Bill Eckberg writes:
I thought your readers might be interested in a hard science journal's review of what is essentially a numismatic story. Of course, Newton did have a career outside of coin production
Bill forwarded a copy of a review in a recent issue of Nature magazine of Thomas Levenson's Newton and the Counterfeiter: The
Unknown Detective Career of the World's
Greatest Scientist. We've mentioned the book before, but I haven't had a chance to pick it up yet. Here are excerpts from the Nature review.
After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in
which King James II of England was overthrown
by a union of Parliamentarians led by
William of Orange, the English government
found itself in dire financial straits. It had
joined the War of the Grand Alliance against
France in 1689, and was struggling to fund its
army in a conflict that was to last for another
8 years. To make matters worse, the country
was suffering from a lack of good coinage.
As Thomas Levenson explains in his engaging
book Newton and the Counterfeiter, the
government turned to an unlikely hero
to save the nation from financial calamity
— Isaac Newton.
An unlikely appointee for the
role, he was at that time enjoying fame as the
author of Principia Mathematica, his seminal
work on the foundations of physics, and had
just embarked on a radical change of career as
Although the job had been treated as a
sinecure by most of his predecessors, Newton
took it on with vigour. He masterfully oversaw
the great re-coinage and, after overcoming
his initial revulsion, prosecuted with relish the
clippers and ‘coiners', or counterfeiters, who
were partly responsible for the disarray of the
country's currency. It wasn't long before his
role brought him up against the arch-counterfeiter
and forger, William Chaloner, whose
skill and success in faking French pistoles
(gold coins) and English guineas had quickly
taken him from poverty to riches.
The book documents the entertaining
relationship between these two geniuses and
the different worlds they inhabited. Although
their story is well known to historians of science,
Levenson's account adds substantially
to our knowledge of the social and political
background against which it played out. The
author manages to unpick many of the tangled
and morally ambiguous webs that made
up the metropolitan counterfeiting culture
of that era, and shows — impressively, given
the scant sources available — how Chaloner
pulled off many of his brazen schemes.
It is an enthralling tale.
Wayne Homren, Editor
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