Reviewed by Paul Collins
There are any number of settings where we might imagine Isaac Newton holding forth in February of 1699 -- under his famed apple tree, say, or before an august assembly of the Royal Society. Draining drams with counterfeiters in a lowlife London pub called the Dogg, though, seems less likely. But that's just what Britain's greatest scientist was doing -- and in Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist, Thomas Levenson has done an admirable job of explaining how that odd scene came about.
Although Newton's fame comes from physics, Levenson points out that much of his life was in fact dedicated to studying alchemy, or figuring out how to transmute dross into gold. That fascination, so often regarded as oddly inconvenient by Newton scholars, becomes the hinge of Levenson's tale -- for by 1695, King William III's royal Mint was in such a dire state that it could have used a little alchemy itself. Because the silver in British coins was now worth more in continental Europe than the coins' face value, speculators were melting them down, shipping the metal abroad, and then using the proceeds to procure ... more coins. "It was the nearest thing imaginable," Levenson writes, "to a financial perpetual motion machine."
But that motion came at the expense of British coffers. Soon the few coins remaining were either clipped -- that is, subtly shaved down for their silver -- or were counterfeits made from cheap alloys. Brits found themselves unable to pay for everyday basics, and the government, struggling to finance the Nine Years' War, found foreign bankers disenchanted with the country's literally flimsy currency: at one test conducted in Oxford, a sack of coins that should have tipped the scales at 400 ounces proved to weigh a mere 104.
And so the government called on the era's greatest mind to run the royal Mint -- a move roughly equivalent to asking Stephen Hawking to manage a TARP bailout. It is here that Levenson's book especially shines: for, as unlikely a figure as Newton appears for the job, Levenson shows that his deep experience of precious metals -- and his decisive grasp of mathematics -- actually made him an ideal choice.
Which brings us back to the dirty confines of the Dogg pub. Along with revamping the nation's currency through both the first time-motion study and modern coining techniques, Newton still faced the continued menace of counterfeiters. His solution was to create perhaps the greatest undercover force in the city, one that methodically snared low-level informants to aim upward at London's counterfeiting gangs.
The one man remaining out of reach all this time was the extraordinary William Chaloner; in him, Levenson has a cinematic figure of cunning and opportunistic criminality. Trained in metalworking as a nail maker, Chaloner fled his apprenticeship to a London life of hawking sex toys, fake timepieces and quack medicine. But when he returned to his old talent at metals, he found his real stock in trade as a crook.
Chaloner is an endlessly slippery presence in Newton and the Counterfeiter -- making and blowing fortunes at illicit coining, sending his accomplices to the gallows when that proves more profitable and even attempting to infiltrate the Mint itself with pamphlets passing himself off as a policy "expert." (This last bit of chutzpah, Levenson muses, was " a bit like John Gotti weighing in on Social Security.") When Chaloner attempts one last big score -- one that could bring down the national currency -- the result is a well-plotted game of cat-and-mouse with Isaac Newton.
Newton and the Counterfeiter is as finely struck as one of Newton's shillings, and just as shiny in its use of new technology; it owes much to Levenson's canny use of the digitized records of the Old Bailey court system, as well as the online Newton Project, which has digitized Newton's notebooks. The result is a history that, if it doesn't change Newton's primary reputation, certainly shows that there's more than meets the eye in our familiar genius. We are accustomed to enshrining Newton in the sciences: But G-men and bankers, it turns out, owe him a debt of gratitude as well.
Books mentioned in this post