How Isaac Newton became a scientific genius roughly 100 years after his death

The text of this post is exerpted from the chapter ‘Genius’ in the book Newton: the making of genius by Patricia Fara. Some parts have been paraphrased.

Words written in the 1700s often appear familiar, but have changed their meanings. Genius is now the label for a singular individual who is far removed from the central norm of society. But in Isaac Newton’s lifetime, it referred far more often to a specific characteristic that belonged to a person, nation or place. The man of genius was blessed by God with an exceptionally large amount of a particular ability. Writers referring to Newton’s genius commonly had in mind something closer to what we would call a special talent or gift, which could be for practical as well as mental tasks. Newton was celebrated for having an unusually strong genius for mathematics, but other people also possessed a genius that allowed them to excel in other fields – Pope in poetry, Kneller in painting, or a woman in embroidery.

The words ‘science’ and ‘art’ also meant something very different from now. ‘Science’ was associated with book learning and theoretical knowledge, and could cover any field of scholarship, including what we would call the arts. ‘Art’ was associated with applied knowledge and practical skills, and often carried slightly derogatory implications of contrivance, unnatural artifice or manual labour.

Newton's 'Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica' published in 1687; cover (left) and a page from the 1726 edition (right). In English the title would be 'Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy'.
Newton’s ‘Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica’ published in 1687; cover (left) and a page from the 1726 edition (right). In English the title would be ‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’. Source images: Principia title and Principia Page 1726. Both images are in the public domain.

Traditionally the accolade of genius had been most commonly reserved for poets, a usage stemming from classical beliefs about divine inspiration. Before Newton joined this heavenly throng, the only men universally acclaimed as geniuses were Homer and Shakespeare. A huge shift took place in the mid-1500s when some Italian Rennaissance painters came to be viewed as geniuses, even though they worked with their hands as well as with their minds. Another huge shift took place in the late 1700s when scientific practitioners were becoming respected for their expertise, and the whole notion of genius was being reappraised. Newton’s followers placed him in a new category: scientific geniuses.

But the concept of a scientific genius seemed contradictory. As one writer put it in 1825:

Surely, whatever is invented cannot be science. Invention belongs to art, and to the creation of genius. Science analyses facts and develops principles. It discovers, but it does not invent.

Confusingly, like ‘science’ and ‘genius’, the word ‘invention’ was also rapidly changing in the second half of the eighteenth century. For literary philosophers invention was not about James Watt’s steam engines or Richard Arkwright’s spinning machines, but concerned plots, ideas and metaphors. Mechanical inventiveness had been connected to its latin meaning, ‘discovery’, so that inventors were regarded as finding and revealing God’s designs, rather than being praised for their originality.

The goals of wealth and truth were still divorced. Far from enjoying the high status they came to command during the Victorian era, innovative practical men were looked down on as mercenary craftsmen or opportunists. As late as 1834, a new statue of James Watt showed him in the traditional pose of a philosopher, seated and wearing academic robes. The inscription commemorated him not as a practical inventor, but as an eminent man of science who exercised his ‘original genius’ in ‘philosophic research’

A photograph of a life-size statue of James Watt, an older white man dressed in flowing robes.
Image: A statue by Chantrey of James Watt, taken at St Paul’s Cathedral. Photo by Wikimedia user Astrochemist, public domain, click through for original.

Just as men of science wanted to distinguish themselves from mercenary inventors, so too, many people felt that a true literary genius should not stoop to request payment. Yet it was precisely that originality of genius that writers were using to claim that they had created their work and should be paid for it. From the 1770s to the 1840s, bitter debates about authors’ rights and copyright protection ran in tandem with prosecutions over mechanical inventions and industrial piracy. Both sets of debates revolved around definitions of genius and creativity. As writers and inventors gained more control over their work, originality – the criterion of genius – also became a guarantee of ownership.