The other side of the coin(age): Newton and the Counterfeiter

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Did you know that Isaac Newton had two jobs? One, you know about: To figure out all that physics and math stuff so we could live for a while in a Newtonian world. The other was as th big honcho of the Royal Mint. Where they make the money.


In that second job, Newton had several interesting problems to deal with, which were in some ways more complex than how planets keep orbiting around stars and apples keep falling from trees. He needed to secure the coinage of the land against counterfeit, and in particular, to end the career of one particular counterfeiter, William Chaloner.

This story is expertly chronicled in Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist by Tom Levenson.

This is interesting for many reasons, including the fact that modern money, as we know it today (not coinage … that’s old … but the mint system itself) was pretty new, and modern law enforcement as we know of it today simply didn’t exist.

Of this book, Levenson notes:

Newton, I found, was a bureaucrat, a man with a job running England’s money supply at a time with surprising parallels to our own: new, poorly understood financial engineering to deal with what was a national currency and economic crisis. He was asked to think about money, and he did–and at the same time, he was given the job of Warden of the Mint, which among other duties put him charge of policing those who would fake or undermine the King’s coins. So there I had it: a gripping true crime story, with life-and-death stakes and enough information to follow my leading characters through the bad streets and worse jails of London–and one that at the same time let me explore some of critical moves in the making of the world we inhabit through the mind and feelings of perhaps the greatest scientific thinker who ever lived. How could I resist that?

This is a great read. I highly recommend it.

Have you read the breakthrough novel of the year? When you are done with that, try:

In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden, now in Kindle or Paperback
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8 thoughts on “The other side of the coin(age): Newton and the Counterfeiter

  1. Hmmm… I’m intrigued. Every new thing I hear about him, I end up feeling that Newton was more of an interesting character than I already though.

    In addition to all his, um, eccentricities as a scientist, wasn’t Newton also a real harda$s as head of the mint? I guess he’d have to have been, though, since wasn’t the penalty for counterfeiting in Britain death?

  2. I only “knew” this because it figured into Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver trilogy. I should pick up this book, if only to replace “fact inspired fiction” with “actual fact” in my brain….

  3. Newton was brilliant – he standardized the minting of coin. You could weigh the gold coins to see if they had been ‘shaved’ and if they had, you took whoever was handing out these shaved coins and had ’em drawn and quartered. He also put the markings on the edge of coins to make it easier to spot trickery without weighing it all. If you’d had a chance to play with ancient gold coin for example, you’d see a pretty big variation in weights of a single type until Newton’s era, and that was due largely to the lack of standardization and not to people shaving a bit off the edge. I can’t imagine how you’d draw the story out into a book though.

  4. I can’t imagine how you’d draw the story out into a book though.

    Well, you’ve never had lunch with Tom, then, have you. He’s a story teller. The book is excellent.

  5. Dear Greg,

    Many thanks for this very kind notice. I’m blushing. (Next lunch on me — or better, a meal at a time of day when grain or grape, in liquid form, is involved.)

    Best — Tom

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