Don't mess with a genius

(Migrated from my older blog without any changes, as free blogs are infested with ads now.)

Or: What happens when Newton’s laws are violated

Recently, I read a book called Newton and the Counterfeiter, subtitled The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist. It focuses on an awesome phase of Isaac Newton’s later career that, like his pursuits in alchemy, gets little mention in most accounts. The story, of Newton’s job as Warden of the Mint and his efforts bringing criminals to justice, contains many elements of a modern crime thriller: including an ingenious arch-adversary, Newton visiting the gin houses of London in disguise, personally interrogating suspects, playing good cop–bad cop, and using every trick in the book, before the book had been written. The story begins, as many of them do, at the beginning.

The beginning

Isaac Newton, 55 years old and just recovered from his nervous breakdown, was looking for a post in the city (London), having lived in the village of Cambridge ever since his student days. As a Great Man now, he had already been rewarded with a seat in parliament (the only thing ever recorded spoken by him is a request to close the window), but it appeared harder to get him a job. Finally, his friends pulled the right strings, and Newton moved in as Warden of the Mint in 1696.

The job was meant to be a sinecure (he had been promised that the position “has not too much business to require more attendance than you may spare”), and no one expected him to do anything special. Today though, we can look back and confidently say that Newton is the greatest Warden the Mint ever had. Unfortunately, this is not saying much, because it appears Newton is also the only good Warden the Mint ever had.

The Mint

The Royal Mint at the time had two officials in charge, both appointed by the king and with no well-defined hierarchy between them. The Warden of the Mint, with a salary of 400-odd pounds a year, was in charge of the Mint’s facilities, and the Master of the Mint, with a salary of 600 pounds a year plus (more substantial) a percentage of every coin made, was in charge of the actual production of new coins.

When Newton moved in as Warden, the Master was the notoriously corrupt and incompetent Thomas Neale, who was so lost in his gambling habit and his numerous enterprises that the operations of the Mint were, well, not in mint condition.

This was a bad time, because counterfeiting, clipping, and arbitrage had weakened the economy to the extent that there was a shortage of cash everywhere, most tax payments and trade had stopped, panic was rising, and civil war was imminent.


Counterfeiting was easy money, and everyone took to it. The government declared it high treason, a hanging offence, but this only made juries more reluctant to hang their peers. Of those counterfeiters who were brought to trial, many escaped conviction, even one of them through a wonderful incompetence defence:

[I]nept counterfeiters attempting to exploit the currency crisis supplied the Old Bailey with a constant diet of rapidly dispatched defendants. Perhaps the most spectacular display of incompetence came from an unnamed “inhabitant of the parish of St. Andrews Holbourn,” brought to trial accused of copying French coins. His work was astonishingly awful, and he was acquitted, the jury accepting his rather bold argument that the poor quality of his work confirmed that “he had tryed to Coin with Pewter as aforesaid for Diversion, or the like, but never was concerned in Coining any manner of Money.” Few others tried this defense.

The Great Recoinage: Newton takes over

Faced with no alternative, the government had decided that the Mint would recoin everything — the Great Recoinage was to take place. It aimed to melt and restrike, in three years, more coins than it had produced in three decades. How anyone expected it to happen with Neale in charge of it is a mystery. As the recoinage began, it quickly turned into a farce, and it was clear to everyone that it would be an impossible task.

Newton saw what was happening, and couldn’t stand it. He read up on the history of the Mint, studied its operations, studied Neale, accumulated all the knowledge necessary, and somehow intimidated and pushed Neale aside in a bloodless coup, and took over the Great Recoinage himself. He streamlined the production, conducting probably one of the earliest “time-and-motion studies” (he synchronized workers’ operations to the rate of their heartbeat), running the mint from 4am to midnight, and finished the “clearly impossible task” ahead of schedule.

Warden duty

Newton’s unusual coat of arms

After saving the country from economic ruin, by doing something that wasn’t even his own job, Newton finally turned to a duty that his post actually came with — protecting the currency, by “enforcing the King’s law in and around London for all crimes committed against the currency”. This meant doing a policeman’s work — or rather, that of “a criminal investigator, interrogator, and prosecutor rolled into one”. He found the idea distasteful, not to mention the kind of men he would have to come in contact with, and requested that this be assigned to someone else, but when his request was denied he turned to the task in all seriousness.

Despite having hardly been a man of the world until then, he very quickly figured out what he had to do, better than anyone else had done. (In the mere four years he was Warden, he got dozens of counterfeiters hanged.)

