Newton and the Counterfeiter

Thomas Levenson, Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist.I had known for decades that, after achieving fame for the Principia, Isaac Newton had been appointed Warden of the Royal Mint. What I had not known was that he was really effective at that job. He supervised a complete re-coinage of English currency, and had very modern ideas about financial policy. Also, he was responsible for apprehending and convicting counterfeiters, and despite his ivory tower background mastered the necessary detective and legal skills to accomplish this. The main story line of the book is about his long struggle with William Chaloner, the outstanding counterfeiter of London at the time. It is a gripping tale.

Along the way all sorts of aspects of late 17th century England come out, e.g:

  • The sheer, overwhelming size of London compared to any other city in England.
  • How early industrialization was already cutting into the blacksmith’s trade,
  • How trial by jury could make it difficult to obtain a conviction for a crime, and hence the prosecution had to carefully prepare for a trial.
  • The nature of the London underworld.
  • The social structure of Newgate jail.

Highly recommended. Fans of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle will particularly enjoy it.

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