9
$\begingroup$

I came across the above quote, and found it quite interesting. However, I struggled to find an actual source. Did Newton truly say this?

$\endgroup$
3
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ A question should be written in such a way that it can be understood even by someone who did not read its title. $\endgroup$ Nov 8, 2023 at 7:33
  • $\begingroup$ This ISN'T an "answer in comments" - may be of interest. IF he did, then it wasn't a true statement. I've been a "informal student" of Newton's thinking processes over decades, - in a very very very informal sense. I seek to see what he may have arrived at in a given situation. I can of course not hope to start to emulate him, but try to imagine what he may have arrived at. || I'm said to be of fairly high IQ (some strongly question that :-) ) but have a mere whisper of his ability to look at something, perceive that there's a big picture there, find what it is about, and then draw it. $\endgroup$ Nov 9, 2023 at 3:13
  • $\begingroup$ It strikes me as something Darwin might have said; could it be misattributed? $\endgroup$ Nov 9, 2023 at 14:04

1 Answer 1

17
$\begingroup$

So far I have been unable to find substantially identical words in Newton's writings, and as usual, authors that use this quotation do not cite a source. The origin may be a remark of Newton's in private correspondence which was embellished over time.

In a letter from Isaac Newton to Richard Bentley, dated December 10, 1692, apparently in the context of his work on gravity, he wrote:

But if I have done the publick any service this way 'tis due to nothing but industry & a patient thought.

Thomas Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of Man. Edinburgh: John Bell 1788, p. 80:

Sir Isaac Newton, to one who complimented him upon the force of genius, which had made such improvements in mathematics and natural philosophy, is said to have made this reply, which was both modest and judicious, That if he had made any improvements in those sciences it was owing more to patient attention than to any other talent.

Some authors claim that the person who had complimented Newton was Dr. Pemberton. This is presumably Henry Pemberton (1694 – 1771). While Pemberton knew Newton personally and later wrote a book on Newton's philosophy, I have not been able to identify anything relevant to the question in Pemberton's publications.

Tryon Edwards, A Dictionary of Thoughts; Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations. New York: Cassell 1891, p. 120:

If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention, than to any other talent. — Sir Isaac Newton.

Here we have a version substantially identical to the one from the question in a reference work that may have enjoyed wide circulation.

$\endgroup$
5
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ The letter you quote seems to be close enough that it's the likely source, and has simply been corrupted a bit in recounting. $\endgroup$
    – Barmar
    Nov 8, 2023 at 16:13
  • $\begingroup$ The last reference, from A Dictionary of Thoughts --- does it provide further a source that can be traced back to something in Newton's work? If not, then it remains that the best reference is the letter that you cite? $\endgroup$
    – bzm3r
    Nov 8, 2023 at 20:38
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @bzm3r I spent a couple of hours searching backwards by reducing the number of search terms to try to trace how the supposed quotation may have evolved over time. At present I cannot prove any definite connections between the way points I selected. That would require someone to spend some weeks researching this in detail; it may be worthy of a student's thesis. What would be of most interest to me is: (1) Who had access to Newton's letter? (2) If the letter was the original source, how was the important element of "industry" (= hard work) lost early on? $\endgroup$
    – njuffa
    Nov 8, 2023 at 21:10
  • $\begingroup$ @njuffa Yup, that makes sense! Furthermore, I wonder: to what extent is the sentiment one of polite humility, rather than Newton purposefully addressing some question regarding the style in which he works? The letter makes it seem like something that is more a part of a polite greeting? $\endgroup$
    – bzm3r
    Nov 8, 2023 at 21:25
  • $\begingroup$ @bzm3r I am not familiar with letter-writing norms of the 1600s or (with a handful of exceptions) Newton's personal letter-writing style. The start of the letter suggests to me that it is following up some prior communication between Newton and Bentley. $\endgroup$
    – njuffa
    Nov 8, 2023 at 21:33

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.