Isaac Newton and the Counterfeiter

Worth every penny!

Thomas Levenson

Isaac Newton had three significant careers. He was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge for almost 30 years. This was a sinecure with the lightest of teaching commitments which allowed Newton plenty of time to pursue his research interests including Mathematics, Optics and Alchemy. Alchemy was not seen as entirely spurious at this time as the scientific method was still developing its standards of evidence and proof. Newton tried applying the scientific method to the practise of Alchemy, and he may have pursued this to its furthest point. Levenson speculates that he may have finally realised the dead end of Alchemy in the early 1690’s and this, together with the end of an intimate relationship with a younger acolyte, may have prompted a crisis of confidence and faith in the greatest mind of his generation, famously an emotionally disengaged man.

After his recovery from his emotional crisis Newton was looking for a well paid job in London and late in 1695 the continuing crisis in English currency and finances led to him being offered the Wardenship of the Royal Mint. English currency was in crisis as the coins were melted down and taken to Paris to take the arbitrage advantage of a 2% price differential in the price of silver. In this era silver was consistently flowing from west to east to take advantage of the higher price of silver in China relative to gold. Isaac Newton’s new job was to manage what became known as the Great Recoinage where all of the old coins were recalled, melted down and reissued in a standardised machine produced format.

In the end the Great Recoinage was only a temporary fix as the politicians refused to countenance devaluation by reducing the amount of silver in the coins so by 1715 the coins had again been siphoned out of England for their silver content. Nevertheless in the 1690’s Newton did his job efficiently and manufactured £7M of coins in three years. Newton applied his abilities to measure and standardise procedures to the manufacturing process and vastly increased the productive capacity of the Mint – perhaps the first time and motion study. In doing this he may have helped stave off social revolt in London caused by a shortage of currency for transactions and also helped William III defeat Louis XIV at the decisive siege of Namur. No mean achievements in their own right.

One of the Warden’s jobs was hunting down counterfeiters exploiting the shortage of coins in England and the obvious flaws in older coins by producing fakes. The 1690’s provided a practical demonstration of Gresham’s Law that bad currency drives out the good. Many of the counterfeiters were excluded from reputable professions by the restrictions placed on guild membership in an era when the guilds were still able to control entry to trades. Female counterfeiters were punished as witches and could be burnt at the stake until the end of the 18th century. Male counterfeiters were subjected to the barbarous punishment of being hung, drawn and quartered. The reason for the severity of the punishments for counterfeiters was that they were seen as having committed treason by falsely engraving the monarch’s head on the fake coins.

The most ambitious and ruthless of the counterfeiters was William Chaloner who learnt some tricks of the trade in Birmingham and then came to London in the early 1690’s to perfect his art and offer his wares in the large and (hopefully) anonymous city which contained more than half a million people, over 10% of the English population. Chaloner was a fine engraver and had a range of contacts to help finish the job properly. Some of the people he collaborated with were japanners (specialising in the application of lacquers), watchmakers, fine toolmakers and middlemen and women prepared to distribute the false coins. The 1690’s were an era of great opportunity for counterfeiters as a result of the shortage of legitimate currency and the presence of both old “hand made” coins and new machined coins. The shortage and unreliability of coins led to the new Bank of England accidentally inventing Europe’s first permanent paper currency. Chaloner also forged some of the paper currency, but the supply was limited and the denominations high, which meant that people were on the lookout for forgeries.

Chaloner’s ambition was to insinuate himself or his confederates into the Mint to better enable the distribution of the counterfeit coins. His strategy to achieve this aim was to accuse the Mint and its officers, Newton, of being complicit in counterfeiting. A number of Parliamentary grandees in this pre-Party era of English politics were happy to consider Chaloner’s proposals as they were a way to embarrass the governing faction. To them Newton’s reputation was just collateral damage. Newton determined to hunt Chaloner down after he had been embarrassed in Parliament.

And so the chase began in a London without a police force and where the boundaries of responsibility for law enforcement and justice were often unclear. The use of rewards to capture criminals led to a number of entrepreneurs setting up as thief takers and criminals evaded justice by jurisdiction hopping. Key witnesses often disappeared to Scotland or France for a few months. Isaac Newton set about capturing his man by building up an array of evidence against Chaloner, much of which was circumstantial or hearsay. Chaloner tried to deflect the blame on to absent confederates and call on assistance from his former allies. In the end Newton blindsided him at the trial and arguably railroaded him with the weight of evidence, innuendo and testimony by accomplices. Regardless of the actual charges (probably spurious) Newton created the impression that Chaloner had to be guilty of something, and that was what the jury decided.

Chaloner was dragged on a sled to Tyburn and hanged. He couldn’t pay the hangman to pull on his legs to ensure a quick death so he choked slowly.

Isaac Newton reduced his workload at the Mint and wrote his second book, Opticks. He devoted more time to the Royal Society and lived very well on his salary and perks from the Mint for another 28 years.

Isaac Newton – Mathematician of genius, possibly the world’s best Alchemist, early time and motion study manufacturer, and proto Sherlock Holmes. Some kind of a career.

One of the favourable reviews of this book was provided by Neal Stephenson whose fun-house mirror epic of this period in the Baroque cycle is still one of the most jaw dropping reads for its’ sheer brio and bravado, as well as for its wonderfully researched depiction of this critical formative period of modern science, finance and the globalised world.


About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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