He descended into the underworld … hiring men to go undercover, interrogating suspects, planting informers in prisons, the works. To avoid issues of jurisdiction he got himself appointed Justice of the Peace for nineteen counties surrounding London. Most criminals (one is almost tempted to say victims) were entirely unprepared against this kind of systematic prosecution, “utterly unprepared to do battle with the most disciplined mind in Europe”.

Except one.


William Chaloner, counterfeiter, confidence trickster, and various things besides, the ingenious man who would one day challenge Sir Isaac Newton, had started small. He had set out from home — or had been thrown out — as a youth to apprentice under a nail-maker, where he learnt the basics of counterfeiting instead. Arriving in London with its oppressively exclusionary guild system, he somehow managed to survive, going through a series of professions including being a quack doctor, progressing to fortune teller, and then becoming a locator of stolen goods, at which he succeeded through the infallible trick of being the one to have stolen them in the first place.

[One of his most heinous sources of money was the following. Jacobite sedition—supporting the return of the deposed King James, over the reigning William of Orange—was treason and punishable with death, and there was a reward for those who gave up seditioners to the king. Chaloner tricked various printers into printing Jacobite propaganda, then used that as evidence to turn them in to be hanged, and claim his reward.]

Finally he turned to his true calling, that of counterfeiting. After coining a great deal of money (he once claimed to have produced more than thirty thousand pounds in his life, about four million pounds in today’s money) and getting caught a couple of times — once escaping conviction by turning informer, and the other time by coming up, along with his co-accused, with such a delightfully tangled mess of accusations and cross-accusations that everyone was let go out of confusion — he began to look for more safer avenues. He realised that for a man of his skill, making good counterfeit coins wasn’t the problem; having it untraceable back to him was. In an audacious plan, he realised that the safest place from which to pass his money was the Mint itself, and resolved to get into it.

He printed a couple of pamphlets giving advice to the government on how to prevent counterfeiting — here his expertise was all too evident — and even once gave a speech in parliament. Newton ignored him at first and denied him entry even to look at the machines in the mint, until Chaloner lost patience and decided to attack the man himself. (He alleged that the mint was making side money by participating in counterfeiting itself. The worst part was, some of these accusations were true: some dies had disappeared from the mint. Newton was put on trial and forced to defend himself, and nearly lost his job.)

Big mistake.

Newton was finally annoyed, and made it his goal to destroy him. Over the next two years, he devoted much of his life to ruining Chaloner’s. With customary ruthlessness, he set about accumulating evidence and witnesses. By now Chaloner was in custody again — bank notes and a Malt Lottery had just come into existence, and of course he counterfeited them — so he was out of the way. Newton got spies and informers planted in all the right places, he tracked down old contacts of Chaloner — friends, female coiners he’d had affairs with, wives of former associates — and subpoenaed (or just intimidated) them into giving testimony, anticipated who would try to flee to Scotland when, and prepared an impenetrable web of evidence. It is more complicated than that, and Chaloner still did his best from behind bars and the whole cat-and-mouse game has more details than I have any remaining patience to go into now :-), but you can read about them in the book. Chaloner was brought to trial. He tried every defence in succession, from pleading innocence to madness to pointing out (validly) that he was being tried by a Middlesex jury for crimes committed in London. He was convicted nevertheless, and after Newton ignored all the piteous mercy petitions he wrote, was hanged, drawn and quartered.

Newton’s later years

In 1699 the worthless Neale finally died, and Newton became Master of the Mint on Christmas Day, his 57th birthday. The responsibilities of the job had already been de facto handled by Newton for years, but Neale had gained all the proceeds from the coining — 22,000 pounds. Newton now became the only recorded Warden to become Master. Although the Great Recoinage was over, the Mint still was in production, and Newton made 3500 the first year. He finally gave up his Cambridge professorship which he had still retained, went on to become genuinely rich for the first time, and seems to have led a contented life. Much later he lost 20000 pounds in the South Sea Bubble, the world’s first stock market crash — Newton is attributed to have said: “I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men”.

He was knighted in 1705, the first scientist to be knighted (though possibly for political reasons rather than either his science or Mint work), and died in 1727, aged 84. Despite being one of the greatest and most influential scientists of all time, he wrote:

I don’t know what I may seem to the world, but as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered around me.

His memorial at Westminster Abbey bears was proposed to bear the inscription: “If you doubt that such a man could exist, this monument bears witness”.

More details:

Others I haven’t seen or read:
Talk by Thomas Levenson, author of the book (Running Time: 1:03:30)
Book review in The Guardian
Book review in The Telegraph
Book review in Powell’s books
Another book review in The Guardian
Story in NPR radio [23 min 23 sec]
Post by Levenson at Executed Today
Long review/book abridgement! at Chicago Boyz
The author has a blog