Isaac Newton, Master of the Royal Mint

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image source: Isaac Newton's sinister heraldry

Never forget: Sir Isaac Newton Cared More About Money Than Science

"Newton got his appointment because of his renown as a scientist and because he supported the winning side in the Glorious Revolution. At some time Locke nearly succeeded in procuring Newton an appointment as provost of King's College, Cambridge, but the college had offered a successful resistance on the grounds that the appointment would be illegal; its statutes required that the provost should be in priest's orders. Charles Montagu, afterwards Earl of Halifax, was a fellow of Trinity and an intimate friend of Newton, and it was on his influence that Newton relied for promotion to some honourable and lucrative post. However, his hopes were spoiled by long delay. In one of his letters to Locke at the beginning of 1692, when Montagu, Lord Monmouth and Locke were exerting themselves to obtain some appointment for Newton, Newton wrote that he was "fully convinced that Montagu, upon an old grudge which he thought had been worn out, was false to him."

Newton was now 55 years old, and whilst those of his own standing at the university had been appointed to high posts in church or state, he still remained without any mark of national gratitude. Montagu, after being appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1694 finally put this right; he had previously consulted Newton upon the subject of the recoinage, and took the opportunity to appoint Newton to the post of warden of the Royal Mint in 1696. In a letter to Newton announcing the news, Montagu writes: "I am very glad that at last I can give you a good proof of my friendship, and the esteem the king has of your merits. Mr Overton, the warden of the mint, is made one of the Commissioners of Customs, and the king has promised me to make Mr Newton warden of the mint. The office is the most proper for you. 'Tis the chief office in the mint: 'tis worth five or six hundred pounds per annum, and has not too much business to require more attendance than you can spare." The letter must have convinced Newton of the sincerity of Montagu's good intentions towards him; we find them living as friends on the most intimate terms until Halifax's death in 1715.

Achievements and influence    Although the post was intended to be a sinecure, Newton took it seriously. By the time of his appointment the currency had been seriously weakened by an increase in clipping and counterfeiting during the Nine Years' War to the extent that it had been decided to recall and replace all hammered silver coinage in circulation. The exercise came close to disaster due to fraud and mismanagement, but was salvaged by Newton's personal intervention. Newton's chemical and mathematical knowledge proved of great use in carrying out this Great Recoinage of 1696, a process that was completed in about two years. Newton was subsequently given the post of Master of the Mint in 1699, a post worth between £1,200 and £1,500 per annum. Despite counterfeiting being considered high treason, punishable by hanging, drawing and quartering, convicting even the most flagrant criminals could be extremely difficult. Undaunted, Newton conducted more than 100 cross-examinations of witnesses, informers, and suspects between June 1698 and Christmas 1699. He himself gathered much of the evidence he needed to successfully prosecute 28 coiners.

One of Newton's cases as the King's attorney was against William Chaloner. Chaloner's schemes included setting up phony conspiracies of Catholics and then turning in the hapless conspirators whom he had entrapped. Chaloner made himself rich enough to posture as a gentleman. Petitioning Parliament, Chaloner accused the Mint of providing tools to counterfeiters (a charge also made by others). He proposed that he be allowed to inspect the Mint's processes in order to improve them. He petitioned Parliament to adopt his plans for a coinage that could not be counterfeited, while at the same time striking false coins.  Newton put Chaloner on trial for counterfeiting and had him sent to Newgate Prison in September 1697. But Chaloner had friends in high places, who helped him secure an acquittal and his release. Newton put him on trial a second time with conclusive evidence. Chaloner was convicted of high treason and hanged, drawn and quartered on 23 March 1699 at Tyburn gallows.Following the 1707 union between the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland, Newton used his experience from the English recoinage to direct the 1707-1710 Scottish recoinage, resulting in a common currency for the new Kingdom of Great Britain. Newton also drew up a very extensive table of assays of foreign coins.

As a result of a report written by Newton on 21 September 1717 to the Lords Commissioners of His Majesty's Treasury the bimetallic relationship between gold coins and silver coins was changed by Royal proclamation on 22 December 1717, forbidding the exchange of gold guineas for more than 21 silver shillings.  Due to differing valuations in other European countries this inadvertently resulted in a silver shortage as silver coins were used to pay for imports, while exports were paid for in gold, effectively moving Britain from the silver standard to its first gold standard, rather than the bimetallic standard implied by the proclamation. Due to his income from the Mint Newton became very wealthy, although he lost a substantial sum in the collapse of the South Sea Bubble. Newton's niece Catherine Conduitt reported that he "lost twenty thousand pounds. Of this, however, he never much liked to hear…" This was a fortune at the time (equivalent to about £3 million in present-day terms), but it is not clear whether it was a monetary loss or an opportunity cost loss. Newton continued in his position at the Royal Mint until his death in 1727."


Isaac Newton, Master of the Royal Mint  source: Ari Belenkiy