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

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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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January 3, 2013 - 10:00am
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