Monday morning smack-down: Sherlock Holmes rather than Dirty Harry.

Science writer Judith Dutton at mental _floss blogged about Isaac Newton’s activities at the Royal Mint last Friday. She chose to retell the story of Newton’s pursuit of the coiner William Chaloner. The main part of her piece is OK when somewhat sensationalist but the first and last paragraphs are so false that they are painful to read for anybody who knows their way around Newton’s biography so I have decided to treat them to a little touch of RM Monday morning smack-down. It also gives me an excuse to recommend Thomas Levenson’s excellent Newton and the Counterfeiter[1], which tells the whole story and which I reviewed here and here when it was first published.

Ms Dutton opens her article with the following:

Back in 1695, England’s Royal Mint discovered a serious problem: A massive portion of the circulating currency was phony. As counterfeiting methods grew increasingly clever, the Mint turned to England’s brightest mind for a solution. Isaac Newton was appointed Warden of the Mint, a one-man army who waded through London’s underbelly to restore the currency’s integrity. Most counterfeiters were easy prey for Newton, but William Chaloner, a shadowy kingpin, kept eluding his grasp. 

There is so much that is factually false in this paragraph that it is difficult to decide where to start. Isaac Newton was not recruited by the Royal Mint to combat an epidemic of counterfeiting. Newton had been petitioning his friends in London to find him a suitable official position in the capitol for most of the 1690s. His reasons for doing so seem to have been twofold. On the one hand it appears that Newton now found Cambridge boring. The students were not interested in his lectures as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. The lectures often didn’t take place because of lack of attendees and in his years as professor only two students are known to have studied maths with him and neither of them to become mathematicians. He was now over fifty years old and had already produced his two masterpieces the Principia and the Optics, although the latter was first published in 1704. On the other hand Newton desired a government position that reflected and honoured his undeniable status as Europe’s leading mathematician and natural philosopher. In 1696 Newton’s campaign bore fruit as Charles Montagu, Chancellor of the Exchequer, offered Newton the position of Warden of the Mint. Montagu had been friends with Newton since his time as undergraduate at Cambridge and now, in a position of power, was more than willing to do his old mentor a favour. Later Montagu would have a much talked about affair with Newton’s niece and housekeeper Catherine Barton, a notable society beauty. The Montagu Barton dalliance led Voltaire to claim that Newton’s appointment to the Mint was a consequence of the affair but Barton first came to London to work as Newton’s housekeeper after his preferment. The position of Warden of the Mint was a sinecure, as Montagu wrote to Newton when offering him the position, “and has not too much bu’nesse to require more attendance then you may spare.” Newton was not expected to do very much for his salary and none of his predecessors had done so but Newton was not a man to rest on his laurels and plunged into the work at the Mint as he earlier plunged into the secrets of the universe.

At the beginning of his appointment this work consisted of overseeing the total re-coining of Britain a mammoth project initiated by Montagu in order to restore a badly debased currency and begun under Newton’s predecessor. So why the engagement as detective? In 17th century Britain there was no central judicial authority and no police force. Many institutions were there own judicial authority. For example the Church and both Oxford and Cambridge Universities were their own judicial authorities administering justice (or injustice) on issue concerned with their own activities. Similarly the Royal Mint was its own judicial authority. The Royal Mint was responsible for the investigation, pursuit, arrest and bringing to trial of coiners and clippers and any others indulging in crimes against the coin of the realm. This judicial responsibility fell under the remit of the Warden and would normally be delegated to agents acting in his name, quite why Newton decided to pursue this activity so vehemently remains one of the puzzles of his complex personality.

On the whole Ms Dutton’s account of Newton’s struggle to bring Chaloner to justice is OK if somewhat over the top. There are however a couple of minor points that should be mentioned. She writes, “Chaloner had trained as a nail maker’s apprentice, but he found a more lucrative application for molten metals: coining 30,000 guineas“.  As someone has already pointed out in the comments in the 17th century nails were forged and not cast so a nail makers apprentice would not work with molten metal. Just for the record today wire nails are drawn and not cast so still no molten metal. As part of her sensationalist approach Ms Dutton then claims that, “he [Newton] became the Dirty Harry of 17th-century London”. Given that Newton’s methods included visiting London’s dens of iniquity in disguise to question informers and did not involve him in brutally killing large numbers of people whilst uttering clichéd phrases I somehow feel Sherlock Holmes might have been a better comparison than Mr East wood’s most notorious psychopath creation.

Unfortunately Ms Dutton manages to go completely off the rails again in her closing remarks. She writes:

With Chaloner dispatched, Newton torched the records of his investigation, likely to cover up the murky steps he took to help save the pound. In 1703, he gave up crime fighting and returned to academia as president of the Royal Society. England’s currency was once again safe from scoundrels like Chaloner, and criminals and thinkers alike had learned a valuable lesson: You don’t mess with Isaac Newton.

If Newton “torched the records of his investigation” I have to ask myself how Tom Levenson was able to write his excellent book that Ms Dutton appears to have plagiarised without acknowledging her source. Although after succeeding in finally bringing Chaloner to the gallows Newton did indeed reduce his activities as detective he by no means returned to academia, in fact he did exactly the opposite. In 1702 he finally resigned from the Lucasian Chair for Mathematics at Cambridge severing his formal connections with academia for ever. Newton had taken the unusual step of changing his position from Warden to Master of the Mint, the only person ever to do so, in 1699. This move was almost certainly motivated by the facts that the real power at the Mint was in the hands of the Master who was responsible for actually producing the coins and because the Master receiving a percental commission on the coins that he minted was much better paid than the Warden. He continued to rule the roost at the Royal Mint until his death in 1727, when he as succeeded by John Conduit his nephew in law and Catherine Barton’s husband. Coining and clipping certainly did not end with the Hanging of William Chaloner and many generations of Wardens would continue to fight the problem long after Isaac had been laid to rest in his monumental tomb in Westminster Abbey.

The story of Newton’s fight against the coiners and in particular his struggles with William Chaloner is a fascinating piece of English history and if anyone really wants to know what really happened I recommend that they ignore Ms Dutton’s piece and instead read Tom Levenson’s excellent account of the whole affair.

[1] Thomas Levenson, Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of he World’s Greatest Scientist, Houghton, Mifflin & Harcourt, Boston and New York, 2009.


Filed under Newton

6 responses to “Monday morning smack-down: Sherlock Holmes rather than Dirty Harry.

  1. Pingback: Monday morning smack-down: Sherlock Holmes rather than Dirty Harry. | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Hans Tjelle

    Isaac newton did all this last Friday? Shame on the news for not filling us in.

  3. Rob Hunter

    Is there actual evidence for the accused plagiarism? The Chaloner case is well known enough, and the charge serious enough, that something else is required to make that claim.

  4. What do you think of Never at Rest?

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