Isaac Newton: The law of money
After discovering calculus, the reflecting telescope, the nature of light and colour and revealing the laws of gravity, motion and cooling, the brilliant English scientist and alchemist, Isaac Newton decided it was time for a radical career change. He retired his telescope and lowered his gaze to more worldly matters: Money.
Sir Isaac Newton
In 1696 he was appointed to the Royal Mint which, still today, makes and distributes the nation’s money. He left the quiet village academic life of Cambridge and moved into the Tower of London.
The nation’s finances were in dire straits (a total mess). About 90% of the coins in circulation were either counterfeit (fake) or underweight. The problem was threefold: Hand-struck (hammered) silver coins from before 1662 had been clipped or shaved (had pieces cut off them) and their value (weight) reduced. In many cases they could not legally be used to pay for things, especially abroad.
Machine-made silver coins produced by the Royal Mint after 1662 were easily copied.
The currency had a third problem: the silver in the coins was more valuable in Paris and Amsterdam than in London. Large quantities of coins were melted down and sold abroad.
Counterfeiting was a booming cottage industry. Gangs of criminals shaved, clipped, stamped and moulded coins. Clandestine machines sprang up like mushrooms as soon as the Royal Mint circulated new coins.
The Mint was in urgent need of a detective-cum-visionary with the qualities of Sherlock Holmes and an extensive knowledge of metallurgy and mathematics to restore integrity to the nation’s money supply. Newton was the über-perfect candidate; obsessive, tenacious, and a brilliant administrator and alchemist.
Newton brought order to chaos. He managed the recall of all coins, the manufacture and issue of a new secure coinage and introduced the gold standard.
He relentlessly hunted down counterfeiters, frequenting sleazy taverns and dank prisons, gathering information and evidence and developing a network of spies and informants.
The most influential counterfeiter of the day and Newton’s arch enemy was William Chaloner, who rose from nail maker’s apprentice to influential gentlemen on the profits of counterfeiting, theft, fraud and duplicity. It took Newton two years to gather enough evidence. Chaloner was no match for Newton. He was convicted of high treason and hung on 22 March 1699.
British economist, John Maynard Keynes described the genius of Enlightenment (le siècle des Lumières) as “one of the greatest and most efficient of our civil servants”. A fine accolade, but not quite as sumptuous as this from poet Alexander Pope:
Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night:
God said, "Let Newton be!" and all was light.
Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson
Newton by Peter Ackroyd
If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.
I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.
We build too many walls and not enough bridges.
To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.
I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.