Author Topic: Isaac Newton at work in the Tower Mint  (Read 3376 times)

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Offline Figleaf

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Isaac Newton at work in the Tower Mint
« on: August 04, 2009, 11:17:53 AM »
Newton Hangs Forger, Invents Banking, Loses Millions
By Manuela Hoelterhoff, Bloomberg, August 03, 2009

On March 22, 1699, the forger William Chaloner was dragged to the execution grounds at Tyburn, London, and hanged in front of a cheerful crowd, while his nemesis puttered away in his offices at the Mint. That would be Isaac Newton, the famed inventor of calculus, apple dropper and author of the “Principia,” once a hot seller.

A terrific new book, “Newton and the Counterfeiter,” describes the scientist’s little-known later years when, luckless in love and alchemy, he left Cambridge for London to become warden of the Royal Mint. Forgers, chiselers and melters had seriously undermined Britain’s money supply. To deal with the shortfall, King William had ordered up the Great Recoinage, which wasn’t going so well when Newton arrived to take up his post.

How the Cambridge don laid the groundwork for modern banking makes for a riveting story told with verve and humor by Thomas Levenson, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We spoke on the phone.

Hoelterhoff: All those years hoping to turn lead into gold must have been pretty good preparation?

Levenson: Newton’s alchemical work was a perfect preparation for a post that demanded an understanding of the processes of working metal. He had built his own furnaces, melted down plenty of substances, weighed, combined, assayed — all the skills one could hope for in a mint official.

He was also one of the most rigorous observers of his day. If you wanted someone who could watch the flow of precious metal from the melting houses to the final coin presses, Newton was your man -- and in fact his accounts at the end of the Great Recoinage demonstrate that he managed the passage of millions of pounds worth of silver through the mint with scrupulous honesty.

Money Supply

Hoelterhoff: What did the Great Recoinage entail?

Levenson: Recalling the old coins and re-minting them into new currency. Newton took up his post just as the first crucial milestone in the recoinage was about to pass. That was the moment when the Treasury would cease to accept the old coinage as legal tender for the payment of taxes. By that time, the recoinage effort was in a shambles, with almost none of the new silver coins needed to keep daily business going yet produced.

Before he arrived, the Mint failed to meet even the modest goal of producing 15,000 pounds sterling worth of currency a week -- a drop in the bucket against a total silver money supply of several million (roughly seven by most counts).

By late summer, after Newton had been on the job for about four months, the Mint hit a then-European record of 100,000 pounds sterling minted in a six-day week. Not too shabby.

Hoelterhoff: What was the urgency?

Levenson: As the shortage of ready money persisted, minor riots broke out, and such sober men as John Evelyn, a founder of the Royal Society and one of that era’s great diarists, worried seriously about the possibility of a more general insurrection.

Hoelterhoff: Why had silver disappeared?

Levenson: For the fundamental reason that any mispriced commodity disappears. The amount of silver that was legally required to be in say, a shilling, was worth slightly more melted down: three or four percent more -- despite the fact that it was against the law.

Hoelterhoff: That was enough to ship coins to where? Amsterdam?

Levenson: Which was a big banking center.

Drawn and Quartered

Hoelterhoff: Then there were clippers who shaved coins for their silver or what? Turned them into fake gold coins?

Levenson: Some counterfeiters would use silver as a gilding material or to coat a base metal.

Hoelterhoff: Chaloner comes off as a dashing, reckless talent who hopes to the end his facility and connection will save him. Considering the horrific punishment for counterfeiters -- you were lucky if you just got hung and not also quartered -- I’m amazed how many people chose this line of work.

Levenson: One of the funny things is that because the penalties were so severe, they were less likely to be imposed. And you might get a reprieve for offering information.

At this time, there was a huge criminal world running in parallel to the respectable world and it was sometimes quite porous. And London was a hard place to be poor, a horrible town to be poor in. If you had any talent, you tried in any possible way to better yourself, and Chaloner was smart and capable.

Hoelterhoff: How many counterfeiters did Newton catch? Any sign that he ever regretted sending his nemesis to his death?

