Thomas Levenson

Books: History | Biography

Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist (2009)

Newton and the CouterfeiterThe first third of the book is simply a biography of Newton, from his childhood up until he took the position of Warden of the Mint in London. Although it was interesting, I'm not certain the background had a lot of bearing on Newton's time at the Mint or his hunting of Chaloner the counterfeiter.

And although the case is interesting, it doesn't seem to have had nearly as much bearing on Newton's life as the book title and introduction would have you think. Yes Newton did meticulous work in building a case against Chaloner. Yes, Chaloner was almost certainly guilty of far more than the charges for which he was hung. But I'm not sure that I was impressed as far as the legality of the case goes (I think a lawyer would have a far better answer than I do).

I found three parts of the book interesting, but for different reasons. In the first part of the book, where he looks at Newton's life prior to becoming Warden of the Mint, there is an entire chapter dedicated to his friendship with Nicholas Fatio de Duillier, and hints as to how this may have been a romantic or sexual relationship.

OK. Well… So what does this have to do with Newton being Warden of the Mint or being a detective of sorts or the building of his case against Chaloner? It's interesting, but I don't particularly see how it's related to the subject of the book.

The second interesting bit was how the author skimmed over Newton's questioning of prisoners in Newgate and the possibility that Newton was present–or perhaps even ordered–the torture of prisoners (which was common practice at the time). Surely, if we get an entire chapter on Newton's possible romantic relationship with another man, we should get more than a passing mention of how accepting Newton was of the various methods used to gain confessions at Newgate?

The third interesting part was actually the heart of the book and of the story, and that is the English recoining and why and how it happened. It covered not just counterfeiters such as Chaloner, but also clipping and how the currency became so debased in the first place, why the currency had to be replaced, and why the recoining didn't solve the long term issues of England's currency.

That was actually the most fascinating part of the story, and it's the part I thought I would be least interested in, since economics and finance are not my strong suites.

We also got far less detail on counterfeiting than I would have expected. I think I remember a Sherlock Holmes story with more details about the mechanics of counterfeiting than I got from this story.

All in all, it was a very interesting story, but I didn't find the heart of the story to be the story of Newton & Chaloner. I found the most interesting part to be the problems with the English currency and the various proposed solutions and why they didn't work.

Rating: 6/10