Offbeat Adventure

You Can Find Clones of Isaac Newton's Apple Tree All Over the World

History is full of apocryphal stories — tales like the one of George Washington and the cherry tree, or Marie Antoinette and her infamous dessert suggestion. In all likelihood, they aren't actually true, even if they play an important role in how we understand these historical figures. Probably the most famous apocryphal tale from science is that of Isaac Newton and the falling apple that inspired the theory of gravity. As it turns out, that story might be more legit than you'd expect. And the proof is in a scattered forest of apple trees growing all over the world to this very day.

The descendant of the tree under which Isaac Newton sat in 1666 that inspired his theory of gravity. The tree is located on the grounds of Woolsthorpe Manor, near Grantham in England.

A Seed of Truth

Here's the story of Newton's apple tree that most of us absorbed: Isaac Newton was sitting out in his garden one day, resting his back against an apple tree and contemplating the nature of the universe. Suddenly, an apple fell from the tree, conked him on the head, and got him thinking about what pulled all objects down toward Earth — and why that force didn't bring the moon crashing down as well. Despite what we said in the introduction, that story is probably not true: There's very little chance that he was actually hit by a falling apple. But the rest of it? We've got pretty good evidence of that: his own words.

Nobody ever tells a story the same way twice so there are a few discrepancies in the various versions, but Newton gave essentially the same account to everybody: He was in his garden when the thought of his apple tree gave him his famous eureka moment. He told this anecdote to his assistant at the Royal Mint John Conduitt, his biographer William Stukeley, and even the philosopher Voltaire, who spread the story far and wide. The details might be a bit muddy, but the basic facts remain the same, and there's little doubt that a specific apple tree played a major role in the young Newton's burgeoning cosmic understanding. But how can we say which tree?

Easy: Go to his house. Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton's birthplace and longtime home, was where he would have been living at the time of his great discovery. There's really only one apple tree on the property that can be dated back to 1666. The Woolsthorpe tree, as it's sometimes known, has had quite a life of its own. It would have been just about 16 years old when Newton made his observation, and in 1816 (already a tourist attraction at that point), it nearly collapsed after a devastating storm. But it survived, re-rooted itself, and went on to have an enormous family. And we do mean enormous. As long as the climate is right, there's a pretty good chance you can find a Newton tree growing in a city near you.

Falling Far From the Tree

Even before people started growing new trees from Newton's seeds and cuttings, the tree was a jet-setting arboreal celebrity. After the tree's 1816 calamity, some fans took pieces of living wood to build furniture, and others just snatched pieces to take as souvenirs. In 1820, a living shoot was taken to nearby Belton Park to grow on its own, and in 1930, a clipping was taken by the Fruit Research Center in East Malling to take root as a clone. That's where the story of the Newton tree really took off. The clone from East Malling became the world's primary source of Newton trees.

Today, the trees grow at universities, research centers, particle accelerators, and basically anywhere else where science nerds can be found. Including the original, seven of the trees are growing in England today, but it's the United States that boasts the most by far. At least 13 grow in the U.S. (the Boston area alone has three), and you'll find three more in Canada. Want to find a Newton tree near you? Atlas Obscura has got you covered: This map pinpoints the current locations of all the known Newton trees in the world. Here's a list of the locations lucky enough to claim a piece of science history:

  • Buenos Aires, Argentina: Centro Atómico Constituyentes in Villa Maipú
  • Río Negro, Argentina: Instituto Balseiro in San Carlos de Bariloche
  • New South Wales, Australia: CSIRO Parkes Observatory in Parkes and Orange Agricultural Institute in Orange
  • Victoria, Australia: Monash University in Clayton
  • British Columbia, Canada: the particle accelerator center TRIUMF in Vancouver
  • Ontario, Canada: York University in Toronto and National Research Council in Ottowa
  • Beijing, China: Beihang University in Haidian
  • Tianjin, China: Tianjin University in Nankai
  • Wildau, Germany: Technical University of Applied Sciences Wildau
  • Niigata, Japan: Keiwa College in Shibata
  • Saitama Prefecture, Japan: Saitama University in Saitama
  • Tokyo, Japan: Koishikawa-Kōrakuen in Bunkyō
  • Cambridge, U.K.: Trinity College, and Cambridge University Botanic Garden in Brookside
  • East Sussex, U.K.: Herstmonceux Observatory Science Centre in Herstmonceux
  • Kent, U.K.: East Malling Research Station in East Malling
  • Leicestershire, U.K.: Loughborough University in Loughborough
  • Lincolnshire, U.K.: Woolsthorpe Manor in Grantham
  • Middlesex, U.K.: National Physical Laboratory in Teddington
  • York, U.K.: University of York in Heslington

  • Massachusetts, U.S.: MIT in Cambridge, Babson College in Wellesley, and Tufts University in Medford
  • Maryland, U.S.: National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg
  • Nebraska, U.S.: University of Nebraska in Lincoln
  • New York, U.S.: New York Botanical Garden in New York City and Houghton College in Houghton
  • Ohio, U.S.: Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland
  • Rhode Island, U.S.: Brown University in Providence
  • Tennessee, U.S.: Vanderbilt University in Nashville
  • Virginia, U.S.: The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg
  • Washington D.C., U.S.: Former National Bureau of Standards
  • West Virginia, U.S.: West Virginia University in Morgantown
  • Wisconsin, U.S.: University of Wisconsin in Madison
  • Western Cape, South Africa: Babylonstoren Garden in Simondium
  • Daejeon, South Korea: Korea Research Institute of Standards and Science (KRISS) in Yuseong District
  • Taiwan: Wuling Farm in Taichung City

It's pretty incredible stuff — and a great excuse for a physics-themed road trip.

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Isaac Newton shook the world in more ways than one. Edward Dolnick's "The Clockwork Universe" (free with your trial membership to Audible) explores the seachange caused by the new understanding of the physical world. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

What If the Ground Actually Falls Towards the Apple?

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 12, 2018