Levenson: Maybe a couple of dozen were sent to the gibbet. There’s no record he had any feelings about Chaloner, though his handwriting becomes increasingly cramped and angry in some of the notes he took for the case.

Hoelterhoff: How much fake money did Chaloner make?

Levenson: In prison, Chaloner boasted of having counterfeited about 30,000 pounds of false guineas and other denominations. That’s between four or five million pounds, or around $7 million in today’s currency.

Loses Millions

Hoelterhoff: Newton ends up getting a promotion from warden to Master of the Mint, which made him rich. Then, in 1720 he lost millions in today’s currency in the infamous South Sea Bubble. It seems incredible that his brain didn’t tell him the returns were nuts.

Levenson: I try not to preach, but it is one of the arguments for intelligent and robust regulations when even someone as brilliant as Isaac Newton is taken.

“Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist” is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (318 pages, $25). Levenson has also written the similarly engaging “Einstein in Berlin.”

Source: The Philadelphia Bulletin
An unidentified coin is a piece of metal. An identified coin is a piece of history.

Offline tonyclayton

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Re: Isaac Newton at work in the Tower Mint
« Reply #1 on: August 04, 2009, 12:12:49 PM »
Sounds a good read.  Newton's ability to turn around the recoinage was a tour-de-force.

Offline Figleaf

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Re: Isaac Newton at work in the Tower Mint
« Reply #2 on: August 04, 2009, 12:38:09 PM »
I find the period around 1700 simply fascinating. If you share that sentiment, I can recommend "The baroque cycle" by Neal Stephenson. Part 1 is here. Unlike the above book, this is fiction.

The books have a scientific angle, with Newton and Leibnitz struggling to find the concepts of data storing and electricity that will lead, centuries later, to the computer, while harnessing hydraulic power to keep mine shafts dry. There's an economic and financial angle "focussed" on transportation in France, markets in Germany, Spanish colonial trade, London banking and Dutch financing, a social angle, ranging from slavery policy, witch hunts in Germany to coinage in what is now the Czech Republic, the London underworld, the French nobility, Indian feudalism, Spanish inquisition, the diplomatic world in The Hague and the crazy world of the court of czar Peter the Great, plus some fine insights in hanging. There's also the swashbuckling approach where Newton and Chaloner slug it out, pirates, thieves, warships, the siege of Vienna and the colonization of what was to become the US vie for attention. It never gets boring, all the more because Stephenson gets his history right.

An inside joke is that Stephenson recycles the family names of the main characters in Cryptonomicon, which is similarly wide-ranging, but set in the 1942-2000 period.

Peter
« Last Edit: August 04, 2009, 12:40:22 PM by Figleaf »
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Offline Michael E. Marotta

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Re: Isaac Newton at work in the Tower Mint
« Reply #3 on: September 02, 2009, 02:16:36 AM »
Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist by Thomas Levenson  (Boston;New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. 336 pp. $25). 

Levenson teaches science journalism and science writing at MIT.  He brings to this story his special perspectives as a producer for PBS Nova.  London comes to life -- and you are in the midst of its jostling, smelly crowds, under a dense smoky low ceiling, where life is truly nasty, brutish and short. 

At the same time, the book is supported by a deep and stout foundation of scholarship.  However, the notes are in the back and are not tagged with little numbers throughout.  You may find it best to keep a bookmark for the Notes section. 

Levenson has uncovered the only biography of the master coin forger, William Chaloner.  Newton, of course, we know, and Levenson acknowledges the current most accessible biography, Never at Rest, by William Westfall. 

This new book specifically follows the criminal career of Chaloner and Chaloner's intersections with the orbit of Newton.  Tidal forces were at work, as Chaloner gained the attention of powerful ministers and even gave testimony to Parliamentary committees.  He was playing a long, and dangerous game. His goal was nothing less than the Mint itself.  But the Mint was guarded by Newton, not merely the greatest mind of his time, but arguably, the greatest scientist of all time.  That acclaim speaks to the immense depth of the man.  Newton would go without food and sleep while focused on a problem.  And focus it clearly was. 

