Book Review — Levenson — Newton and the Counterfeiter

Levenson, Thomas, Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2009, 318pp.

The publisher kindly provided a copy of this book for review.

This book was recommended during a Holiday 2009 Book Roundup on chicagoboyz here.

Fans of fiction author Neal Stephenson (The Diamond Age and Anathem were reviewed for chicagoboyz) may recall that one of the most intriguing episodes in his mammoth Baroque Cycle trilogy was Isaac Newton’s use of the Royal Mint to further his interests in the alchemy of gold. In the course of taking on Mint responsibilities, Newton also inherited the responsibility for halting widespread coin tampering and counterfeiting.

Now we have a non-fiction title by a distinguished American science writer focused on the same subject. Newton’s actions as Warden, then Master, of the Mint were less glamourous than his revolutionary contributions to science and industry, but no less critical to the rapid transformation of England into an industrial giant. The real story behind Isaac Newton’s efforts to rescue England’s silver currency from impending disaster, and to revitalize the Royal Mint, is rather unexpected. And Newton’s methodical (and rather fearsome) efforts to hunt down and hang the country’s counterfeiters turn out to be just as fascinating, and just as strange, as Neal Stephenson’s fictional tale of Newton’s derring-do. Stephenson’s blurb on the back-cover of this book confirms as much.

Levenson’s book is built around two dramatic themes.

Firstly, the “fish out of water” transition of Isaac Newton from nerdy reclusive Cambridge savant, obsessed with his privacy, to senior government functionary … comfortable in parliamentary committees, Law Courts, and in the Royal Mint’s interrogation cells.

Secondly, Newton’s multi-year game of “cat and mouse” with a notorious counterfeiter (William Chaloner) that constantly risked Newton’s professional career, and Chaloner’s life. Chaloner actively sought to have Newton pilloried as incompetent, a thief, and anti-government conspirator, and Newton did his best to see Chaloner hung, drawn, and quartered … counterfeiting being a treasonous offense.

The author first builds contrasting biographies of the scholar and the criminal, providing a snapshot of criminal London in the late 17th century. The woeful state of English silver coinage brings Newton to London where he was soon to begin an education entirely unlike anything available in Cambridge University.

SPOILER ALERT: If you’d prefer to learn the story of Newton and the counterfeiter on your own, by reading this book, please skip down to my general comments in the Section titled General Impressions where I’ve tried not to give too much of the tale away.

EYESTRAIN ALERT: This review runs about 10,500 words. Some readers may prefer to print it out.

Table of Contents

Preface: Let Newton Be ix
Part I: Learning to Think 1
Part II: A Rogue’s Progress 47
Part III: Passions 75
Part IV: The New Warden 107
Part V: Skirmishes 145
Part VI: Newton and the Counterfeiter 185
Epilogue: “He Could Not Calculate the Madness of the People” 238


Preface: Let Newton Be

The book begins by fore-shadowing, almost cinematically, Isaac Newton squeezing an informer in Newgate Jail for information about one of its famous inmates, a certain William Chaloner. This gives the author the chance to contrast Newton’s reputation and earlier career with his seamier duties as Warden of the Mint (second-in-command at the Royal Mint). Chaloner was but one of dozens of Newton’s prey though perhaps the most personally irritating to the great man. Over the course of several years Chaloner was to slip through Newton’s fingers repeatedly while casting public doubt on the integrity of the Royal Mint itself.

To catch Chaloner, Newton was ultimately forced to learn more about the law, about “thief-taking,” and about building an air-tight case against the counterfeiter in the chaotic legal world of 17th century England — replete with obstinate juries, hanging judges, murky jurisdictions, and the darker arts of interrogation and evidence acquisition.

Part I: Learning to Think

In Part 1, Levenson outlines the personal history of Isaac Newton from childhood through his years at Cambridge, his impact on scientific circles, and his desire to find some suitable employment in London. Chapter 1 covers his early life and activities as a student. By 1664 he’d begun to formulate a set of questions that were to form the core of his master work, the Principia Mathematica. The arrival of the bubonic plague in Cambridge soon after was to send Newton back to his home in Woolsthorpe. Chapter 2 describes his efforts there to develop calculus and the underlying mathematics to describe gravitational forces more exactly. The Great Fire of London in 1666 was to reduce the risk of plague in England and Newton was back in Cambridge by the spring of 1667. There he continued to teach, to write extensively, and to undertake various alchemical experiments in a small smelter created on the grounds of his university college.

Chapter 3 moves forward to 1684 when Edmund Halley drops by to discuss the shape of orbits of comets. To Halley’s surprise, Newton claimed such orbits were elliptical and that he’d written out the mathematical proof of this some time earlier. With prodding from members of the Royal Society, Newton then began to organize and formalize his writings … the three laws of motion and Books One & Two of the Principia were complete by Fall/Winter 1685. Book Three “on the system of the world” was to present propositions about gravity and how gravity ties the laws of motion together. For astronomers, the distinctions between elliptical and parabolic orbits could be made mathematically precise. The Principia went to press in July of 1687 and was simultaneously acclaimed, and decried, with great fervor. As linked above, the Principia’s impact on common folk and English pride is outlined with great clarity in Practical Matter: Newton’s Science in the Service of Industry and Empire 1687-1851, reviewed earlier on chicagoboyz. For reasons both logical and arcane, it was adopted with great speed as both a religious and scientific explanation of how the world worked.

Chapter 4 discusses the aftermath of the publication of the Principia in Newton’s life. England was in turmoil as Stewart rulers were expelled from England for the second time in the century. The Glorious Revolution promised greater opportunities for Newton in London, especially since he’d been in some danger from King James for his actions in Cambridge. Newton took part in the Convention Parliament which gave support for the ascension of King William. Newton was now both lionized for his scientific efforts and supported by newly elevated friends such as William Boyle, John Locke and Robert Hooke. Nonetheless, no appropriate patronage position appeared for Newton and he returned to his alchemical experiments at Cambridge, while nudging his friends for opportunities during the next five years.

Part II: A Rogue’s Progress

Having summarized Newton’s life from birth up to the point of his public engagement in London, Levenson now turns to the far grimmer and seamier life story of William Chaloner. Much of the detail for his early life must be drawn from an anonymous “yellow journalism” biography printed shortly after his death (Guzman Redivivus: A Short View of the Life of Will. Chaloner. London: printed for J. Hayns, 1699). On such shaky ground, Levenson estimates that he was born sometime between 1650 and 1660 to a poor weaver in the English Midland, making him anywhere from 10 to 20 years younger than Newton. A sister and brother were also in the mix.

Young William was apparently a handful. Clever but uneducated, he was apprenticed to a nail-maker in Birmingham. It was there, amidst the metal-workers of the city, that he was given his introduction to the art of “coyning” and counterfeiting. Apparently he soon outgrew his master’s tutelage in the arts criminal. By the early 1680s, he escaped his apprenticeship by walking on foot to London. London of the time, as today, was a urban behemoth … dominating England demographically and famous through the rest of Europe for its size, wealth, and trading volumes. Levenson first provides some background on the City and then turns to its opportunities for masterless apprentices such as Chaloner. They were slim. Through the 1680s, Chaloner apparently did some work making cheap watches and trinkets, and involving himself in the promotion of quack medicines. By 1690, however, he’d become implicated in a theft and had to avail himself of London’s seamier districts to “disappear.”

