.

From Newton's Tyranny: The Suppressed Scientific Discoveries of John Flamsteed and Stephen Gray by David H. Clark and Stephen P.H. Clark. Excerpted by permission of W. H. Freeman and Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Dr. David Clark is Director of Engineering and Science at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Until 1985 he led the Space Astronomy research team at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, England. Clark is the author of The Cosmos from Space and the co-author, with his son Andrew, of Aliens. He lives in Oxford, England.

Stephen P.H. Clark is the son of David Clark and a postgraduate student at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge University.

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