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Newton and the Counterfeiter (Book Review)

Newton and the Counterfeiter book cover

We all know the old Isaac Newton (1643-1727) story about the apple falling from the tree and his epiphany about gravity. Only it was more of a process over years to discover and prove the case for a mathematical explanation of the World, the Universe and all That. Newton, first and foremost, in his early 20s was at the forefront of mathematical thinking in Europe. He was, this book suggests, the greatest mathematician of his time. He authored the PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Latin for Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). He sought to explain God into the Universe, but never did. A man of thought and philosophy, not of people. In his entire eight decades of existence only one other human being was sought, for a while, for human companionship. That was Isaac Newton. But what about after his mathematical elevation into history?

The Royal Mint. From 1696 Issac Newton became the Warden of the Royal Mint in the Tower of London, becoming Master of the Royal Mint in 1699. This book, Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson, is set in the time of Newton’s position as Warden of the Royal Mint and his quest to solve the clipping problem in England’s currency. Clipping was the practice of snipping small bits off the side of English coins that devalued their worth on a weight-for-value basis. This silver was remelted and made into fake currency. At this point the estimation was that around 10 per cent of England’s currency was fake.

Meanwhile England pursued an ongoing war with France. And English silver coins could be melted and sold in Europe for a small, but reliable, profit. So trade was shutting down in England and the country was in crisis because money was literally disappearing from the streets. This was a national existential crisis that needed to be solved. At the top of the counterfeiter’s food chain, at least for a while, was a master criminal named William Chaloner. As Warden of the Royal Mint it was Newton’s role to pursue, investigate and prosecute forgers and coiners like William Chaloner and see them hung on the banks of the Thames.

The fact that William Chaloner probably grossly underestimated Isaac Newton’s ability to shut down the coining rackets of London should be no surprise to the reader. However, the real enjoyment of this book is in the academic rigour behind this enjoyable read… the context of publishing and the limit in England at the time of paper; the bastardry and duplicity of rampant crime in London; the first forays of the English crown into paper money, bonds and lotteries; the details known about both parties in this duel. If you’re looking for a 1700 overview of London this is a great read, of itself.

However, I think the greatest takeaway from this book is that people from our histories aren’t just two dimensional role models for the plucking of altruistic anything. Newton was a flawed human being. He hated people. He was vengeful and malicious. Newton burned a lot of his papers when his role as Warden of the Mint ended… how far along the path of torture and coercion did he go? He was known for using every tool at his contemporary disposal to gain confessions and evidence. The story shines because Newton as a human being is so much more than The Principia or the mythical story of an apple falling during the years of Plague.

It’s been a while since I picked up one of these non-fiction science related novels and I found it rather refreshing. A strong well researched story about the man behind the man and what he did after the man we remember. Issac Newton had William Chaloner sent to the gallows at Tyburn’s Hanging Tree, now Marble Arch, on 22 March, 1699. The book states, “Richer men often paid their hangman to pull on their legs to speed death. Not the destitute Chaloner. He had to choke till he drooped, to the greater amusement of the crowd.” His epitaph reads:

“Thus liv’d and thus dy’d a Man who had he square’d his Talent by the Rules of Justice and integrity might have been useful to the Commonwealth: But as he follow’d only the Dictates of Vice, was as a rotten Member cut off.”

Isaac Newton died in the early hours of 20 March, 1927. He was most certainly a complicated man until the last.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark and I live in the Derwent Valley in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a mazer & a yeast farmer (making beer, fruit wine and mead as by-products of continuous improvement in my farming practices). I'm a photographer, although my film cameras are currently silent. I do not tolerate idiots. I do not tolerate bigotry. I do not tolerate excuses. Let's be clear, if you sit with my enemies you my are my enemy for life.

Blogger. Thinker. Brewer. Drinker. Life partner to the amazing and incredible Megan.

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