Merry Newtonmas: Newton and the Royal Mint

Discussion in 'Coin Chat' started by kaparthy, Dec 7, 2019.

  1. kaparthy

    kaparthy Supporter! Supporter

    Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) was more than the most brilliant man of his time. He was the first modern scientist. He discovered the physics and the mathematics that made possible the industrial age and the electronic age. He invented the reflecting telescope as a result of his experiments in optics. He was an accomplished lawyer, both a prosecutor for the state, and later an effective political scientist. His achievements in theology are unappreciated today. He was a skilled chemist. He served in Parliament. He was president of the Royal Society. In addition, he was Warden and Master of the Royal Mint for 30 years. If he had done any of these, his place in history would have been assured. Newton did all of them and more.
    Newton Prop 11 Book I.jpeg

    (This comes from ““Sir Isaac Newton: Warden and Master of the Mint,” The Numismatist, Vol. 114, no. 11, November 2001. The ANA granted me a 2nd place Heath literary award for the work. Members of the American Numismatic Association have access to all 132 volumes of The Numismatist and can read the entire article online at Non-members can read recent volumes for free.)

    When Newton came to the Royal Mint it was a medieval conglomeration of self-serving officers and contractors. He transformed it into a modern institution. He achieved this by drawing on every talent in the deep storehouse of his complex soul.

    In the 1690s, much of the silver coinage had been in circulation for a hundred years or more. Most of this medieval money was clipped. Having no machined or milled edge, it was easy for people to trim a little silver off of a penny or shilling and still spend it for a penny or shilling. Silver coins were legal tender by "tale" or count. A worn and clipped silver shilling was legally the same as a new coin. (Gold coins were not affected. Legally, gold coins passed by weight, not by count; there was no incentive to clip them.) Counterfeiting was easy because so many silver coins were worn beyond recognition and were trimmed small.

    In 1695, Isaac Newton served on a Regency Council with John Locke, and Sir Christopher Wren, among others, to consider the problem. Newton and William Lowndes, Secretary of the Treasury, both favored issuing new coins that were devalued by 20%. Reducing the size or purity of the new coins would bring them in line with the statistical norm of the circulating coinage. The Bank of England and John Locke objected and their arguments held sway. On December 19, 1695, King William III proclaimed that in 1696, the old coinage could not be lawful money at face value. On January 21, 1696, the great recoinage began. From January 1, 1696, forward, no clipped crowns or half crowns were allowed in commercial transactions, except for the paying of taxes and loans to the King. After February 13, clipped shillings followed suit. Sixpences remained lawful money only until March 2, 1696. Any other clipped coins were unlawful after April 2, 1696.

    New coins went to people who sold things to the government. Old coins came in as payment for taxes and as loans to the crown. The wealthiest people turned in old coins at face and received new coins. Poor people and the middle class were involved only as a consequence of dealing with people who dealt with the state.

    Poor people are illiterate. Most people did not understand the letter of the law. Some money changers bought coins at a discount and then turned them in to the Mint for full value. In the Spring and Summer of 1696, simple bartering reappeared at a level not seen since the Middle Ages. In the first four months, January to April 1696, a mere £300,000 of new coins left the Mint and the same tally of old coins came in.

    Then, Newton arrived.

    Every historian agrees that Newton's unfailingly honesty was the key to his success at the Mint. The Warden was the King's own representative in the Mint, and Newton became the role he played. True administrative power rested with the Comptroller, James Hoare. He was honest and hard-working, but lacked imagination and broad vision. The Master, Thomas Neale, was lazy. He gambled and drank heavily. He rarely showed up at the Mint.

    Newton showed up for work at 4:00 a.m. and he also made the night shift. He actually occupied the lodgings for the Warden, which no Warden had done in anyone's memory. Watching the coiners, he began time-and-motion studies. Analyzing the data, he found ways to improve efficiency. By June, the output of new coins increased ten times over to £4.7 million, a total output in all denominations of 3000 troy pounds weight per day.

    Newton established five branch Mints: Norwich, Chester, Bristol, York, and Exeter. The worst was the Chester Mint run by Newton's friend, Edmund Halley, who labored hard out-fox a conspiracy of Thomas Clarke, the Deputy Master, and his accomplices who defrauded the King by overvaluing the coins turned in. When the branch closed in 1698, Halley was glad to get out of public administration and back to astronomy.

