By Everett Millman – Gainesvillecoins.com ……
Contemporary scholarship has introduced a number of new mysteries regarding history’s most famous “natural philosopher” (i.e. scientist), Sir Isaac Newton. Some of these new revelations point toward his fascination with alchemy as well as the Holy Scripture.
However, one thing about Newton is unequivocal: He despised coin counterfeiters. Like, really hated them. In some ways, he was England’s first-ever coin sheriff.
Sir Isaac Newton, best known as the father of modern physics and gravitational theory, was also given the position of Warden (and later Master) of the Royal Mint in the late 17th century. He served in this post for the last two decades or so of his life while continuing his scientific investigations.
Some believe that Newton’s obsessive fascination with the mystic art of alchemy was the source of his knowledge about metals and his interest in coins.
However, in spite of his brilliance in mathematics and his unparalleled acumen as a scientist, even Isaac Newton was prone to huge mistakes when it came to finances. He was infamously taken in by one of the earliest recorded “stock bubbles” involving the South Sea Company, losing a £20,000 investment that would be equivalent to about $4 million today.
At any rate, most historians agree that this appointment to the Royal Mint was merely a sinecure–a position that requires little or no work and is considered honorific. However, once installed in the office, this is not how Sir Isaac Newton approached his job. Known for the intensity he put into all of his endeavors, Newton took his role at the mint extremely seriously.
So seriously, in fact, that he frequently went undercover, investigated, and apprehended the counterfeiters himself. This drew him to many different corners of Britain in his zeal to stamp out the illegal activity.
There’s even evidence that Newton took the law into his own hands by quartering, torturing, and executing counterfeiters unless they provided materially useful information that could lead to other counterfeiting operations.
Privately minting your own illicit coins was considered treason under British law, though the practice was more common than this policy might suggest. Counterfeiting had become a rampant problem by the late 17th century and threatened to undermine the crucial role of the Royal Mint.
Newton’s harsh methods would certainly be considered inhumane (and extralegal) today, but they served as a strong deterrent to would-be criminals. The message was clear: don’t mess with a powerful country’s gold and silver coins!