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Merry Newtonmas 2013


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Sir Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day 1642 (Old Style) which was modernized to 4 January
1643. However, we still like to note that Newton was born in the year that Galileo died, 1642.
Few people except numismatists know him to have been the Warden and Master of the British Royal Mint. For most people, Newton is famous for his Three Laws of Motion. Beyond that, those with additional education know him for inventing the Calculus to prove his theories of celestial and terrestrial mechanics. In addition Newton invented the reflecting telescope as a result of his experiments with light. And he also proved the general case for the Binomial Theorem ("Pascal's Triangle"). We tend to ignore his religious writings, the extent of which actually eclipsed his scientific production. His Arian beliefs foreshadowed modern Unitarianism, but he swore under oath to be a Trinitarian so that he could teach at Cambridge.
The origins of Newtonmas are murky at best. A 1892 issue of Nature magazine bestows the carol credit on some Victorian-era English scientists. Newtonmas picked up momentum—in keeping with Newton’s Second Law of Motion, of course—in 2007, when the evolutionary biologist and prominent atheist Richard Dawkins championed it ... In 2009, the holiday got a pop culture bump when television’s “The Big Bang Theory” had Sheldon, a physicist, try to place a bust of Newton on a Christmas tree. When his roommate replied with a snarky, “Merry Newtonmas, everyone,” Sheldon replied, “I sense that’s not sincere, though I have no idea why.”
Cute as that all may be, no one identifies Newton as Master and Warden of the British Royal Mint.However, Sir Issac Newton served for 30 years as Warden and Master of the British Royal Mint. Yet his biographer, David Berlinski (Newton's Gift: How Sir Isaac Newton Unlocked the System of the World by David Berlinski), calls these years "uninteresting."


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NEWTON AT THE MINT (excepts from "Sir Isaac Newton: Warden and Master of the British Royal Mint" The Numismatist, November 2001.)


In the 1690s, much of the silver coinage had been in circulation for a hundred years or more. 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.

The solution was to create a new currency of "milled" (machine-struck) silver coins. They would have machined edges with milled patterns and mottoes to defeat clippers. In order to make the new currency work, all of the old silver would have to be called in and replaced. On December 19, 1695, King William III proclaimed that in 1696, the old coinage could not be lawful money at face value. The recoinage floundered. Parliament pushed back the dates past which old coins could be accepted. 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. Then, Newton arrived.


Every historian agrees that Newton's unfailingly honesty was the key to his success at the Mint. The Master, Thomas Neale, was lazy and rarely bothered to visit the Mint. Netwon showed up for work at 4:00 am and 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. Total output in all denominations weighed 3000 pounds (weight) per day.


Newton 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. In 1696, he issued a "State of the Mint" report, denouncing the officers and ministers who lined their pockets at the expense of the King and the people. Newton applied his own expertise in metallurgy to confront the suppliers to the Mint, renegotiating their contracts to the king's favor. As the king's Warden, Newton also pursued counterfeiters.


Newton estimated that 20% of the coins taken in were counterfeit. Counterfeiting was treason, punishable by death by drawing and quartering. As gruesome as the penalties were, the courts were not arbitrary or capricious. The rights of free men had a long tradition in England and the crown had to prove its case to a jury. The law also allowed for plea bargaining. Convictions of the most flagrant criminals could be maddeningly impossible to achieve. Newton was equal to the task.

He assembled facts and proved his theories with the same brilliance in law that he had shown in science. He gathered much of that evidence himself. Disguised, he hung out at bars and taverns. For all the barriers placed to prosecution, and separating the branches of government, English law still had strong, old customs of authority. Newton got himself made a justice of the peace. Between June 1698 and Christmas 1699, he conducted some 200 cross-examinations of witnesses, informers and suspects. He obtained the confessions he needed. While he could not resort to open torture, whatever means he did use must have been fearsome because Newton himself later ordered all records of these interrogations to be destroyed. However he did it, Newton won his convictions. In February 1699, he had ten prisoners waiting to be executed.

