Thomas Levenson's Newton and the Counterfeiter

Jul 26 2009 Published by under History of science, Physics

About a month ago, I noted that Thomas Levenson's book Newton and the Counterfeiter (2009) is now available:


The book is the story of how the great scientist Isaac Newton, after making the discoveries which electrified the scientific world, took a job as the Warden of the Royal Mint, an official charged with protecting the nation's currency.  In this role, he came into contact, and conflict, with a criminal mastermind and counterfeiter William Chalconer, and the two would play a game of cat-and-mouse with life literally at stake.

When I've told people about this book, they ask, "For real?"  They naturally assume that the book is historical fiction, but it is in fact a true story!

I bought the book immediately, but didn't read and review it right away: I figured that a book with such subject matter would naturally be an instant hit!  But as Tom Levenson noted on his own blog, the book has not gotten the publicity it needs (I would say deserves), so I thought I'd do my own part to draw people's attention to it.

It deserves your attention, too: if you're a fan of history, a fan of science, a fan of true crime stories, a fan of economics, or just interested in reading a good, true, tale, Newton and the Counterfeiter is well worth your time.

For those afraid of lengthy historical texts, NatC will be a relief: the book clocks in at some 250 pages, plus notes, and is a very easy and engaging read.  I should mention that the notes are not necessary to understand the story -- I never bothered to look at them -- but they document all the sources used in piecing together the tale.

NatC obviously spends much of its time discussing Newton's time at the Royal Mint, but really follows his entire life, from a brief description of his childhood, through his groundbreaking scientific years, and the celebrity which follows. The book serves as a good short introduction to the entire scope of Newton's life, touching upon his experiments in alchemy, his musings in religion, his only romantic relationship and the severe depression which followed it.  Most scientists know of Newton's alchemistic and religious writings, and are rather scornful of them; Levenson shows how those seemingly bizarre and aspects of Newton's researches were really closely related in spirit to his scientific work.  I felt that I understood Newton on a deeper, and less cartoonish, level after reading NatC.

One of the first questions that comes to mind when learning of Newton's crime-fighting days is: why would he do that?  Levenson's tracing of Newton's past shows that the appointment at the Mint was a natural, almost inevitable result that gibes well with Newton's interests and motivations.

In parallel with Newton's history, we learn the history of William Chalconer, who started as a small-time 'coiner' and worked his way up to more elaborate schemes.  He was a true criminal mastermind whose plots eventually  involved defrauding the government, conning Parliment, and seeking legal access to the secret workings of the Royal Mint.  Chalconer was also "untouchable": he managed numerous times to slither his way out of counterfeiting charges placed against him.  It was a dangerous game, because counterfeiting was considered high treason and the punishment was death.  Chalconer's forays against the Mint, and his slander of its Warden, were the actions which brought him into conflict with Newton. The descriptions of Chalconer's schemes are just as compelling as the description of Newton's accomplishments, which is saying a lot.

One aspect of the book which I found unexpectedly fascinating is the detailed description of England's financial situation in Newton's time.  Some understanding of the economic problems that England was experiencing is necessary to understand both Newton's role at the Mint and Chalconer's schemes, but the description of the way countries made and spent money in those days is a compelling tale all by itself.

There isn't really a dull section of the book: the pieces of the tale fit together very well and as a reader I felt swept along by the narrative.  NatC has everything one would hope a book about the history of science would have: thorough research, an engaging story, fascinating (true) characters, and a climactic finish.  I can highly recommend it.

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