NaBloPoMo: Plagiarism In the Age of Enlightenment

11/04/2010 By Shawn Burns

I’ve always been afraid of calculus. I have no idea what any of the symbols mean and I’m not even sure what we use it for. Is it rockets? Did we invent calculus so we could build rockets?

And by “we” I of course mean “Sir Isaac Newton”. Newton, natural philosopher (a term for ‘scientist’ before we called them ‘scientists’), polymath, mathematician, and alchemist, is famously responsible for inventing calculus in the seventeenth century.

There’s a bit of a history there, though, because Gottfried Leibniz, also a philosopher, polymath, and mathematician, invented calculus and actually wrote on it years before Newton did. As I understand it, it is his system of notation that is handed down to modern students, though Newton is still credited as the originator of the ideas.

So why does Newton get the credit? He had more influential friends. When the plagiarism controversy first arose Leibniz was accused of taking the ideas from some of Newton’s unpublished papers that he was able to see on a visit to London many years earlier. It didn’t matter that Leibniz published first, or that it was nearly 20 years before anyone said anything about plagiarism, or that Leibniz always maintained the ideas were his, independently of Newton. It was enough, for Newton’s English allies, that Sir Isaac simply said he invented it first.

Leibniz was a court favourite of the first Queen of Prussia, Sophie Charlotte, her mother Sophie, and Princess Caroline (married to Sophie Charlotte’s nephew Georg August). When Sophie Charlotte’s brother Georg Ludwig ascended the English throne as George the First he moved to London, taking Georg August and Caroline with him. But he left Leibniz behind.

Leibniz petitioned George, through Caroline, to be brought to England to work on George’s family history, a project he’d been working on in Germany for some time. George refused, time and time again, and it seems as though at least part of his refusal has to do with Newton’s accusations, and the finding of the official scientific body, The Royal Society, that Newton had been plagiarized. Newton wrote the finding himself, at the time holding both a Royal Society position and an appointment as head of the mint. He was entrenched in English politics, his friends were distributed throughout the court, and Leibniz’s only ally was Caroline.

The dispute between Leibniz and Newton grew from one over priority of invention to one of philosophical substance as well. Eventually Leibniz asserted to Caroline that the dispute was about English philosophy and German philosophy, and that George (a German himself) ought to bring him to London if for no other reason than to show the English that he still respected Germany. George never did.

His patrons gone to London, his philosophical reputation in tatters outside of Germany, Leibniz died out of favour and alone. One person, his own secretary, attended his funeral.

That’s why we say Newton invented the calculus. And that’s how seriously we used to take plagiarism; even the accusation was enough to stain the life, and legacy, of one of the world’s greatest philosophers.