Those were the days ... when a physicist could murder a counterfeiter in the name of the King

William Chaloner reminds me of a handful of people I've known. He possessed a sense of entitlement balanced by a remarkable capacity for greed and tempered with an acute sociopathy. He clearly had a keen intellect and extraordinary manual skill. When Isaac Newton murdered Chaloner (to put it the way Chaloner would put it) he did the world a favor. I'm not saying that certain people I've known should be hanged, gutted, and sliced like a chicken into five or six parts, but one can see why the idea would have been attractive back in the late 17th century when that was the usual practice for dealing with treasonous individuals in London.

Newton and the Counterfeiter:The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist by Tom Levenson is the story of Isaac Newton, in his job as Warden of the Mint (housed in the Tower of London) vs. the criminal and counterfeiter William Chaloner, over the course of several years in the late 17th century. I've already written a short notice of Levenson's book (here), but here I'd like to make a number of additional observations, not so much about the book (which I recommend) but rather about late 17th century England and related topics.

Very striking is the nature of the legal system and the role of due process in courts in London and Middlesex County. For Levenson's story, we (eventually) find Newton prosecuting a case against the counterfeiter. So that's the first difference. Instead of having prosecutors, they had physicists (or whomever) arguing as plaintiff. And, on the other side of it, it seems defendants were often defending themselves. Of particular interest is the apparent fact that while Chaloner was probably guilty of everything we think of him as being guilty of (mainly forging coins and to a lesser extent paper instruments) Newton's case was largely invalid and should have been thrown out. For reasons I'm not entirely clear on, Levenson does not conjecture at any length or depth about why Newton tried the case in the "wrong" court (county instead of city, essentially) and why he pretty much fabricated one set of charges to reflect reality in some ways but to be factually utterly incorrect, and thus invalid, in others. Did Newton carry out a prosecution that an excellent lawyer would have easily undone (in the first case, or on appeal) in order to torment the lawyerless Chaloner, who does seem to go nearly insane with the idea that his conviction was tantamount to "murder?"

And there are, of course, other details of the legal system that would make a modern American first cringe, then think about the American Revolution some 75 years later, and then think "oh, that revolution certainly was a good idea." There are numerous key points in the American Constitutional system that one realizes are direct outcomes of abuses possible (and seemingly common) under the old British system.

Newton may or may not have tortured Chaloner or others he detained or prosecuted, but it is interesting that torture was officially illegal at the time, and Levenson discusses the legality and practice of torture over the previous century or so. I won't reiterate the discussion here; When you read the book you will find it interesting.

I spent several years as an archaeologist digging up 16th and 17th century European (including British) coins. Not many of them, but those that did turn up on early sites usually proved interesting and important. The early colonists in Boston carried vats of King James I farthings, which had become worthless and disdained, to trade with the Native Americans as though they were glass beads or bangles. The Natives in Massachusetts rolled the farthings (small thin copper disks with a tin plate) into tubes and used them as one might use a tubular glass bead. Flat farthings were found in Euro-colonial contexts (not yet traded) and tubulated farthings were found with trade goods or on Native sites (though this was uncommon). And there were other interesting things about digging up coins, but I have already digressed enough. My point is simply this: Reading in Levenson's book about the production of coins, the problems of valuation, international trade and value imbalances, counterfeiting, and so on was especially interesting to me because I dug some of those suckers up.

It occurs to me that I may have dug up coins actually made by Isaac Newton (well, under his supervision). Until I read Newton and the Counterfeiter, that had never dawned to me.

Another point: I had no idea there was a sex toy industry in 17th Century England. But of course, there would be.

I worked with someone years ago on a project looking into the evolutionary psychology of money, including the acceptance of both coins and paper as interchangeable or, at least, "worth something" in relation to, the usual human needs for which we are probably evolved to deal: Sex, food, shelter, whatever. Many humans have, indeed, incorporated money into their psychology. I was reminded of those readings, writings, discussions.

I had not really paid attention to the fact that Newton was mainly an alchemist for much off his scholarly life, and that this whole physics thing was sort of a side trip for him. If only he had insights of the sort he had for mechanics but for chemical bonds and elements.

Finally, Newton and the Counterfeiter presents a description of intellectual or academic life in England one or two "eras" before Darwin, contemporary with the early Natural Philosophers. That is not the intent of the book, but it serves that purpose and I enjoyed that aspect of the story.

More like this

How was this act "doing the world a favour"? Apart from hanging, drawing and quartering being pointlessly barbaric, counterfeiting would have expanded the money supply. Which is what the economy probably needed.

By James Haughton (not verified) on 07 Sep 2010 #permalink

Think of it in the extreme. If all the money in an economy can purchase all the goods and services available (oversimplistic, but adequate for the example), and you simply add more money, all you do is devalue the goods & services.

You still have the same amount of goods and services on which you can use money, there's just more bills/coins floating around.

Counterfeiting doesn't improve an economy, it improves the living standards of the counterfeiter at the expense of the economy (until (s)he is caught, anyway).

James: " ... one can see why the idea would have been attractive back in the late 17th century ..." Also, when you read Tom's book you'll see that this is more about the person than what he was doing. If the reports are to be believed, he was one of those "worst nightmare" sort of guys.

