Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist
Isaac Newton (1642-1727) did so many things so well that some of
them, though important, have been virtually forgotten.
The thinker who conceived the idea of gravitational force,
figured out how light rays behave, invented what we today call
calculus and formulated three famous laws about the motion and
interaction of bodies also speculated on the nature and knowability
of God and served his country for years as watchman and guardian of
Thomas Levenson, a writer and science professor at MIT, has
rescued from relative obscurity Newton’s long vendetta
against counterfeiters in a book that goes a long way toward
humanizing the man and making his accomplishments understandable to
the lay reader.
In the last years of the 17th century, England was in financial
crisis. Counterfeiters and “clippers” were debasing its
currency to the point where the country could barely finance its
expensive foreign wars and international trade. Newton, already
famous for his scientific work, was lured to London in 1696 for
what looked like a sinecure --- overseeing the Royal mint (paper
money was not yet in circulation). Counterfeiting was rampant; so
too was “clipping” --- the practice of shaving tiny
bits off metal coins to accumulate enough metal to stamp out bogus
duplicates. The standard penalty for both offenses was hanging.
Newton went to work with righteous zeal, reforming the mint
itself and relentlessly hunting down counterfeiters. Levenson sees
Newton as almost maniacally driven, quickly building up a web of
spies and informers who infiltrated the counterfeiting trade and
kept him abreast of developments. William Chaloner was only the
cleverest of his many adversaries, but it was no contest. Newton
simply overwhelmed Chaloner with a mass of evidence that brought
him to the gallows, much to Newton’s satisfaction.
Levenson tells the story with close attention to detail. Things
get fairly technical here and there as he explains the workings of
the English financial system and the details of Newton’s
scientific work, but Levenson is an elegant writer and strives to
keep the main narrative line going smoothly.
This is not easy to do. He has to start with Newton’s
earlier career in gravity, optics, mathematics and --- surprisingly
--- even his obvious interest in alchemy. Then he has to introduce
Chaloner, an opportunistic ne’er-do-well but a man clever
enough to trick others into doing much of his dirty work for him.
Along the way Levenson also gives us glimpses of Newton’s
earnest efforts to find a place for God in his cosmos. He also
itemizes the large cast of bit players who worked with Chaloner at
counterfeiting and in many cases ratted on him to Newton. Newton
too has his supporting cast, and it is an all-star team of great
literary, political and scientific names: Pepys, Locke, Boyle,
Halley and Huygens, among others. All these peripheral matters are
certainly important to Levenson’s story, but they do give the
book a structural problem.
The result is that Newton and Chaloner do not actually come face
to face until halfway through the book. Chaloner tried to blacken
Newton’s reputation, insisting to his last breath that he was
being unjustly “murthured.” The trial was perfunctory,
the verdict virtually certain, the hanging immediate. Isaac Newton,
the rigidly perfectionist scientist, knew he had done his job well.
He simply ignored Chaloner’s several letters pleading for
This is a side of Isaac Newton that few today know much about.
We learn little from Levenson about Newton’s private life
with the exception of one possible romantic involvement. Isaac
Newton must have been a wonderful man to know --- but a merciless
foe to tangle with.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 12, 2011