Newton and the Counterfeiter
The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest ScientistBook - 2009
A fascinating slice of true-crime history that unfolds in 1695, when law enforcement was unheard of and modern money was little more than a concept
When renowned scientist Isaac Newton took up the post of Warden of His Majesty's Mint in London, another kind of genius--a preternaturally gifted counterfeiter named William Chaloner--had already taken up residence in the city, rising quickly in an unruly, competitive underworld. In the courts and streets of London, and amid the tremors of a world being transformed by ideas Newton himself had set in motion, Chaloner crosses paths with the formidable new warden. An epic game of cat and mouse ensues in Newton and the Counterfeiter , revealing for the first time that Newton was not only one of the greatest minds of his age, but also a remarkably intrepid investigator.
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The scene is 17th-century London's pestilent underbelly, riddled with pickpockets and quack doctors, the stink and groans from the Tower of London, brothels and drunkards. Petty criminals are shaving the edges off coins and melting the silver. Counterfeit coins litter the circulating currency. A serious gambler runs London's Royal Mint. But in 1696, a new Warden of the Mint takes over, and, breaking out of the job description, goes about cleaning up the mess. His name is Sir Isaac Newton.
"Isaac Newton?" science writer Thomas Levenson rightly asks at the start of his new book. "What had the man who had brought order to the cosmos to do with crime and punishment, the flash world of London's gin houses and tenements, bad money and worse faith?"
That's exactly the question that's been simmering in Levenson's mind for a decade. And the result is this inventive biography with a healthy dose of page-turning detective drama. Writing with the sharp eye of a historian, Levenson pulls you into the unexamined life of this brilliant scientist-turned-dogged criminal investigator as he pursues the wily, counterfeiting con-artist William Chaloner.
London had no real police force or fingerprint records at the time. Newton alone had to gather enough evidence to condemn the man with a scheme to infiltrate the Mint. And he did so with no restraint, venturing disguised into London pubs to spy on Chaloner's associates. Down to the apostrophes from Newton's pen, it's a real-life thriller you don't need to be a history-buff to appreciate.
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