Chapter 6 introduces us to Chaloner’s final “apprenticeship” … to a “japanner.” Though originally referring to Oriental lacquer- or varnish-work, by Chaloner’s time the trade described any skill requiring the application of an opaque surface. Initially Chaloner specialized in coating cloth and leather to make old clothes appear new or of fine quality. Soon, however, he was turning his hand to gilding metal instead. His timing was appropriate. Between 1690 and 1696, England was running out of silver coinage. The result was a wave of “clipping,” whereby the smooth margins of coins were shaved to acquire additional silver. The tradition was ancient, the action treasonous (since the sovereign’s visage was on the coin) and the punishment was capital. Nonetheless, the financial incentives to variously alter, duplicate or mimic the debased coinage of the realm was overwhelming.

England had attempted to eradicate the clipping of coins with the introduction of new dies and “edging machines” in the late 1660s. Nonetheless, all the older coinage in the country could continue to be counterfeited with relative ease. By roughly 1691, Chaloner followed up his “japanning” apprenticeship by one with a goldsmith named Patrick Coffee, who taught him the techniques of manipulating molten metals. The combination of iron-working skill (drawn from nail-making), gilding/japanning, and precious metal handling gave Chaloner all the background needed to counterfeit coins of every kind and value.

Chaloner’s intelligence led to a notable decision. The greatest vulnerability in counterfeiting was not the manufacture of fake coins but in their distribution. The poorer the fake, the more likely that they’d be immediately spotted. The threat of the death penalty meant that anyone caught distributing the coins was likely to immediately implicate the manufacturer to save their own skin. So for someone skilled in making counterfeit coins, the goal was to make their product as close to the original as possible. There lay the greatest profit (a high premium in comparison to face value), and the greatest safety against confederates “ratting” one out to the authorities.

And so Chaloner began to identify methods to maximize the quality of his products, including techniques to mimic the “edging” of legitimate coinage through the use of molds and presses. The final key to perfection were the “dies” or graven molds used to stamp or press the coin blanks. For that, Chaloner sought out a key tradesman, a master engraver named Thomas Taylor. In 1690, Taylor made a set of dies for French gold “pistoles” and soon after, in 1691, a second set of dies for the English gold guinea. By using an alloy of silver, and gilding the coins with a thin layer of gold (courtesy of the goldsmith Coffee) Chaloner and his colleague (one Thomas Holloway) began distributing thousands of fake gold coins.

The quality was so high that demand on the street was enormous. Chaloner had difficulty keeping up with that demand. Profits were immense and all involved suddenly found themselves with the wealth to climb several rungs up the ladder of social standing. A new female companion for Chaloner (a wife and kids in Birmingham were abandoned) and a new house in “semi-rural” Knightsbridge completed the transformation.

For two years, it was all a great success. Then a William Blackford was arrested for trying to pass counterfeit gold coins and immediately implicated one “William Chaloner.” Chaloner hurriedly cast a final batch of coins for his impending escape and then abandoned his new girlfriend and new house entirely, disappearing underground. Later in 1692, the unfortunate Blackford (with no Chaloner to be found) was duly hung for counterfeiting. Chaloner resurfaced shortly thereafter and took a pause from counterfeiting, perhaps triggered by a lack of start-up capital.

He turned instead to incitement of treason, since the government of the time was offering rewards for information on Stewart sympathizers. Chaloner wrote a suitably incendiary screed, induced (by threat) two printers to publish the Jacobite tract, and promptly turned the men in to the authorities.The courts promptly hung them. As reward, some time later Chaloner received 1,000 pounds from the English government.

Chaloner followed this up with a few less successful attempts at stimulating others to commit treason, and eventually turned to the dangerous but profitable trade called “thief-taking.” In the absence of an official police force, the authorities were dependent on individual agents or bounty hunters who could track down criminals in the sprawling city. An unscrupulous thief-taker, the only kind apparently, could corral likely suspects and manufacture or plant evidence on their person, and turn them in for a reward or fee. Soon, a profitable side-business in threatening to falsely accuse the innocent and guilty alike was in full swing.

This was a profession fully to Chaloner’s liking and a good match with his honeyed tongue, but there was only one problem. Thief-takers were the apex predators of criminal London. And the biggest danger to an apex predator is another apex predator. Chaloner’s career as extortionate rogue in service to the courts was cut short by his association with another thief-taker named Coppinger. Coppinger had ended up in Newgate for having in his possession someone else’s watch, worth four pounds. To save himself, he gave evidence that Chaloner was a coiner. Chaloner found himself soon in Newgate Prison as well, where he claimed to the magistrates that he’d been framed. In absence of any concrete evidence to convict Chaloner, beyond a “he said, he said” exchange, Coppinger was hung for felony theft (much later in February 1695) and Chaloner was released.

By 1693, Chaloner had decided to return to the slightly less dangerous but still very profitable trade of counterfeiting … and leave the thief-taking to others.

Part III: Passions

Part III of Newton and the Counterfeiter is a brief interlude of sorts, a series of briefing notes (Chapters 6, 7, and 8) on the intellectual setting of England at the time, on the role of alchemy in natural philosophy and metallurgy, and on Newton’s emotional and physical health in the mid-1690s. These short chapters set the stage for why Newton, specifically, would receive a strange request from the government in the autumn of 1695. Would he assist with answering the question on “what the nation should do about the worsening shortage of silver coins?”

Part IV: The New Warden

By mid-decade, the English Secretary of the Treasury realized the the country was on the verge of a crisis. Silver coin was disappearing. In its place the only coin still circulating was counterfeit and of abysmal quality. The Secretary wrote to the leading men of the day and asked their help. Newton, acknowledged as the smartest man in England, was on the list. There being no profession or discipline of “economics” at the time, it was logical that the Secretary should cast his net as widely as possible amongst the scholars and merchants of the time.

As described in Chapter 10, the foundation of the “silver problem” was one of arbitrage. The face value of a given amount of silver in England to a given amount of gold was worth less than the silver in bullion form would command in Paris or other European capitals. Enterprising traders for decades had been melting down legitimate English coin and shipping it across the Channel as bullion for resale, at a profit. By 1695, “bad coin” had driven out the good. Silver was heading eastward relentlessly. Gold to buy that silver on the English market moved westward.

Aggravating the problem were two parallel coinages in the realm … a pre-1662 hand-struck coin without edging and the “new improved” coins with edges made by heavy machine presses to a higher standard. Needless to say, the former were more subject to clipping and counterfeit mimicry and the latter were more subject to melting down and shipment overseas. Some scholars claim that the situation became so bad that barely 1 in two thousand silver shillings gathered directly by the Treasury were legitimate. The impact of the degradation of silver coin was most noticeable for domestic trade. Silver shillings were the currency of employment and food purchase. Inflation (because of degraded coin) and shortage of coin (of any value) was bringing economic activity to a halt. An era of barter was on the horizon. What brought the situation to a crisis was the fact that King William was fighting a war on the Continent and foreign bankers would only accept (understandably) legitimate coins in payment. England was running out of both bullion and coin. In November of 1695, William laid the problem for raising money for the foreign wars directly in the lap of Parliament. On the heels of the Secretary of the Treasury’s appeal to the country’s leading lights, the “silver problem” needed urgent solution.

Chapter 11 reviews the debate between the proponents of devaluation of English coin (resetting the ratio of English shilling to English gold guineas) and those convinced that recoinage (at the old ratio) would solve the immediate problem of the silver exodus. Newton and the Secretary of the Treasury (Lowndes) favored the former. John Locke the latter. Since adjusting the amount of silver in the English shilling would reduce the amount of silver collected by the landed aristocracy in tenant rent, a recoinage (without re-balancing the ratio of silver to gold) was ultimately what was approved.

