A Google search for the terms "isaac newton lecture empty room" will return a litany of sites stating the claim that while Newton was a professor at Cambridge, he would often have nobody show up to his lectures, and he would give the lecture to the empty hall anyway, rather than doing something more profitable with his time.

Newton was undeniably a very eccentric individual, and yet the idea that he would blatantly waste his own time in this manner is just a bit too much for me. It seems more likely to me that this rather sensational claim was extrapolated from some more benign piece of trivia about his time as a professor at Cambridge.

What evidence is there to support the idea that any of these lectures to empty rooms took place?

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    Society has a habit of attributing especially "eccentric" behaviors to popular geniuses and other figures. For example: Can anyone function on just 2 hours sleep per night?
    – user11643
    Feb 7, 2017 at 23:36
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    But, coming from a guy who produces conference videos, lectures to empty rooms is not too uncommon.
    – user11643
    Feb 7, 2017 at 23:37
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    Wait a minute, if the lecture hall was totally empty, how do we know Newton was there? Did he write about doing this in his own memoirs? Because I can't think of any other plausible way we'd know that this happened. I mean, it's not like anyone witnessed it, given that the lecture hall was supposedly empty, right?
    – Kevin
    Feb 8, 2017 at 5:18
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    There's definitely an account of this happening in an early Newton biography. It's cited in Michael White's "The Last Sorceror" which I don't have to hand. It wasn't as crazy as it sounds. It was part of Newton's job description at Cambridge that he had to deliver a lecture at certain times so he did - whether anyone turned up or not. It's the sort of thing Newton might well have done. Not because he didn't realize how pointless it was but because he couldn't then be accused of neglecting his duties. Feb 9, 2017 at 9:55
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    @TheMathemagician Well, that sounds like an answer to me, if the citation could be found.
    – Carl Hyde
    Feb 9, 2017 at 21:55

1 Answer 1


Isaac Newton is noted to have figuratively read to the walls, because there were very few hearers during his lectures as the Lucasianus Professor from 1669 to 1702. The Lucasian Chair of Mathematics is a mathematics professorship founded in 1663 at the University of Cambridge, England and the holder of that title is known as the Lucasianus Professor. A short history of the Lucasian chair is provided here.

When he read in the schools as being Lucasianus Professor, where so few went to hear him, and fewer understood him, that ofttimes he did in a manner, for want of hearers, read to the walls Source: Isaac Newton by Anthony Storr

The above observations of the life of Isaac Newton were written in a series of letters by Humphrey Newton, Sir Isaac Newton's assistant who was with him for nearly five years from the end of 1683 to 1689, to John Conduitt, mentioned here.

Also there was very little reference to Sir Isaac Newton's teaching as a Lucasianus Professor as only two people have ever claimed to have been instructed by him.

For 40 years after 1687, he was the most famous intellectual in England and there was every incentive for former students at the university to recall their connections with him. Even William Whiston, who became his disciple and successor, could barely remember having heard him. As far as we know, only two others ever claimed to have been instructed by him. Source: The Life of Isaac Newton By Richard S. Westfall

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    "in a manner" is the key here. Hardly anyone there, and those who didn't couldn't follow, so he might as well as been reading to the walls. Not that he literally did. Mar 13, 2017 at 15:36
  • @KateGregory-Changes made! Mar 13, 2017 at 15:45
  • @Avery: I feel that your edit is unduly changing the whole meaning of the answer, as the figuratively / literally is the whole point of this Q&A and I am not at all sure pericles316 agrees with you...?!?
    – DevSolar
    Mar 13, 2017 at 16:23
  • Ah, sorry, I thought the "changes made" comment above was reflecting some sort of attempt to change the literally to a figuratively. I do not know what pericles was intending with this edit, then?
    – Avery
    Mar 13, 2017 at 16:54
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    @Bobson-explanation updated. Mar 14, 2017 at 3:21

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