[Click the back button on your web browser to return to the section of “Signs of the Times” for which the following serves as an annotation.]

From the falling of an apple refers to the discovery of formula that explains gravity by Sir Isaac Newton, the great English astronomer, physicist, theorist, and mathematician, who is one of the most significant and influential figures in all of science. Newton developed the theory of gravitation and the three laws of motion, defining the physical world. He also helped invent Calculus. Newton claimed that he contrived the theory of gravitation by studying how an apple fell from a tree (Smith, The Cambridge Companion, 6). Some people believe that an apple physically hit Newton’s head, who instantly determined that the apple falling was due to some undiscovered force. In reality, it took Newton almost twenty years of complex thought and analysis to fully establish his gravitational theory.

In “Signs of the Times,” Carlyle argues that in our modern, mechanical age, individual invention is no longer appreciated and that current discoveries are not accomplished by one genius, but by the whole. Carlyle contends that, in this day in age, personal discovery or invention, counts for close to nothing. There is no time or place for long, complex observations, or reflections on thought problems such as the “falling of an apple” in the new, mechanical world, which calls not for natural geniuses, “Raphaels,..Angelos..[or]..Mozarts,” but for computational, automated machines. Thus, dependency on the individual diminishes and, as Carlyle states, “excellence in what is called its higher departments depends less on natural genius than on acquired expertness in wielding its machinery.” Carlyle suggests that Newton could not function in the new, mechanistic world, because he had an insight that came from intuition, not simply inductive and mechanical testing. Carlyle mourns this loss of complex human thought, in favor of simple quantification.

Related Material

Bibliography

Bernard Cohen and George E. Smith (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2002).


Victorian Web Overview Thomas Carlyle Thomas Carlyle's Works Discussion Questions

Last modified 23 March 2010