Who to oversee the recoinage? There, at least, a consensus was formed. On the 19th of March 1696, Isaac Newton received a letter indicating that he would be appointed Warden of the Mint, the second-in-command under the Master of the Mint, a do-nothing political appointee. It was implied that Newton would do the heavy lifting for the recoinage of all English silver coins. By mid-April, the paperwork was complete and Newton abandoned Cambridge for London, with barely a backward glance for the decades of his life spent there.

In Chapter 12, we return to William Chaloner who used the “golden age” of English counterfeiting in the first half of the 1690s for great personal profit. Uniquely, among his colleagues, he also used the impending currency crisis to raise his status and visibility in an audacious way. He became convinced the way to maximize his counterfeiting enterprise was to co-opt the Royal Mint itself. To that end, in 1694 he published a pamphlet (Reasons Humbly Offered Against Passing an Act for Raising Ten Hundred Thousand Pounds) in which he argued against the raising of taxes to make up for a shortfall in legitimate coinage. He followed the piece with another pamphlet, this one called Proposals Humbly Offered, for Passing, an Act to Prevent Clipping and Counterfeiting of Money. Here was the master counterfeiter, already the subject of various past man-hunts and imprisonments, offering his advice to the government on how to control counterfeiting! Ironically, Chaloner recommended a recoinage with devaluation (like Newton) … though he suggested a second recoinage at a later date to restore the coins to “full” weight.

These publications were not meant as serious solutions to the silver problem. Clearly they were meant to establish Chaloner as an expert on the subject. And to that end, they were successful. His pamphlets were seen by Charles Mordaunt, Earl of Monmouth, former Lord of the Treasury. Mordaunt had fallen out of favor at court and was seeking to undermine Newton’s patron, Charles Montague, Earl of Halifax and the then Chancellor of the Exchequer. Chaloner was now a useful tool with which Mordaunt could attack the government functionaries trying to solve the silver problem. Chaloner was brought before the Privy Council and delivered a stinging indictment of the Royal Mint, its methods and its staff. While the Council was smart enough not to give Chaloner the keys to the Mint, his comments did trigger an investigation into the institution, nudged along by Mordaunt’s political ambitions.

None of this put money in Chaloner’s pocket. While he might play the “long game” to suborn the Mint, he also needed immediate cash. And the appearance of the Bank of England in August 1694, and its promulgation of “bank notes” opened broad new avenues for counterfeiting for a daring and resourceful man like William Chaloner.

In Chapter 13, while waiting for the Mint investigation to lead to new opportunities, Chaloner took up the challenge of learning all he could about counterfeiting Bank notes. Having found a printer who could simulate the marbled paper that the notes were printed on, Chaloner began counterfeiting. Unfortunately the Bank’s investigators tracked down the printer, who quickly gave up Chaloner’s name. Chaloner then, in turn, gave up the names of conspirators in another counterfeiting scheme … stolen checks from the City of London’s Orphans’ Fund that had duped the Bank. Did Chaloner go to jail? Hardly. He received the thanks of the Bank and two hundred pounds. By November 1695, he was offering recommendations to the Bank on how to reduce the risks of counterfeit bank paper appearing in circulation. The Bank’s governor, in turn, helped out Chaloner with his occasional scrapes in Newgate Prison.

By the fall of 1696, England (and Sir Isaac Newton) is in the midst of the great recoinage, recounted in chapter 14. From 4am to midnight, six days a week, the Mint began to produce the standardized, edged silver coins. Arriving on-site in May of the year, Newton set to work as Warden under the inept political appointee, Master of the Mint Thomas Neale. Within weeks, Newton had begun to master the complex accounts and day-to-day technical details of the Mint … immediately reducing the graft and increasing the productivity of the institution. The huge volumes of bullion and coins handled by the Mint required an expansion and optimization of the coining “machines” used. The Mint added eight new rolling mills and five new coining presses under Newton’s direction.

In what appears to be an early variant of time-and-motion studies, Newton examined the manufacturing process and identified every place where more efficient use of men, machines and material could be made. This boosted coin production from 15,000 pounds of coinage per week (a previously unheard of rate in England) to 100,000 pounds of coinage per by late summer 1696, a pace unknown in all of Europe. By the end of 1697, most of the available silver in England had been re-coined. Virtually all recoinage was complete by mid-1698. The extra coining machines were sold off in mid-1699. In all, 6,840,000 pounds of debased coin had been taken in and turned into about 4,100,000 legitimate silver shillings. A huge nominal loss of value but a dramatic improvement in the quality and dependability of the English shilling, with an immediate follow-on effect for domestic trade. The speed at which the new coins were created from old was central to maintaining the stability of the economy. The government’s worst fears about riots, Jacobite rebellion, and starvation were averted. King William was able fund his continental war and the realm returned to relative tranquility after its coinage crisis.

For this unimagined and rapid success, all gave Isaac Newton credit.

Part V: Skirmishes

And so, 145 pages in, we open Chapter 15 with the central story of the book. Up til now, Newton and Chaloner had led separate lives under a common English sky. In background and education, they could hardly have been more different. Yet their respective skills now set them on opposite sides of the table. Chaloner’s self-confident villainy and Newton’s dedication to his job (for which he’d received widespread praise) were to propel Act 2.

The Warden of the Mint was its only official magistrate and part of the position’s responsibility was “enforcing the King’s law in and around London for all crimes committed against the currency.’ During his first summer at the Mint (1696), Newton sought to have these responsibilities set aside … to no avail. In fact, his superiors set him the task of addressing an urgent criminal activity. The disappearance some coining dies from the Mint. Chaloner had been busy.

Recall that Chaloner had given evidence to the Privy Council in 1695 about Mint operations. By January, 1696 Chaloner was in Newgate Prison, claiming the Mint staff had fabricated evidence against him and that the Mint itself was compromised. Hauled out of Newgate in May 1696 (just as Newton was getting underway with the coinage), Chaloner gave evidence to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the Mint staff were debasing the silver and counterfeiting the coin at source. Further, that the chief engraver has sold of the master dies for the new coins. For the moment, he was freed. Chaloner named several notorious counterfeiters (including one of his own aliases) as members of the conspiracy. But other counterfeiters, languishing in the hell of Newgate Prison, suddenly also started to recall where the missing dies might be. Under threat of imminent hanging for unrelated counterfeiting cases, they implicated both Chaloner and yet more Mint staff in wrong-doing.

Into this circular firing squad of the larcenous and the condemned was thrown Isaac Newton. Though his training in criminal investigation was non-existent, he was fully capable of mastering whatever detail necessary to meet his purposes. His education in law, crime, and power politics was about to begin.

It was one thing to leverage one criminal against the other with ever-tightening webs of self-incrimination. That might give satisfaction in hanging the multitudinous small fry associated with London counterfeiting in the “golden era.” It didn’t solve the real problem of where the Mint dies might be. Despite arresting thirty suspects, and interviewing a cross-section of the London underworld during his first summer at the Mint (including Chaloner), Newton could make no further progress on locating the missing dies. No solid evidence was acquired that would uncover the truth. A few minor parties were hung as a matter of course but by August 1696, many were released. Chaloner was convinced he’d pulled a fast one on the new and innocent Warden of the Mint. Whose mind just happened to be focused on the incredibly urgent silver recoinage of the entire realm.