    Newton, however, reveled in his time. He worked 16 hours a day and investigated every detail of production. He also researched the historical documents that enabled and empowered the officers of the Mint. He wrote long legal arguments, establishing and expanding his powers as Warden. He studied all of the economics books he could find.
    newton_obv.jpg newton_rev.jpg

    (Norwich "Conder" token honoring Sir Isaac Newton)

    In 1696, Newton, as Warden, issued "The State of the Mint." In that report he denounced the officers and ministers of the Mint who lined their pockets at the expense of the King and the people. Newton also confronted the suppliers and contractors to the Mint. Newton estimated that 20% of the coins taken in were counterfeit. As the King's warden, Newton also pursued counterfeiters, frequenting rough pubs dressed in disguise, and then arresting the perpetrators, interrogating them, and extracting their confessions.
    Kasia, chrisild, PlanoSteve and 5 others like this.
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  3. Parthicus

    Parthicus Well-Known Member

    Thanks for the article on one of history's more fascinating characters. For a fictional view of Newton, I recommend Neal Stephenson's 3-volume series of novels The Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World) where Isaac Newton is one of many real historical figures who feature prominently in the plot. The books feature a series of adventures in the 1600s that incidentally show the birth of modern science, the creation of international banking systems, the transition away from monarchical rule, and much more. Also pirates, alchemists, adventurers, courtesans, reformers, etc. Newton shows up early in the series as a brilliant but eccentric college student, and features later in his alchemical and mathematical research and (most relevant here) as Master of the Mint, where we see him undercover tracking down a counterfeiting ring, and also witness a Trial of the Pyx (an official inquiry into the purity of the coinage).
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  4. PlanoSteve

    PlanoSteve Supporter! Supporter

    Excellent post Michael!...but then, we've come to expect this from you!!!:singing::joyful::happy:;)
  5. chrisild

    chrisild Coin Collector

    For people who prefer light reading material ;) there is also this ...
    Philip Kerr: Dark Matter - The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton
    Contrary to the promising title, this novel or thriller, published in 2002, does not tell you much about Newton's private life. But it is about crimes committed at the mint when Newton worked there.

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  6. kaparthy

    kaparthy Supporter! Supporter

    My thanks to you all, as well.
    I did not know of that work, though everyone knows Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, which I started but could not get my head around.

    Oh, gosh, I hate it when the bar is raised. :(

    Thanks. My wife is a big mystery fan (editor, conventions, etc.) and she brought this to me when it came out. It was interesting. The secret private life of Sir Isaac Newton could include the suggestion of a dalliance with a young polymath. I read these biographies, but I got rid of them all a few years ago. I am sure that it was not in Berlinski, whose work was lackluster.
    • Berlinski, David. Newton's Gift: How Sir Isaac Newton Unlocked the System of the World. New York: Free Press, Simon and Schuster, 2000.
    • Westfall, Richard S. Never at Rest: a Biography of Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
    • White, Michael. Isaac Newton: The Last Sorceror. Reading, Mass.: Helix Books, Perseus Books, 1997.
    So, it was either Westfall or White.

    Allow me also to recommend the history Newton and the Counterfeiter by MIT journalism professor Thomas Levenson. Despite his claim to research at distant (if not arcane) libraries in the USA and Israel, it actually has very little that is not in the works known to numismatists by Sir John Craig, Deputy Master and Comptroller of the British Royal Mint.
    • Craig, Sir John. Newton at the Mint. Cambridge: University Press, 1946.
    • Craig, Sit John. “Isaac Newton - Crime Investigator,” Nature 182, (19 July 1958), pages 149-152.
    • Craig, Sir John. "Isaac Newton and the Counterfeiters." Notes and Records of the Royal Society (18;2), London: 1963, pages 136-145.
    Craig writes like an entry in BMC Rome. Levenson delivers drama. Levenson is factual, not suppositional, but he uses active adjectives. In other work, Levenson wrote for BBC productions.
  7. PlanoSteve

    PlanoSteve Supporter! Supporter

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