Thursday, June 23, 2016

Book Review: Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson

Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson

Isaac Newton is most famous as a scientist, a key figure in the scientific revolution who developed laws of motion and gravitation as well as calculus (whether Leibniz developed it first is a controversy for another book). He is less well known for his interest in alchemy (transmuting base metals into gold) and esoteric biblical studies. Perhaps least known is his tenure at the Royal Mint, where he oversaw a major recoining project and prosecuted counterfeiters.

While focused on Newton's years with the Mint, this book does sketch out Newton's early years and scientific contributions. During his Cambridge professorship, Newton wrote the Principia and secretly worked on alchemical experiments. He became quite famous in Europe, though he was not very personable. As described in the book, he is the paradigm of the cold, calculating scientist. He did well for himself but did have a teacher's salary.

Friends encouraged him to move to London where he'd have more contacts and better prospects. Newton didn't go until he was offered the job of Warden of the Royal Mint. The main project that faced him was recoining the English money in circulation. At the time, all money was in coins made of precious metals. Unfortunately, silver was more valuable on the Continent than in England, which lead to various schemes where criminals would clip off bits of coins (if not just melting them down) and take the silver to Belgium and France. There, the silver bought more gold than it would in England. The process of exporting English silver, converting it to gold, and returning to England to buy more silver was highly profitable. The Mint redesigned the coins to prevent fraudulent activity.

The other task Newton faced was prosecuting the "clippers" and the "coyners," people who made false coins by mixing in other metals with the silver (if they even used silver). One of the most skillful men at this was William Chaloner. He had the skills to make dies from which to cast coins. In the last two decades, he counterfeited both English and French money. To solve their economic woes (i.e. financing a war with France), the government began issuing the first bonds, described as a lottery investment. Chaloner also forged lottery sheets. These many crimes were hard to prosecute thanks to the corruption in the legal system and the craftiness of the criminals.

The book explains the economic state of England quite well, making it easy to understand the issues involved and the urgency of the situation. The grittiness of criminal life in late 1600s London is especially interesting and compelling. Networks of criminals acquired needed materials, produced forgeries, and distributed the fake money. But if someone was caught they often would be willing to testify against others in order to save their own skins. The cat-and-mouse game Newton and Chaloner played is vividly described and makes for an exciting legal thriller.

Well researched and written, this book is a great, quick read that gives readers a glimpse of a fascinating, if forgotten, bit of history.

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