Chapter 16 describes the evolution of Newton’s strategy in criminal investigation and intelligence gathering after the unsuccessful resolution of the missing Mint dies. As noted earlier, the greatest danger in counterfeiting was the movement of the fake coin or product from the makers, through the distributors, to the unsuspected innocent. Newton began assembling “informations” … interviews with the small participants of the counterfeiting trade … with the same persistence he brought to learning the functions of the Mint. He spent the government’s money relentlessly and methodically to inform himself on how the counterfeiters were operating.

At the same time, he overcame the limitations of 17th century London governance by forming what was, in effect, a private police force. This involved using many of the same “thief takers” that had traditionally terrorized the London underworld. By cross-referencing the names and roles of all the various parties in counterfeiting schemes, and using his “constabulary” to capture and constrain individuals to Newgate Prison or the Mint’s own interrogation cells, the Warden of the Mint could begin to identify the technology, methods, and parties involved in counterfeiting his precious new coinage. Within six months, Newton’s organization of informers and enforcers gave him unprecedented tools to identify who in London and its surrounding counties was counterfeiting. He’d mastered the methods of setting thief to catch thief, and of direct interrogation of his informants. Interestingly, he later burned many of the documents gathered during this part of his government career. While some biographers have made wild statements about Newton’s enthusiasm for playing “bad cop” in the shadow of the noose, for whatever reason Newton saw these early volumes of criminal “informations” as irrelevant, uncomfortable, or both. So he burnt them. A sad event for modern historians.

Nonetheless, in Chapter 17, the documentary evidence that remains of Newton’s criminal investigations (from the years 1698-1700) show that his earlier efforts at fully understanding counterfeiting as an organized enterprise paid great dividends. Every case, by its nature, was a capital case. His discretion as magistrate and prosecutor therefore ranged between life and death. By careful adjustment of risk and reward, the minor participants in London’s criminal activities could be impelled to speak plainly and fully, and to remain in permanent debt to the Warden. In time, the news of who’d spoken to the Warden became very valuable indeed to London’s criminal world. As Newton’s skills and understanding grew, his control over London counterfeiting increased. He began using his wide network of informants as jail-house spies. Many went to the gallows convicted on the words out of their mouth in the dank cells of Newgate.

Meanwhile, Chaloner had hatched a scheme to take advantage of the new Warden. Since the passing of counterfeit goods was the most dangerous part (since it involved confederates who could be compromised), Chaloner sought to tamper with the coin at the source — the Mint itself. In his first brush with Newton, Chaloner had failed to get his political sponsors to foist either himself or a colleague into the Mint (under the guise of improving Mint operations). Chaloner figured the next best thing was to cast doubt on the Warden’s integrity and competence. To this end, in February of 1697 he gave evidence at a special Parliamentary committee investigated alleged abuses at the Mint, itemizing how the relationships by marriage amongst the Mint staff indicated a pattern of self-dealing and duplicity. In effect, he claimed that the government’s own coins were being debased and clipped right at the Mint. To improve things, Chaloner offered a number of suggestions to increase the security of the coinage process. Perhaps a demonstration was in order? The committee commanded the participation of the Warden.

Needless to say, in response to the committee’s inquiries, Newton was upset and rather defensive (since he was not entirely sure the Mint staff he’d inherited the previous summer was entirely legit). He challenged to Chaloner to describe his reputed technical improvements and produces some samples using such techniques. When samples appeared, Newton showed the committee how inferior they were. Newton resisted entirely the committee’s desire to have the Warden allow Chaloner access to the “holy of holies,” the portion of the Mint containing the coining machines.

Chaloner continued to press his case with the parliamentary committee during the spring of 1697. Privately, Newton raged at the explicit and implicit slur on his character and competence. More ominously, he also turned loose his newly-assembled army of informants, agents and leg-breakers to start collecting information on Mr. William Chaloner. In the case of the missing Mint dies in the summer of 1696, Chaloner was just one of a long list of rogues being interrogated by the brand-new Warden of the Mint. That was Round One, so to speak. Less than a year later, Chaloner had cast personal aspersions on Isaac Newton’s character before members of Parliament. Newton would not forget that. It was personal and business now. Round Two was a draw but it had placed Chaloner completely in Newton’s sights.

Chapter 18 describes Round Three. Chaloner, after two passes against the Warden, was feeling invulnerable. He had every indication that continued pressure would encourage Parliament to give him or an associate access to the Mint and oversight of the Mint’s activities. And with knowledge of how the actual coins were made, he could fine-tune his counterfeiting operations on the outside and co-opt the Mint staff on the inside. Chaloner’s political sponsor, Charles Mordaunt, still had sufficient power and appetite to make the life of those in court favor less pleasant. But pestering political foes is not the same as overturning the Warden’s legal authority over the Mint. In the end, Mordaunt wasn’t willing to risk political capital to force Chaloner on a very obstructive Newton. As the spring of 1697 ended, Chaloner was shocked to hear that Parliament would grant him no perks, benefits, rewards, nor any access to valuable Mint secrets.

He was back to his own devices and sources of income. He quickly reformed his crew of counterfeiters from earlier years, including Thomas Holloway for logistics, a metalworker called Hicks for development of an innovative new molding process, and finally a John Peers for the final steps of filing and polishing the counterfeit surfaces. Unfortunately, the iron rule of criminal associates proved true. Peers was soon arrested on an unrelated matter in May of 1697 and squeezed for all he knew. He gave up Chaloner and the entire counterfeiting scheme.

Newton, however, only heard of this evidence about Chaloner by accident, three months later. He immediately arrested Peers and re-interviewed him. It was clear that Piers did not have any direct evidence against Chaloner since his role was limited to the final step in counterfeit production. So Newton turned Peers into an informant and sent him back to the gang with a few shillings to keep him going. Peers briefly was arrested by a thief-taker (news of Peers’ visit to Newton essentially confirmed him as a counterfeiter of some kind to the thief-taking world) but by this time Newton’s intelligence network got him the information immediately and Peers was released immediately back to collect more detailed information on the Chaloner gang. While Peers wormed his way further into the counterfeiting operations, gaining additional training, meeting with gang members held in jails, and participating with the coinage, Chaloner grew frustrated with the slow pace of manufacture.

Though he’d kept out of sight and away from the actual sight of counterfeiting, Chaloner needed money immediately. He returned to his previously successful routine of creating Jacobite sedition where none existed. He and an associate approached the Lords Justice on the last day of August 1697 to offer their services as couriers and spies for an alleged plot against Dover Castle. Unfortunately, they appeared before the court just as Newton was also appearing for an unrelated counterfeiting case. Newton spotted Chaloner, and informed the Justices about his investigation. They ordered Chaloner’s arrest.

Newton was worried however. The evidence against Chaloner for the new counterfeiting operation was still thin and very preliminary. The Justices were unconcerned. A jury would sort out the details, they said. Chaloner was back in Newgate Prison again but soon realized the weakness of Newton’s case. Chaloner arranged for the emigration of a key witness (his associate, Thomas Holloway) to Scotland, out of Newton’s jurisdiction. Other witnesses were threatened and soon recanted. Within weeks, the presiding judge in the case dismissed the charges. By the end of October of 1697, Chaloner was again a free man. The premature exposure of Newton’s case had doomed it. Round Three had gone to Chaloner.

