Newton and the Cannon

The year was 1669, Newton had just graduated and was a relative unknown in the world of science, but this did not mean he didn’t know how to make enemies. 

A letter arrived in the morning milk.

“Hedby?” Newton picked up the letter and shook the milk off it. “Is this the mail?”

Hedby poked his head around the door and nodded.

“There’s a letter from the Royal Society,” quizzed Newton.

“Yes milord.”

“And why in the name of King James, is this half-eaten and in the milk?”

“It is the Royal Mail, milord.”

“Hedby, the Royal Mail does not eat it’s own mail? It delivers it on pain of death, which is what you will shortly experience if I don’t receive a rational answer from that mutton head of yours.”

“Yes, milord, while the carters and carriers of the Royal Mail are sworn ensure the safe arrival of the post, the horse had different ideas and stuck its head in the royal mail bag for a quick feed.”

Newton looked annoyed as he sort to decipher what was left of the letter.

“Isn’t that method a little self-defeating, eating half of it before I’ve read it?”

“Expect it saves on oats milord.”

Newton held up the letter to the light, “and the milk pail?”

“I was washing the horse dung off it.”

Newton glowered furiously at Hedby, then gave it up knowing he was dealing with a peasant. “Well, here, see if you can read this?”

Hedby peered for a moment; “it looks like ‘ooke gen frs’, milord, followed by a gob of dried saliva and a wad of cud.” Hedby looked puzzled then slightly worried as he considered the implication. “Milord, could it be French code for a coming invasion by the catholic zombie brain eaters?”

Newton slapped Hedby with the letter.

“It is neither a secret code from the French, and Catholics are not zombie brain eaters. They eat babies not brains - everyone knows that. No, if I’m not mistaken and I never am, it is from Sir Robert Hooke, Gentleman, and Friend of the Royal Society. Come to think of it, he is the Royal Society.”

Hedby smirked for a moment.

“Has the Royal Society still not accepted you application, milord?”

“It could also be that invitation.”

“It’s not milord, I have seen other fellows here at Cambridge get one and the invitations, they always come in a red letter, tied with a ribbon and delivered by a knight of the Order of the Stoat and the Ear.”

“Is there a knighthood of the Order of the Stoat and the Ear?”

“Yes, milord, established by Francis the First, Duke of Brittany, in 1448.”

“How on earth do you know that?”

“Read it on the back of a table napkin.”

Newton scowled at his manservant, then tried to decipher what was left of the letter:


“To my esteemed Isaac Newton,


I write to you upon receipt of your application to the FRS.

We’re full, sod off.”


Your’s sincerely Robert Hooke, Gentleman, Friend of the Royal Society”


Newton was so angry he set fire to Hedby, and then ordered him to clean the privies for all the colleges.



So it was Edmond Halley made that fateful journey up to Cambridge to have a chat with this newcomer Newton. Edmond Halley, however, was mad, and not mad in the conventional sense of being a frightful bore at parties, or as an annoyed bargeman who would throw you in a weir as soon as look at you - no, Halley was stark raving bonkers, and was convinced the Earth was hollow. Hollow, mind you, as in empty and without a centre; furthermore it was comprised of four concentric spheres, filled with life and illuminated not by an interior sun but by the air itself. He derived this conclusion one day, when he thought his compass needle was pointing in the wrong direction, and if this isn’t a sign of madness then we really need to redefine the word. Being daft didn’t prevent him from being one of the leading astronomers, of his time, although it should be noted this was where he could do the least harm. It just goes to show, Natural Philosophy doesn’t have to be Science, and in the hands of a lunatic it isn’t.

Halley, however, was affable, he was liked, not just by his friends but by everyone who met him, he had that peculiar facet of nature that allowed him to fit into any corner of society and be accepted, accepted not be by reason or ability but a winning face that allowed everyone to like and admire him - an ideal person for a diplomatic mission.

He stood in the centre of the Trinity College Cambridge and marvelled at it’s ancient stones, which at that point in the time they were only 120 years old, but he had a habit of marvelling and did so at every opportunity.

“You there, boy,” Halley tapped a reverent octogenarian on the shoulder, “tell me where Isaac Newton lives.”

“What? What? What?” came the reply of a man who had vague memories of actual construction of Trinity College.

“Newton, where does Newton live?”

“This is not a new town, you impertinent whippersnapper, it is Cambridge,” and with that, the bundle of memories and rags trundled away to sleep in some chimney corner.

Halley fumed, “Oxford is civilisation, this place is worse than Yorkshire.”

At that point an actual whippersnapper came up, carrying a whip and cracking it as he walked, kindly pointed out the way to Newton’s digs, in those times, whippersnapping was a sport.

Halley stood outside the door of Newton’s rooms and smelt the air. The wind carried the sort of pungent odour you might normally find in an industrial wasteland, a metallic off-sewage stench. It didn’t just assault the senses; it actually hammered at the nasal passages with the bestial fury of Portuguese fisherman on his wedding night after winning the grand lottery. This was accompanied by the noise of a banshee wailing from within, the sort of caterwauling unheard of since Queen Mary was carried to the block to meet her catholic God.

“Zounds,” -which is a word I have never fully deciphered-, said Halley and held his lace cuffs against his face, “has Hell risen for lunch?”

From within the building Newton could be heard calling for his manservant.

“Hedby, there is another student outside, release the hounds.”

“We don’t have hounds, milord,” came Hedby’s muted reply, “can I release the geese?”

“Are they vicious?” asked Newton.

“Not really, milord, but I could hardly release the puddings.”

“Hello?” Halley tapped the door with his cane, “I’m looking for Isaac Newton?”

Newton stuck his head out the window, and looked with puzzlement at his guest. Newton rarely had visitors, and often wondered if the word was a metaphor for lunacy.