Regarding the money supply, the main problem at the time was that the metal used to make coins in England was worth more melted down than the coins were worth, in France and elsewhere on the continent. For this reason, the coins were disappearing faster than they could be stamped in some years. Those melting the coins down would not have paid for the fake coinage (made of pewter, often, instead of silver). The result would have been that all the coins would be fake. Thus, leading us to a system where the money is not intrinsically valuable but still works as money.

So, yeah, more counterfeiting!!! That could work!

Don: "Counterfeiting doesn't improve an economy, it improves the living standards of the counterfeiter at the expense of the economy (until (s)he is caught, anyway)." Right, but then, the counterfeiting buys yachts and stuff thus creating jobs...

Don Rowe @ #2:

Counterfeiting doesn't improve an economy, it improves the living standards of the counterfeiter at the expense of the economy (until (s)he is caught, anyway).

That is generally true today, but not necessarily in the past - back when currency was made from or backed by valuable metals, economic growth could (and regularly was) restricted by an insufficient supply of said metals: because the money supply could not expand beyond the bullion supply, there as simply not enough money available to conduct all of the economic exchanges that would have been possible and beneficial. I can't say whether Chaloner's activities fell into such a period, but if they did, they would indeed have had a positive impact on the economy.

By Phillip IV (not verified) on 08 Sep 2010 #permalink

Don, increasing the money supply, even if it causes inflation can increase the efficiency of transactions. If the smallest monetary unit is $10, then transactions for things of much lower value become cumbersome. You can't easily distinguish between things that are worth $12 and $8 because you medium of exchange doesn't have enough resolution.

This is actually a serious problem with internet transactions. The monopoly that Visa, MC and other credit and debit card suppliers has a transaction fee structure that precludes micropayments. If you could do micropayments, then things like time dependent electricity cost becomes a lot easier. That would greatly increase the efficiency of electricity generation, transmission and use by incentivizing people to time-shift their electricity consumption. The only thing that is blocking it is the fee structure that banks demand for transactions. Their monopoly power over transactions is a barrier to entry for other players with a different fee structure.

Newton is much criticized for his investigations in alchemy. However, given the knowledge of chemistry at the time, almost 200 years before the discovery of the periodic table, the notion that chemical processes might be able to transform lead into gold was not as far fetched as it appears today. Newton, like the other investigators in alchemy at the time, had no knowledge of the theory of the atomic structure of elements and the notion that he might have developed such a theory is quite a stretch, given the experimental data available at the time.

It could well be argued that Newtons' failure to turn lead into gold was productive in the sense that it provided evidence that it couldn't be done. Experiments with negative results often lead to startling new theories (Michaelson/Morley experiment anyone).

back when currency was made from or backed by valuable metals, economic growth could (and regularly was) restricted by an insufficient supply of said metals

I'm currently reading this book (finished part 4 of 6 last night), and one of the topics it covers is the currency crisis of the 1690s. The cause, as Greg mentioned @3, was a shortage of coins due to merchants exploiting an arbitrage opportunity. Newton proposed at least two solutions to the problem, one of which (use of paper currency) was actually adopted at the time. The other was, in effect, a devaluation: decrease the amount of metal in the coins (the term "pound sterling", of course, implies that one troy pound of silver was originally worth exactly that much; at todays spot prices you would need ~150 pounds of British currency to buy a troy pound of silver).

Gold and/or silver backed currencies are not immune from inflation. There are at least two examples in history: 16th century Spain (due to gold from the New World) and California circa 1850 (the Gold Rush).

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 08 Sep 2010 #permalink

Wait, are you saying that a physicist can no longer murder a counterfeiter in the name of the king? JESUS! I've got like, 30 or 40 people I have to go warn, immediately!

counterfeiting would have expanded the money supply. Which is what the economy probably needed.

OK then, would you mind if I buy your car with $20,000 in counterfeit money?

Don't worry, no one will know it is counterfeit until after the transaction.

I don't in most cases ascribe to the notion of objective morality. I'm not sure how I or anyone could judge Newton back in the 17th century. I am however, lately finding out a lot about Newton that has astonished me not the least of which would be his presumed neurological peculiarities. I wonder if anyone here has read the series of books by Neal Stephenson that fall under the title of "The Baroque Cycle". A marvelous read, well researched (though it is a work of fiction) and deeply immersive in the history of Newton, the Royal Society's finding and some of its original members, Newton's conflict with Liebnitz over the calculus and its implications, and Newton's role in transforming England and by extension the world's commercial landscape through the transformation of pre-mercantile civilization into the global wealth generating machine that it has, in many ways, become. Clever fellow that Newton.Cheers.

The latest statistic I have seen (in regards to USA) is that of all US money, 3% is cash and 97% is electronic. Which is faker? LOL Debased,mixed coins from Newton , or completely fictional ones that only have a tenuous 'virtual' existence? Tenuous in the sense that, you know, say the power goes out for a week or two. I just don't know how so MANY of us play those long odds daily and still sleep at night.I lived through an extended power outage not so long ago ... I'll take the cash every time now, thank you.