Part VI: Newton and the Counterfeiter

The latest legal bout between Newton and Chaloner had left both shaken. The former, because his careful plans and gathering of information had been circumvented by witness-tampering, and the latter because yet another expensive counterfeiting operation had been disrupted by a stay in Newgate Prison. Chaloner no longer had the luxury of legitimate activities and testimony before Parliamentary committees. He needed money, and more crucially, he needed money to “make money.”

In February of 1698, he returned to Parliament for redress … claiming, with the acquiescence of this political patron Mordaunt, that “some” in the Mint were seeking his demise and constantly manufacturing evidence and witnesses against him. Newton was hauled before yet another parliamentary committee. Though the committee was stacked with Newton’s friends, it was clear that Chaloner might have a legitimate case to make. In fact, Newton had been assembling a web of informants and witnesses, some of whom had been paid for their services. In the end, however, Chaloner’s claims were dismissed but Newton’s reputation was certainly not restored. What really changed was Newton’s attitude. Chaloner had started as one of many counterfeiters. Then one of few elite counterfeiters warranting close attention. Now Chaloner had challenged Newton directly, repeatedly, and personally, standing up to the Warden after undermining a legitimate if premature prosecution.

Newton was about to return the favor and make Chaloner the focus of his fury and his intellect.

Chapter 20 describes the final round between Newton and Chaloner. The government, constantly seeking ways to fund King William’s continental wars, hit upon a lottery scheme that paid a prize for the few, and the equivalent of a fixed rate of return for the many who bought tickets. The Malt Lottery opened in April 1697 and because ticket-bearers received annual returns, the tickets became de facto paper currency. By June 1698, after his latest brush with Parliament and Newton early in the year, Chaloner was looking for a safe and profitable way to make money. Counterfeiting Malt Lottery tickets seemed like the solution.

By this time, Chaloner had run out of trusted colleagues … having either sent them into exile in Scotland, or ushered them off this mortal coil via the gallows to save his own skin. So while Chaloner engraved the plates necessary to counterfeit the lottery tickets, he still needed operational capital to complete the work. Unfortunately, the man he approached through an intermediary to fund the enterprise (one David Davis) was actually a paid informer and thief-taker for the Secretary of State. Since the lottery tickets were not currency, they were Treasury’s problem and Newton was not immediately informed about the infiltrated conspiracy.

Newton had not forgotten Chaloner, however. Though Sir Isaac could not compel anyone to do anything in Scotland, he’d reached out to Thomas Holloway there and arranged for him to return to England. When news of this reached Chaloner, he immediately shut down his operation, hid the critical printing plates, and disappeared. This collapsed the Treasury’s investigation that was being run by David Davis. Inadvertently, the Mint had stumbled over the Treasury’s case. In desperation, the Secretary of State for Treasury placed a 50 pound bounty on Chaloner’s head. And in London of the time, 50 pounds went a long, long ways.

Without too much delay, Chaloner was captured by a thief-taker and hauled to Newgate. With the immediate threat of waves of counterfeit Malt Lottery tickets gone, Treasury was content to hand the case against Chaloner over to Newton, who had his newly acquired witness from Scotland from the previously tampered case, plus an unquenchable thirst for Chaloner to swing from the gallows, once and for all. This would be Round Four.

Chapter 21 details just how much Newton had evolved and changed his strategy. A new and rigourous handling of William Chaloner was instituted. All the lessons he’d taught the Warden of the Mint about escaping justice in earlier days had been duly noted. Where Chaloner had once bribed jail guards, companions, and witnesses with ease, Newton now held all in Newgate Prison in a tight fist. None came in contact or spent time with Chaloner without Newton’s permission. Escape to, and communication with, the outside world was suddenly impossible.

Newton had learned further lessons. All Chaloner’s jail-mates were paid informants and owed their lives entirely to Newton. Newton could put a kaleidoscope of potential jailhouse witnesses beside Chaloner, night and day, for weeks. And Chaloner’s trial date was entirely at the discretion of the prosecuting magistrate, as was the formation of the jury or selection of a friendly judge.

Chaloner felt confident in making the case for his innocence (he had neither printing plates nor forged tickets on his person when he was arrested). What he didn’t suspect was that Newton had made a cold-eyed assessment of the English legal system and had figured out a way to nail a slippery character like Chaloner.

Newton learned from Round Three that a tight focused case was also a vulnerable case. A case that involved specifics was subject to bribery and generous witness tampering. Most witnesses, by the nature of counterfeiting, were themselves were guilty parties. Juries were hesitant to convict in capital cases if there was a hint that witnesses were perjurying themselves entirely for their own survival. Newton had discovered a way around the problem.

He would present a huge volume of witnesses and facts, assemble a long historical pattern of Chaloner’s personal behaviour, and let the jury read between the lines. All of Chaloner’s “near-death experiences” with the judicial system would be used to imply guilt rather than prove it.

In the meantime, Chaloner could stew in his own juices. Newton spent the spring and summer of 1698 gathering every bit of hearsay on Chaloner that he find. With that information he began assembling a comprehensive list of Chaloner’s associates. That would the pool from which he would “encourage” an equally comprehensive set of witnesses of Chaloner’s activities since his arrival in London. By January and February of 1699, with the recoinage largely complete, Newton was free to dedicate days of his time at a stretch to interviewing Chaloner witnesses. Though the record of Newton’s counterfeiting investigations are spotty and sometimes entirely missing, for this case alone there are 140 statements in the archives.

Newton wasn’t leaving anything to chance. Irrespective of what the actual court appearance brought, he would have all his facts in place beforehand. Newton made full use of the testimony of wives and mistresses in the counterfeiting schemes. As his base of information grew, he began to focus more intently on the primary conspirators in the Round Three coin counterfeiting scheme (and its emigré logistics chief, Thomas Holloway), and on the final Malt Lottery ticket scheme (including a distributor Thomas Carter, caught red-handed with tickets).

Word got out on the street that the Warden was looking for any and all incriminating information on Chaloner. A number of criminals on “Death Row” attempted to add their pittance to the pile in hopes of saving themselves. None were so saved, but Newton collected all details on Chaloner, large and small, nonetheless. Newton was assembling an army of individual witnesses, all confirming that Chaloner was in the counterfeiting business for years. The specific facts and details would fade into the background in light of the size and scale of Chaloner’s perfidy.

In Chapter 22, Levenson turns to Chaloner’s situation in prison. Initially, Chaloner hoped to turn the evidence of his co-conspirator Thomas Carter. But Carter had long since been co-opted by Newton and Chaloner finally realized he needed to keep his mouth shut. Then Newton inserted John Ignatius Lawson, former physician and elite coiner consigned to Newgate, into Chaloner’s cell. Not ever having been in any conspiracy with Lawson, Chaloner began unburdening himself to the man … who promptly informed Newton of every word. Newton wasn’t looking for incriminating evidence so much as Chaloner’s plans. And Chaloner duly began talking about those witnesses who might be most incriminating to him. Those witnesses would suddenly find themselves wheeled in front of the Warden of the Mint for a round of detailed interrogations.

Somehow Chaloner had received word that his friends on the outside had successfully tampered with the juries for the current criminal court sessions. And Chaloner himself started to consider whether providing the government the printing plates for the counterfeit Malt Lottery tickets might sway them to go easy on his sentence. All this and more filtered into Newton’s office within a day or two of Chaloner’s conversations.

Weeks passed. Newton had let two sessions of the criminal courts pass since Chaloner’s arrest and imprisonment. Another was upcoming in March of 1699. Chaloner must have wondered if the tampered jurors would stay bought over such long periods. Finally, Chaloner cracked and decided to write a letter directly to Newton, offering to tell all he knew.

