Newton and the Counterfeiter (Thomas Levenson)


This is a very good book.  The theme is that Isaac Newton, having been active on the right side in the Glorious Revolution was looking for a position in London that would give him both money and a place in society.  In the end. he was offered the post of Warden of the Royal Mint, which in effect meant dealing with the internal workings of the place.  He had to reorganise the place to carry to carry out the wholesale recoinage required by a serious crisis of confidence in the currency, and I actually found this the most interesting part of the account–how he not only analysed the process to see where the blockages were, but also did things with his own hands just as in his work as a physicist.

Then we get to the story promised by the title.  Or it could be:  ‘Isaac Newton–Supercop’.  He has to deal with a number of counterfeiters, including one Willian Chaloner who has been making accusations about the integrity of the Mint’s procedures.  I didn’t really see Chaloner as having a coherent plan to ruin the Mint–rather I think he was trying to fish in muddy waters.  I’m not that convinced by the duel between Newton and Chaloner either, though it was striking to see how both sides suffered from a deficiency in the material base–a simple lack of paper, never mind engraving equipment, for instance.

I remember it once being written used his position at the Mint to vent his (suppositious) sadistic-homosexual urges on coiners, but here it seems to be a matter of standard Stuart jurisprudence–put the bloke in prison until he confesses or blabs in front of a stool pigeon or catches something and dies painfully.  Just like Russia today, although in Stuart England the case first of all had to go before a grand jury which might often enough throw it out–such independence was apparently rarer in the trial itself.  It seems that WC correctly pleaded that he was being tried in the wrong jurisdiction and was ignored–we are gratified to see the end of him anyway.

I’m still impressed by the revelation of Newton as living in a world where nails were made by hand and the whole economy ran on coinage that was minted semi-manually.

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