A Riddle From Isaac Newton?


Horace Walpole (1717-1797) sent the following riddle to Lady Ossory, claiming that it was composed by physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton:

Four people sat down at a table to play;
They play’d all that night, and some part of next day;
This one thing observ’d, that when all were seated,
Nobody play’d with them, and nobody betted;
Yet, when they got up, each was winner a guinea;
Who tells me this riddle I’m sure is no ninny.

“A very old riddle; but if you never saw it you will like it, and you will revere the Riddle-maker,” Walpole wrote, “which was one Sir Isaac Newton, a great stargazer and conjuror.”

The answer was provided in a subsequent letter. Lady Ossory figured out the answer, which is “musicians”, while Walpole admitted that he was unable to solve it when he first encountered the riddle.

Anyway, one thing still baffles me — was it really Isaac Newton who wrote the riddle? I tried to research it but I arrived at a dead end. So, probably, it wasn’t Newton who wrote it. There’s also a possibility that this “Sir Isaac Newton” named in Walpole’s letter was a different person, but I highly doubt it.

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My name Edmark M. Law. I work as a freelance writer, mainly writing about science and mathematics. I am an ardent hobbyist. I like to read, solve puzzles, play chess, make origami and play basketball. In addition, I dabble in magic, particularly card magic and other sleight-of-hand type magic. I live in Hong Kong. You can find me on Twitter` and Facebook. My email is edmarklaw@learnfunfacts.com

9 thoughts on “A Riddle From Isaac Newton?

  1. Isaac Newton was a talented fellow, but I’ve not heard of any riddle-making skills. Perhaps, in attributing the riddle to Newton, Walpole wished to attach the same significance as people do today in attributing quotes to Albert Einstein. A good riddle, either way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A few weeks ago, I saw a post with the quote “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.” and it claimed that it was written by Newton.

      I really doubted that it was Newton who came up with that so I did some research. It turned out that it was written by JOSEPH FORT Newton in his 1948 nook “Adventures of Faith”. It’s a misquote too. Here’s the original writing:

      “Why are so many people shy, lonely, shut up within themselves, unequal to their tasks, unable to be happy? Because they are inhabited by fear, like the man in the Parable of the Talents, erecting walls around themselves instead of building bridges into the lives of others; shutting out life.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, it wasn’t a lie, per se, to credit the quote to Newton; just misleading. For a misquote, it wasn’t too far off the mark. My favorite misquote is “Blood is thicker than water”, which often leads to the conclusion that biological family bonds are stronger than any other. The quote is, in fact, “Blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”, which has the opposite meaning.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It clearly credited Isaac Newton (I forgot to include the name).

        As for “blood is thicker than water”, I can argue that it was originally meant as intended and there are several references that I can cite that has this proverb dating back to several centuries ago. I first encountered the quote you mentioned in Albert Jack’s Shaggy Dogs and Black Sheep: The Origins of Even More Phrases We Use Every Day. When I researched his claim, the earliest reference that I found was an online article by R. Richard Pustelniak written in 1994.

        However, even after researching several databases, I can’t find an older reference that supports this claim. It would be great if Pustelniak (who I’d assume to first suggest it) to provide a reference for this as I find this interpretation rather interesting.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Ah, that makes more sense. I was under the impression that the quoter credited the quote to just any Newton.

        As a lover of language, I like the sound of this Albert Jack’s Shaggy Dogs and Black Sheep. I’ve not heard of R. Richard Pustlniak before, but it would be handy if one could ask him about the quote. It’s like reading a book or viewing a photo and wishing that the author or artist was around to ask about the work’s intended meaning.


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