In Chapter 23, we hear that Newton was willing to listen. In all Chaloner was to write three letters to Newton, and one to a judge of the criminal court (which Newton arranged to have copied). Chaloner’s desperation was becoming clear. The letters begin as calm denials of guilt … often moderated by admissions that he might have been an innocent bystander. Chaloner was hopeful that Newton would overlook the small matter of his claims before Parliamentary committees of the Warden’s incompetence and venality. Surely Newton wouldn’t hold that against him.

Newton read the first letter, and did not respond. Letter number two shows Chaloner’s understanding that he’d have to cough up some additional useful information on London criminal enterprise plus some likely candidates for his own crimes. He tried but it all came down to “I’m not guilty.”

Then Chaloner writes to a magistrate, Mr. Justice Railton, listing all his services to the Crown in exposing mis-deeds at the Mint and indeed his reward for having identifying those nefarious Jacobite printers, long years ago. It was such service, Chaloner claimed, that had inspired the enmity of those bearing witness against him. No reply from Railton exists and since the Warden of the Mint was entirely in control of his case, none may have been made.

The final letter was again to Isaac Newton. By the end of February 1699, with another session of criminal court imminent, Chaloner knew he was close to the end. As a final ploy, he claims that he lacked the technical competence to conduct the counterfeiting operations that have been claimed against him in the Malt Lottery ticket case. That this flew in the face of his many writings, protestations, and testimony about his knowledge of counterfeiting before both the Privy Council and parliamentary committees was necessarily glossed over.

Newton, throughout this period, remained silent. Chaloner’s letters remain in the Mint archive but there’s no indication that Newton even began a draft answer. Finally, Chaloner began having fits and showing signs of madness in his jail cell. Whether these events were real or feigned, no one in authority was about to believe William Chaloner on any matter, any longer.

On March 2, 1699, William Chaloner was brought before the court sessions at the Guildhall, where grand juries for London and Middlesex met to take part in trials. In Chapter 24, Newton presents three indictments before the jury, using just two witnesses from those he plans to use. Firstly, the counterfeiting of French pistoles, backed up by testimony by Thomas Taylor and Katherine Coffee. Secondly, the inducement of Thomas Holloway to escape to Scotland to avoid testimony on the earlier counterfeiting ring. Finally, a comprehensive indictment on a coining extravaganza in August 1698 where Chaloner was claimed to have created fake coins in gold and silver and in many denominations. After Newton’s presentation, the Middlesex jury returned the three bills of indictment as “true.” None were linked to the Malt Lottery ticket scam that Chaloner had expected. When asked what he pled, he remained silent. This risked a forced plea, potentially with iron blocks piled on his body. Chaloner eventually pled “not guilty.’

The next day, March 3rd, was reserved for the trial at the Old Bailey. Unlike modern trials, the 17th century featured swift and ferocious justice. There were no lawyers. Felony victims often stood in as prosecutors. In cases of crime against the Crown (such as counterfeiting), an agent of the state stood in as the aggrieved party. Chaloner would speak for himself. There was no presumption of innocence. Either he proved himself innocent or he wasn’t. The court would hear fifteen to twenty cases a day. Perhaps his case would last only minutes.

Worst of all, apparently Chaloner drew a notorious “hanging judge,” one not above a bribe by all accounts but one far too expensive for Chaloner’s purse to bribe … Salathiel Lovell. Now Chaloner’s history as a provocateur before parliamentary committees worked against him. Lovell would score major points by being harsh with a counterfeiter well known to the educated public and London’s underworld. Opening statements by the judges indicated that Chaloner was going to have a serious head-wind to overcome.

The trial was underway and it appears that Newton intentionally kept the train of evidence muddled. A series of six witnesses rapidly proclaimed their first-hand knowledge of Chaloner’s coining activities, stretching back seven years before the trial. From the perspective of the 21st century, it seems clear that the testimony was either fudged or slanted to amalgamate events that took part on different dates and in different places.

Chaloner could hardly criticize the testimony by parsing the details of the counterfeiting without admitting that it took place and he was there. Newton’s tactic is all too well known to us: throw enough mud and some will stick.

Testimony was soon complete. The judges and jury waited for a response. Chaloner claimed the testimony was perjured but apparently none in the court were willing to accept that the perjury might outweigh the overall impact and content of the testimony. Chaloner claimed that a Middlesex jury had no jurisdiction over events in London. True, but a nicety of law that none in the court apparently thought worth much. Others tried the same approach to better effect. A sympathetic judge could have released Chaloner but there was no sympathetic judge, nor indeed much sympathy for William Chaloner, in the court on that day. He had to speak once and hold his peace. Having done so, the jury retired for a few minutes and returned a verdict of guilty of High Treason. The next day, March 4th, sentence was handed down … Death, by hanging. The trial was over.

One last hope remained. Death sentences had to be reviewed promptly by the King and his ministers. Two of the nine brought forward on March 19th received royal clemency. Chaloner was not among them. On March 22, 1699, he was taken by sledge to Tyburn for hanging. A day or two earlier he’d had the counterfeit lottery ticket printing plates returned to the government. It did him little good. As a counterfeiter, guilty of High Treason, he was sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. He was allowed to be hung until dead and his corpse mutilated … instead of his conscious body.

And that was the rapid end to years of back-and-forth between England’s great natural philosopher and England’s great counterfeiter. The tale of his life then fell to the anonymous biographer who quickly wrote a pamphlet following Chaloner’s hanging.

Epilogue: “He Could Not Calculate the Madness of the People”

Newton didn’t attend Chaloner’s execution. And his enthusiasm for hunting counterfeiters seemed to wane in the coming months and years. By year-end, Newton’s nominal boss died and in December 1699, Newton was appointed as Master of Mint. He was now in control of the entire institution and for the first time in his life, the recipient of an annual income (salary plus percentage fee per coin minted) that would make him indisputably wealthy.

In the new century he was to return to his natural philosophy studies and publish further on his optical research. His role at the Mint ensured that the mysteries of gold and silver trade would continue to play a role in his thinking. The problem with the incorrect English valuation of silver was finally solved when most of the silver coinage struck during Newton’s early years at the Mint simply headed to the Continent as bullion. Of necessity, the basis of the British economy shifted to gold … and was to give the British pound a pre-eminent place in the global economy for several centuries.

As for the debate over paper and metal money, Newton was to live long enough to participate in the South Sea Company stock bubble … and to be caught up in the frenzy of buying that was to ultimately leave him 20,000 pounds poorer. His annual salary as Master of the Mint was 500 pounds. Intellect was no substitute for good timing and market bubbles are certainly with us to this day.

Newton and the Counterfeiter describes a fascinating time when savant, bureaucrat and criminal were all attempting to cope with rapid economic changes and with the “meaning of money.”

General Impressions

It might seem like the “high concept” of this book (fish out of water/cat-and-mouse) lends itself to a Hollywood-style treatment that could “write itself.” Think “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” meets “The Untouchables.” There’s probably a bad movie in this book somewhere, starring Jeremy Irons. But this story is deceptively easy to epitomize. It’s much tougher to execute.