“Who are you?” and this was a close as Newton came to politeness.

“Edmund Halley, and you sir?”

“Isaac Newton, come in, I’ll put the cat out.”

As Halley walked he noticed to his surprise, an extremely wet cat being pulled out of a cauldron and tossed out the window. A table was covered with retorts, beakers, leaking bags of reagents, a large magnifying glass, piles of books including such classics as Theatrum Chemicum, De Alchemia of Herrings, Turbo Philosophorum, The Secretum Secretorum or how to extract the philosopher’s stone from blood, plus 101 ways to wash a moggy.

“You’re washing a cat?”

“I’m extracting ear wax of cat.”

“Are these sulphurous fumes necessary?”

“I’m also washing my socks.”

“Isn’t your manservant supposed to do that?”

“Ah,” Newton blinked at Halley, “one moment. Hedby!”

Hedby was soon enlisted to carrying the alchemical cauldron out into the great court where it could do the most harm.

“What on earth do you need ear wax of cat for?” Halley tried to make himself comfortable on a rickety chair using a pile of books for a fourth leg.

“I’m devising a new method for the distillation of Alkahest, the hypothetical universal solvent.”

“Is it working?”

“Who cares, as long as it keeps the students away,” Newton looked worriedly at his visitor, as if realizing for the first time it was possible to have a visitor.

“Are the students that bad?”

“I used to be one, and yes!”

Halley looked about the room trying to find a means of carrying the conversation, but Newton quickly gave a way.

“You are seeking me sir, why sir?”

“Well Newton, it appears you have applied to Royal Society as a member?” Halley began.

“At last!” Newton triumphed, “acceptance, wait doesn’t this get delivered by a knight of the Order of the Stoat and the Ear?”

Hedby called be heard sniggering as he carried out the cauldron.

“Not the last time I heard,” Halley looked askance.

“Odd, well the acceptance letter then?”

“No letter I’m afraid, no acceptance either.”

Newton went off like Krakatoa on a bank holiday.

“Damn your eyes, then why in blazes are you here?”

“Well, the thing is old man, we’re trying to determine if you’re the right stuff and all, what not?”

“I’m a Trinity man,” Newton seethed, “what more could you need?”

“Oh I don’t know, an invention, a discovery, an mathematical insight,” Hooke waved his hands around like a magician, “how old are you anyway?”

“My age which is twenty-two is not of importance, only my brilliance.”

Halley looked kindly at Newton, and started to warm to l’enfant terrible.

“So,” he smiled, “how much ear wax of cat have you extracted.”

“Not enough,” Newton frowned thinking he was being mocked, “I must wait for the full moon. Only then will the vapours of cats be aligned with phases of the Moon.”

Halley eyes became hyper-elliptical in their sockets, “speaking of the Moon, Robert Hooke has set a problem concerning law governing the motion of the Moon, now if you could solve that you’d be a shoe-in for the Royal Society in an instant.”

Newton looked suspiciously at his visitor, as if Halley had been going surreptitiously through his journal, “but I have already calculated it so, why it is an inverse square law.”

“You have?”

“I have!”

“Can I see?”

Newton was incredibly paranoid about his notes, and refused to allow anyone to see them. “Oh well, it is somewhere in here, it’s not important.”

“Not important?” Halley was flabbergasted, “what could be more important, the earwax of cats? Newton, if you have indeed solved this problem, we won’t only make you a member of the Royal Society, you’ll become a member of the order of Stoat and the Ear.”

“At last true recognition!”

“If you wish.”



Hooke was a moody man, in the way the moon has phases and whales might get beached while playing golf, once he got in a mood he would stay there until cannon balls or dysentery forced him out of it. A renowned natural philosopher, curator of the Royal Society, and discoverer of whole new Worlds of the microscope, the law of elasticity, and had invented the first portable watch, helped Christopher Wren redesign London after the Great Fire. Robert Hooke really was a clever fellow.

He was also an Oxford man.

He held up a letter from some fellow in Cambridge and tried to decipher it, turning it in the light from side to side he hoped to make some sense of all the arcane symbols and archaic Greek, but try as he might it kept coming out as a challenge to a duel.

He called his manservant, Harry Hunt, into his study.

“Harry, when did this arrive?”

“Yesterday, milord, it was sewn to a dogsbody called Hedby from Cambridge,” Harry grinned widely.

“And it is from that fellow Newton from Cambridge?”

“Yes milord.”

“And is he challenging me to a duel?”

“It would so appear, milord.”

Hooke’s face became an undecipherable scrawl.

“Let me get this right, I’m been challenged to a duel because I won’t invite a complete nobody into the Royal Society? More to the point, because I won’t invite a complete nobody from Cambridge? Who is he? What has he done?”

Harry grinned so much he had trouble from breaking wind.

“From what I can discover from his dogsbody, Isaac Newton is a graduate from Trinity at Cambridge, last year in fact, and to date has done nothing, milord. Although rumour has it he started the Great Plague and the Great Fire, milord.”

“Oh,” Hooke sighed and began to pace around the room, “that Newton.”

“Yes milord, shall I set the dogs on his manservant?”

“Is he still here?”

“Yes milord, he is claiming sanctuary from Newton.”

“What?” Hooke was incredulous. “Surely you have misunderstood the fellow.”

“No sir, he seems quite serious.”

“No? Well bring him in, we may learn something.”

Hooke’s room was a vast hall of shelved books, glass apparatus, telescopes, vials, beakers, clockworks, springs, gears, barometers, pendulums, shells, fossils, a microscope bound in leather and tooled in gold with Hooke’s monograph Micrographia beside it, and inexplicably - a duck.

The rest is continued in THE EINSTEIN FABLES - BY REED DE BUCH

Copyright reserved by Jim O’Brien ©