Once set on hanging Chaloner, no force was sufficient to move him from his path.
Mike M.
Michael E. Marotta
Sociologist of Numismatics

Offline Prosit

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Re: Isaac Newton at work in the Tower Mint
« Reply #4 on: September 02, 2009, 02:50:11 AM »
I find the period around 1700 simply fascinating....(much of note deleted)
Peter

Speaking of the 1700's  :D  The "War of Jenkin's Ear" comes to mind  :)
Although my particular interest of that time other than Salzburg, is about 1690 to about 1745-50
and the focus is moved to the Caribbean.  Spain, it's colonies, England and Pirates.  What's not to like?

Here is a coin from my collection from that general time period.  I have often wanted to add a
English piece as a companion coin but haven't found the right example yet.

Dale

Offline Figleaf

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Re: Isaac Newton at work in the Tower Mint
« Reply #5 on: September 02, 2009, 01:02:26 PM »
That's such a well-struck coin the only problem is figuring out the denomination. You are showing a 2 reales 1718 struck in Cuenca, a new mint, apparently starting out with new machinery in 1717. To the left of the shield is the mintmark CA. To the right is the assayer JJ. Horizontally, on both sides of the shield is the denomination R   II. The legends are PHILIPPUS.V.Dei.Gratia.HISPANIARUM.REX - Philip V by the grace of god king of Spain. Through incest, the Habsburgs had become progressively mentally unstable until Charles II was so far gone he couldn't have produced offspring if he had known how to.

When Charles died, the war of the Spanish succession broke out, with the Austrian Habsburg losing its claim on the Spanish throne, but gaining the Southern Netherlands as well as parts of Italy and Spain losing these lands as well as losing Gibraltar to the English at the peace treaty of Utrecht (1713). Portugal had become independent before. All this had an influence on the Spanish coat of arms. The heart shields of Portugal, Brabant and Flanders disappeared, to be replaced by a heart shield with the three heraldic lillies of the house of Bourbon, as Philip V was a Bourbon. However, to gain the Spanish throne, Philip had to renounce his claims on the French throne or himself and his successors.

The treaty of Utrecht humiliated the Spanish empire and started a period of decline. Philip tried to counter the trend by being more aggressive at sea. By driving back the British at Cartagena de Indias and Cuba, Spain regained some of the initiative, which extended its rule over much of South America.

As English counterpart to this coin, I would suggest not a coin, but a medal on Vernon's exploits at Porto Bello. These are cheap, but hard to find.

Peter
An unidentified coin is a piece of metal. An identified coin is a piece of history.

Offline Prosit

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Re: Isaac Newton at work in the Tower Mint
« Reply #6 on: September 02, 2009, 02:52:37 PM »
That's such a well-struck coin the only problem is figuring out the denomination. You are showing a 2 reales 1718 struck in Cuenca, a new mint, apparently starting out with new machinery in 1717. To the left of the shield is the mintmark CA. To the right is the assayer JJ. Horizontally, on both sides of the shield is the denomination R   II. The legends are PHILIPPUS.V.Dei.Gratia.HISPANIARUM.REX - Philip V by the grace of god king of Spain. ......
...
...As English counterpart to this coin, I would suggest not a coin, but a medal on Vernon's exploits at Porto Bello. These are cheap, but hard to find.

Peter

Yep, two real(e) alrighty, I am attracted to the smaller denominations and the 2R in particular.  Nice size to it.

In 1717, because of a report by Newton, the commissioners of the treasury got a royal proclamation (mentioned in the first post) that forbid the exchange of gold guineas for more than 21 silver schillings. Well this inadvertently resulted in a silver shortage as silver coins were used to pay for imports, while exports were paid for in gold.

Most, if not all of the English coins of this time, if they are nice, are not coins I can readily afford  :'(

Certainly would cost me more than my little 2R

Dale


« Last Edit: September 02, 2009, 02:57:41 PM by dalehall »