Professor Levenson’s task, blending the two stories together under a single cover and providing sufficient historical background for a 21st century reader, is non-trivial. Newton and the Counterfeiter presented an interesting challenge to any author. A wide audience has some sense of who Newton was … something about gravity and apples. But a much smaller set of readers is familiar with Newton’s social setting or with his role in late 17th century coining and counterfeiter-hunting. On the one hand, Levenson has to provide enough background to the reader so that they can understand the dramatic significance of Newton and Chaloner’s activities. On the other hand, he can’t overwhelm his audience with so much detail on 17th century London, and the politics of the time, that the reader loses track of the protagonists entirely. The story, in other words, has to survive the history.

That he succeeds so well is a testament both to his writing skills and to the balance he sought between too much information and not enough. I certainly don’t envy the amount of background reading required to write Newton and the Counterfeiter. I compare this book very favorably with the The Ghost Map, an excellent book I reviewed earlier for cb on a devastating cholera outbreak in 19th century London. Both books faced the same challenge. The reader needs quite a bit of technical and social background, even some psychological briefing, before historical events can be fully understood. Yet if an author digs too far into the details of England’s past, the main story fades too far into the background. While the author may have months or years of immersion in the subject, the historical period, and the controversies of current scholarship, the poor reader must be introduced to the material at break-neck pace, without losing track of the reason for the book in the first place.

Mr. Levenson did risk an occasional beating from specialist academics (and Britain’s poison dwarf journalists) for factual errors here and there (a selection of book reviews can be found through Google), but he took on the daunting task of bringing London vividly alive in the last decade of the 17th century, without drowning his story. He succeeded. This book is a real master class in the genre. Along with the aforementioned Ghost Map, this book illustrates just how beautifully historical non-fiction can be written for the general reader.

At times, it does seem like the reader can’t tell the players without a program … a Dramatis Personae. This is a dense story, involving two memorable characters, a multitude of supporting personalities, and a fascinating turbulent time in English history. Nonetheless, the reader can largely enjoy the tale without mapping out names, dates, and details. Someone reviewing this book … not so much. For fans of the time, or of Newton, this book will be a great pleasure.

I’d already read Gleick’s brief biography of Newton (recommended in Levenson’s Bibliography). And I’d already read widely on Newton’s contemporaries (such as Hooke) and Samuel Pepys) and the natural philosophy of the era (such as Leviathan and the Air-Pump, Soul Made Flesh). I’m not sure a general reader, coming to the subject cold, would take as much inspiration from Levenson’s hard work as I did. But the strength of the story really provides the momentum for any reader, and the more you already know about the period, the richer the reading experience.

Quibbles and a Tangential Rant

After reading a well-written book on a fascinating subject, it seems pretty mean-spirited to offer criticisms but perhaps dozens of hours, pages of personal notes, thousands of words (drafted and re-drafted), and my own Everest to climb in summarizing Newton and the Counterfeiter give me a brief license to snark.

The review copy I received had a dust jacket with what appears to be a Thames-side photograph of the Victoria Embankment, looking south to the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, and Westminster Bridge. Someone at the publishing house’s art department was either an idiot or had a wicked sense of humor. London in the 1690s looked nothing like the 19th century promenade (built over sewers) on the west side of the Thames. As a design, it beats a bust of Newton superimposed by a Photoshopped golden guinea … I guess. But not by much. After hundreds of pages describing how different Newton and Chaloner’s London was from our modern world, the author deserved better.

I do feel the book’s subtitle perhaps over-sells the idea of Newton as detective (let alone whether he’s the “world’s greatest scientist”). I think a better case can be made for Isaac Newton as the world’s greatest natural philosopher (or world’s Last Alchemist). This book certainly makes the case for him being one of England’s most effective 17th century bureaucrats. As described above, the climax of the story …the trial and demise of Chaloner … was altogether anticlimactic. After several years of confrontation with Newton, the counterfeiter had become a political liability. Newton finally grabbed him, tarred him in court with innuendo and the testimony of compromised witnesses, and the presiding judge dispatched Chaloner forthwith to the gallows. For Newton, it was “on to the next one.” While Levenson makes a strong case that Newton focused much of his energies on finally nailing Chaloner in 1699, it’s not entirely clear that the back-and-forth over several years with Chaloner engaged Isaac Newton as completely as it might look to outsiders. For the sake of selling the book, much may be forgiven. Nonetheless, fans of detective stories (let alone “great scientists”) may find the gruel a bit thin.

Law & Order aficionados won’t get complete satisfaction from Newton and the Counterfeiter but, as mentioned in my Holiday book roundup, fans of Isaac Newton and those interested in England’s 17th century economic history will enjoy this book a lot. This might be just the gift book for friends or family with interests in economics, physics, or the history of science. It’s definitely written so that intelligent high school students would find it interesting and comprehensible. If you’re looking for a book that might get the family’s science geek into history, Newton and the Counterfeiter might be just the ticket.

Mr. Levenson is a really literate man. And scattered throughout the book are modern American and British terms, slang, phrases or references that would make a general reader feel more at home. Being a Canadian, quite used to translating between the two vocabularies, these efforts stood out. I’m not sure they were entirely necessary but they may well provide emotional and visual landmarks for modern readers trying to orient themselves to 17th century London crime.

Let me now take a final detour to rant generally about non-fiction books on history and/or science in the 21st century. They are my joy, and often my frustration.

First off, it should be revealed that Mr. Levenson is head of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT. The quality of this book speaks volumes for the wisdom of his employer. Along with the review copy which I received (far too long ago, I must note with shame), there was fascinating package of review and promotional material from the publisher which outlined some of Professor Levenson’s research activities that underlay the writing of this book. I found that material really interesting.

A year ago, in a review of a book on the story of the Antikythera mechanism, I said that I think authors have less and less excuse for a lack of explanatory diagrams and maps in books on science history. In the case of that book, for example, I was left to using Google Maps to locate the island of Antikythera in the Aegean, and to hunt out a number of excellent virtual reality simulations that dramatically complemented the author’s verbal descriptions of the famous mechanism. In subsequent e-mail conversations with the author, she indicated that the publishers were loathe to spare pages for illustrations and diagrams.

Fair enough. I’ve been involved in enough publishing projects to have fought the “space wars” myself, in multiples of 8, 16, and 32. Nonetheless, in the current age, authors who invest hundreds of hours in research “to render their ox into ox-tail soup” can still avail themselves of a permanent URL, just for their book, that provides a repository for all that they might have included in their book if the constraints of dead-trees were absent. Particularly for topics that are complex (for historical, scientific, or technical reasons), a book might be better thought of as the centerpiece of a wider range of materials, available at next to no cost online.

When Newton and the Counterfeiter was first released, for example, there was no Wikipedia entry on William Chaloner. Now there is … but I don’t think Mr. Levenson wrote it. There is an anonymous biography of Chaloner, published shortly after he was hung. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a chance to read it? Googling “Newton and the Counterfeiter” still leads one to many websites selling the book and some videos by the author … but no central permanent spot where the author might have offered supplementary or updated information on the subject of his book. If there were such a site, the book itself would have been a wonderful place to advertise the URL, at every opportunity.

Whether through voluntarily beefing up public sources like Wikipedia or by creating their own modest permanent website (in support of their book), I don’t see why authors can’t build ongoing relationships with motivated readers. I count myself among that group when it comes to Mr. Levenson. I’d like to read his next based on the quality of this one. Where will I go to learn about it? … though Jeff Bezos at will no doubt inform me in a timely fashion based on my purchasing history!

Ironically, the next book in my review queue is Chris Anderson’s “Free: The Future of a Radical Price.” His thesis: creators need to form ongoing relationships with readers that drive attention and build reputation for their work. And he put his money where his mouth is … he gave away the book in electronic form (audio/textual) and maintains an extensive blog interacting with his readers as he works on his books.

