Mental Floss

A Selection of 19-Year-Old Isaac Newton's Secret Sins

Lucas Reilly
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In 1662, a 19-year-old Isaac Newton started carrying a leather-bound journal, which he used to track finances and work out math problems. But he also used it to hide something secret. On two pages, Newton scribbled a cryptic code, a code that went unsolved for over 300 years. In 1964, historians finally solved the script. They discovered a list of sins: 57 of Newton’s wrongdoings. The journal—today called the Fitzwilliam notebook—paints the Enlightenment icon as a mood-swinging, sweet-toothed, spiritually confused teenager. Here are some of Newton’s sinful gems.

Sins of the Stomach

Newton had a guilty appetite: He brought apples to church, stole plums, and substituted prayer with pie.

•“Eating an apple at Thy house.”
•“Peevishness at Master Clarks for a piece of bread and butter.” (When he was 12, Newton was sent to a boarding school for five years. He resided with William Clarke, an apothecary who ignited Newton’s interest in chemistry.)
•“Stealing cherry cobs from Eduard Storer." (Storer was Clarke’s stepson.)
•“Denying that I did so."
•“Robbing my mother[']s box of plums and sugar.”
• “Making pies on Sunday night.”

Sins of Abuse

Newton may have been a fisticuffs master: He was a fighter and a wee bit of a trickster.

•“Threat[e]ning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them." (Newton shared a tense relationship with his mother and stepfather, Reverend Barnabas Smith.)
•“Wishing death and hoping it to some.”
•“Striking many.”
•“Beating Arthur Storer." (Arthur was Clarke’s other stepson, who later became America’s first colonial astronomer. Newton supposedly loved Arthur’s sister, Katherine.)
•“Punching my sister.”
•“Putting a pin in John Keys hat on Thy day to pick him.”
•“Calling Dorothy Rose a jade." (A “jade” was a “worn-out horse,” but when applied to women, it essentially meant “whore.”)

Sins on Sunday

Sometimes, Newton forgot that Sunday was supposed to be a day of rest, committing egregious Sunday sins like mousetrap-making and (tisk!) reading.

•“Making a feather while on Thy day.”
•“Denying that I made it.”
•“Making a mousetrap on Thy day.”
•“Contriving of the chimes on Thy day.”
•“Squirting water on Thy day.”
•“Swimming in a kimnel on Thy day.” (A kimnel was a tub, often for salting meat.)
•“Twisting a cord on Sunday morning.”
•“Reading the history of the Christian champions on Sunday.”

Miscellaneous Guilt Trips

Forget that image of Isaac Newton as a dainty mathematician in a powdered wig. Instead, think of him as a crossbow-wielding teenager who steals your bath towel and lies about the bugs in your hair.

• “Setting my heart on money learning pleasure more than Thee.”
•“A relapse.”
• “Denying my chamberfellow of the knowledge of him that took him for a sot.” (In Middle English, using the term "sot" was a stylish way to call someone a drunken fool.)
•“Using Wilford[']s towel to spare my own.”
•“Lying about a louse.”
•“Denying a crossbow to my mother and grandmother though I knew it.”

For the full list of Newton’s sins, visit the Newton Project, an archive of the scientist’s written work.

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