Newton's greatest triumph as the king's attorney was against William Chaloner. Chaloner was a rogue with a devious intelligence. He set up phony conspiracies of Catholics and then turned in the hapless conspirators whom he entrapped. Chaloner made himself rich enough to posture as a gentleman. Petitioning parliament, Chaloner accused the Mint of providing tools to counterfeiters. (This charge was made also 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. All the time, he struck false coins, or so Newton eventually proved to a court of competent jurisdiction. On March 23, 1699, Chaloner was hanged, drawn, and quartered.




The Master of the Mint, Thomas Neale, died on December 23, 1699. In February 1700, Newton received the post. Technically, the Master was less senior than the Warden. However, the Master's "indenture" (or "contract") paid him for each coin struck. Out of that payment, he paid other contractors. Newton made a profit of 3 1/2 pence per troy pound weight of silver coin struck. His profit of gold coin was 22d per pound weight. He gained another ₤500 from the striking of copper coins. He earned additional profits from the tin trade. His average income was about ₤2150 to a maximum of about ₤3500. It is difficult to translate this into modern terms -- Newton could never own a computer or drive a car -- but his income was over a million modern American dollars per year in terms of his standard of living.

The Act of Union required Newton's attention. Making Scotland part of England included bringing the Edinburgh Mint in line with the standards of the London Tower. Newton managed this from London with his old friend David Gregory working in Edinburgh. It was a familiar story: supplies did not arrive on time; bookkeeping was insufficient; the metallurgy was not standardized.

The Edinburgh Mint heated its caldrons with pit coal which burned hotter than the coal used in London; copper was lost in the alloying. The Scots simply added a dash more copper to make the mix come out .925 fine. This unquantified artistry was unacceptable to Newton. However, in the end, he relented. Nonetheless, Newton required two incremental additions of copper rather than one, and more intermediate assays to establish control.

The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) pitted the Hapsburgs of Austria against the Bourbons of France. Each wanted an heir from their houses to be the next king of Spain. Holland and England joined Austria against France and her Spanish allies. In the summer of 1702, a French escort sailed with a Spanish treasure fleet from Cuba. Normally, they would have unloaded at Cadiz, but that town was under seige. They put in at Vigo on Spain's northwest coast on September 23, 1702, and began unloading. On October 11, a combined English-Dutch fleet of 50 ships arrived. Only 25 of them could actually make the shallow harbor. It was enough.

Newton was present when the treasure from Vigo Bay was unloaded. The Mint actually got only the excess gold and silver that could not be wholesaled immediately. The Mint coined only ₤13,342 in silver and a mere 34 pounds weight in gold. Even so, the prize of war was important enough that coins struck from the gold and silver carried the provenance mark "Vigo."

Among the gold coins struck was the massive five guinea of 1703, a hefty 41.75 grams of 22 carat gold. Although three dies were used to strike these coins, fewer than 20 pieces survive. Other gold coins with bearing the mark Vigo were the guinea, and half guinea of 1703. Silver coins with the Vigo privy mark are the crown, half crown, shilling and sixpence. The shilling is interesting because it bears the Vigo mark for 1702, the year of the battle, as well as 1703.

In 1720, Newton commended one Mr. Orlebar for the creation of a bimetallic token for the Royal Navy, intended to replace the paper chits that were widely forged. In 1722, King George I granted a patent to William Wood to produce copper coins. We know them as the Rosa Americana and Hibernia issues. Newton defined some of the terms of the contract, assuring safeguards to the crown. He also served as comptroller of Wood's mint in Bristol though he appointed a deputy to carry out the work for him. Newton also filed several reports on the wide values of silver coinage in the American colonies.


Most men were elevated by accepting an appointment to the Royal Mint. Newton raised the status of the institution he joined because his was the greater reputation.

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Fascinating! Here's a Vigo 5 guinea that was recently found: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2244096/Rare-Queen-Anne-Vigo-coin-widow-sold-300-000-Tunbridge-Wells-auction.html


He was certainly an amazing man. Three hundred years ago isn't that far away!

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Cute as that all may be, no one identifies Newton as Master and Warden of the British Royal Mint.However, Sir Issac Newton served for 30 years as Warden and Master of the British Royal Mint. Yet his biographer, David Berlinski (Newton's Gift: How Sir Isaac Newton Unlocked the System of the World by David Berlinski), calls these years "uninteresting."



Surprising, as it was during those years at the Mint that he made his most famous "revolutionary" discovery.........That Money really does make The World go round.....Happy Newtonmas.

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