So without singling out Professor Levenson for any kind of personal criticism, or slighting the fact that as Head of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT he might be on top of this marketing and communication trend in professional writing … herewith I offer a short list of items that I would have loved to see on a website called, after seeing the URL in the book reviewed above.

  • illustrations of the tools and techniques associated with the minting or counterfeiting of 18th century coins. I “imagined” these tools and techniques but I would also have liked to have seen them.
  • “holographs” or scanned images of Newton’s notes on his counterfeiting cases and his “informations” taken in evidence from witnesses.
  • the text or scans of the letters which Chaloner sent Newton in the last days of his life
  • illustrations and maps on Newgate Prison
  • same as above, for the Royal Mint
  • text or scanned version of “Guzman Redivivus: A Short View of the Life of Will. Chaloner.”
  • any additional or supplemental information on how the author conducted his research, assembled his book, and any regrets he might have had on the direction that either took. The press package was great. I’m sure other readers would enjoy it.
  • the topic of Mr. Levenson’s next book and an estimated publication date

Let me conclude this short rant on non-fiction books, and the obsessives who read them, by simply repeating that Mr. Levenson’s book is great and reflects a lot of careful effort. It has a quality in writing and organization that I will never reach though I very much appreciate it. The subject matter is fascinating. And Isaac Newton was one strange and wonderful dude.

9 thoughts on “Book Review — Levenson — Newton and the Counterfeiter”

  1. You practically wrote a book of your own on this subject!

    Thanks for an interesting review.

  2. Ha, I skipped reading the post because I think I’m going to get the book. Some of the following might be covered in the post.

    One of themes of the Neil Stephenson’s Baroque cycle was that the banking system and money itself were forms of technology every bit as important to the modern world as Newton’s scientific achievements.

    Science and capitalism are inextricably linked. Science is the creation of knowledge by empirical experimentation and capitalism is the creation of material wealth by empirical experimentation. History is quite clear that they feed into each other.

    Every major locus of scientific achievement in history was first a major commercial center. Modern science began in households of the merchant princes of Renascence Italy in the cities of Florence and Vienna, communities given over wholly to commerce. For a time Lisbon was a great commercial center where modern navigation and astronomy was birthed, then Amsterdam, then London. Scientific ferment follows the economic ferment of all-hogs-to-the-trough capitalism.

    In Newton’s time, London and Amsterdam were poles of a great commercial, intellectual and scientific axis around which the modern world would eventually turn. When Newton rescued the British physical currency, he provided the important technology that created the foundation of the modern financial system. That system in turn created companies that explored the world and created technologies both of which fed back into science.

  3. James, I skipped the spoiler section.

    Your bullet points at the end are all well-taken. If the day comes when the primary manifestation of a “book” is on a reader, like an iPad, then the book will have this material not as ancillary but as organic to it. The launch of the book will be the launch of a multi-media presentation, with a text narrative as the spine. This would allow tweaks regarding factual details such as the ones the reviewers noted to be made automatically, if the reader agrees, with an errata sheet being generated.

    On a related point, I notice that virtually every review of any book of military history says the same thing: the maps are inadequate. What someone ought to do (the Pritzker Military Library in Chicago, maybe?) is make a comprehensive website of maps of military campaigns, which will support not just any book but all books.

  4. Science and capitalism are inextricably linked. Science is the creation of knowledge by empirical experimentation and capitalism is the creation of material wealth by empirical experimentation. History is quite clear that they feed into each other.” – Shannon Love

    Boy, can you write, Shannon Love.

    “If the day comes when the primary manifestation of a “book” is on a reader, like an iPad, then the book will have this material not as ancillary but as organic to it. The launch of the book will be the launch of a multi-media presentation, with a text narrative as the spine. This would allow tweaks regarding factual details such as the ones the reviewers noted to be made automatically, if the reader agrees, with an errata sheet being generated.” – Lexington Green

    A million fiction and art projects come to mind, and I hope these future imagined projects will be better than the “multimedia” presentations seen in certain Chicago museums. Ahem.

    Have you seen some of those little, er, films? Why are the curators showing them? They are objectively awful. Or at least, the curators don’t do a good enough job of showing the museum-goer why the films are – or might be – important.

    Anyway, the above multimedia book launch sounds interesting, but potentially tiring as well. Is it just my age, complaining about information overload? How are we to learn to deal with it all? I’m sure we will, though. Maybe we will evolve a second brain someday….

    And now I’ve gone off topic – always a delightful thing to do in a comments section. Or maybe not.

    – Madhu

  5. “…potentially tiring…”

    The more technical the subject, the better it would be.

    A novel? Maybe. We have always had illustrated books. But it is no major breakthrough.

    A history book? Sure. Maps, images of original documents, simulations, links to articles and other books, etc. The stuff James talked about.

    Now, how about a genuinely technical book, say a medical school textbook? Now you are talking. How about an introduction to surgery, that has three dimensional manipulable images of all the relevant anatomy, of the effect of surgical tools, links to a database of video of actual surgeries, links to statistics of the effectiveness of various procedures, etc.

    Now, how about something like the user’s guide to a piece of machinery, or some major piece of software? You would have the equivalent of three dimensional and manipulable FAQs, user-updated tips and suggestions and complaint, all in one coordinated source.

    A book that is meant to be enjoyed will not change much. A book that is meant to be used for purely practical, utilitarian ends, however, may be totally transformed.

  6. I’m easily distracted (like any good blog commenter), but of course, that’s my issue. The idea is a good one.

    A lot of what you mention is already available – all that digital and simulated stuff. The medical students around here don’t even use a real microscope – it’s all digital. Of course, we still use actual microscopes so that they don’t even know how to use one.

    A lot of medical school curriculum has become virtual and visual and computer based, with small groups discussions and problem solving sessions in place of lectures.

    I have not noticed that the medical students are any better prepared. In fact, the usual complaints by faculty (this has been going on since the dawn of time, of course, and I don’t know if it’s real or just us “oldsters” whining) is that they come to the floors ill-prepared.

    We spend more money than ever for the same, or arguably a lesser, result.

    And so we reflect general society in that way….

    – Madhu

  7. One more thing: my art project would be more complex than an illustated novel. Although not really anything new, as you say, perhaps the visual aspect would be different is all.

    I imagine the different main characters in a novel each with their own virtual spaces, so that as you read the novel you can read their companion blogs, see their homes virtually, walk into paintings or restaurants that they describe digitally. They can have a conversation about a trip, and you see the vacation snaps. All if you want to. Or, you can just leave it be. I dunno – there are a million applications and a million permutations.

    I imagine a short story, a perfect little gem, and yet, you can make it unperfect and messy by delving in. Dickension layering on top of modern brevity.

    – Madhu

  8. The prospect of having all of the relevant information related to any particular subject easily available in an organized way, including instructions, video, models, maps, etc. is good. And we will see more of it.

    The hazard of distraction and lack of focus is always present and the current technology makes it worse. We will see more of that, too.

    As to an artistic work such as you describe, that takes advantage of this new technology, to become a “deep” work with multiple layers, doors you can go through, characters that interact with you, etc., I suppose that some of that already exists in the form of games. I don’t know, I have not paid any attention to the games that are available these days. We will, of course, see lots more of that sort of thing, too.

  9. Thanks for the work James. I enjoyed the review and look forward to reading the book. I printed it out to read. It came out to 16 pages.

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