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The Fathers of Calculus:

Newton versus Leibniz
Alec Baez
Engineering and Science University Magnet School


Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz are inarguably the fathers of calculus. However,

when trying to publish their findings, the two entered a heated skirmish that lasted their lifetimes.
Their feud is known as the greatest scientific dispute in history due to the lengths both went to
discredit the other and prove themselves. Realistically, Newton completed his version of calculus
a decade before Leibniz completed his. However, due to Newtons reclusive and slow take on
life, he held off on publishing his ideas. His version of calculus didnt even become known off of
his campus until a year after its conception as well. Leibniz on the other hand was having a very
difficult time coming up with his version of calculus. He fumbled around with the concept and
came up with clumsy seeming equations. Through a mutual contact, he contacted Newton for
help by asking what his results were and how he came up with such ideas in his version. Of
course, Newton had not published his ideas yet when these messages were exchanged and once
Leibniz caught wind of this, the rest is history.

Keywords: Newton, Leibniz, infinitesimal, calculus, physics, mathematician


The Fathers of Calculus:
Newton versus Leibniz
Sir Isaac Newton was born to a fairly poor family on Christmas Day in 1643. His father
died shortly after his birth and did not get along with his stepfather at all. These unfortunates

seem like they may hinder his ability, but did not deter him at all from achieving high grades and
later attending Trinity College in Cambridge. This allowed his scientific interests to flourish
indefinitely since he decided to study mathematics, science, and physics at one of the worlds top
colleges at the time. Newton accomplished many scientific advances in his life besides the
development of calculus, including splitting white light through a prism (revealing the visible
light spectrum), improved the telescope, and his three laws of motion. However, when creating
his theory of calculus in winter of 1664 and October 1666, it was being developed by a German
mathematician and philosopher.
This mathematician was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Leibniz was born to an extremely
religious family in Leipzig, Germany in 1646. He was self-taught in advanced Latin and Greek
by the age of 12 and went on to study law at Leipzig University where he was introduced to
minds like Galileo, Thomas Hobbes, and Ren Descartes (a mathematician Newton had also
been inspired by). He still continued to work toward his law degree though extremely interested
in scientific studies. However, once his superior died later on, he decided to pursue these
scientific interests by studying mathematics and physics in Paris. Part of his studies included
infinitesimal calculus, or differential and integral calculus. This is where Newton and Leibniz
seem to cross paths. Though they never talked directly to each other, mostly due to Newton
being a shy recluse, they did send a few letters back and forth through a mutual friend named
Henry Oldenburg.


This is now where the controversy begins between the two begins. Henry Oldenburg was
the secretary of a society that kept scientists in Europe in contact with each other (The Royal
Society of London). One of the scientists he was in charge of keeping contact with as Secretary
of the society happened to be Leibniz. Newtons relation to this society was that he was one of
the more prominent members of the society, as well as the fact that they helped publish his
Principia Mathematica. Once in the society, Leibniz officially started to study the geometry of
differential and integral calculus and let Oldenburg know of his studies. Oldenburg replied in a
letter that Newton had found general methods to the subject, meaning he already had an
understanding of differentials (which he called fluxions). Through multiple exchanges of letters
from 1673 to 1676 between Newton, Oldenburg, and Leibniz, Newton shared his findings of
infinitesimals, but not his processes. After the series of letters are exchanged, the two stop
contact for nearly a decade. They only speak once again when Leibniz creates and publishes his
Nova methodus pro maximis et minimis, which states that Leibniz himself created calculus
Newton waited years to publish his version of calculus which he had only alluded to
within one earlier work, so this works for and against him. Supporters of Newton claim that since
he had this earlier work, he then had the idea of calculus first. Also, his peers at the society did
not doubt for a second that Newton had come up with it first. Perhaps most importantly is the
fact that within the exchanges of letters between the two, Newton stated the fundamental ideals
of calculus which Leibniz was struggling to understand at the time. Supporters of Leibniz
however argue that his publications come before Newton officially publishes any of his own
works on fluxions/differentials. His most important piece of evidence in his favor is that he
demonstrates his calculus in a direction completely different than that of Newton. In the end, Sir


Isaac Newton is believed to have unofficially started calculus before Leibniz, but it is Leibniz
who is thought to have officially created a finished and published version of the study.


Works Cited

Letter from Isaac Newton to Henry Oldenburg, dated 26 October 1676. (n.d.). Retrieved June 06,
2016, from

Blank, B. E. (2007). Book Review: The Calculus Wars. Retrieved from

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. (n.d.). Retrieved June 06, 2016, from