Newton and the Counterfeiter

Newton and the Counterfeiter

The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist

Book - 2009
Average Rating:
Rate this:

A fascinating slice of true-crime history that unfolds in 1695, when law enforcement was unheard of and modern money was little more than a concept


When renowned scientist Isaac Newton took up the post of Warden of His Majesty's Mint in London, another kind of genius--a preternaturally gifted counterfeiter named William Chaloner--had already taken up residence in the city, rising quickly in an unruly, competitive underworld. In the courts and streets of London, and amid the tremors of a world being transformed by ideas Newton himself had set in motion, Chaloner crosses paths with the formidable new warden. An epic game of cat and mouse ensues in Newton and the Counterfeiter , revealing for the first time that Newton was not only one of the greatest minds of his age, but also a remarkably intrepid investigator.

Publisher: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.
ISBN: 9780151012787
Characteristics: xii, 318 p. ;,22 cm.


From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment
Mar 20, 2018

I enjoyed this book immensely. Yes, much detail about both Newton and 17th century monetary policy is given, but one can hardly appreciate the story without a good foundation. A very good read indeed!

Dec 31, 2017

Whether Newton’s career as a detective and prosecutor is “unknown” is putative. While most readers here probably know of his Three Laws of Motion, his work at the British Royal Mint is less often taught. Biographer David Berlinksi (Newton’s Gift: How Sir Isaac Newton Unlocked the System of the World, New York: The Free Press, 2000) called Newton’s tenure at the mint uninteresting. Numismatists, who study the forms and uses of money, feel differently.

Levenson acknowledges the works of Sir John Craig. Craig’s book, Newton at the Mint (Cambridge, 1946) is catalogued by the libraries of both the American Numismatic Society and the American Numismatic Association. Levenson also cites two other Craig monographs, "Isaac Newton—Crime Investigator", Nature 182, 149-52; and Isaac Newton and the Counterfeiters, 18 Notes and Records of the Royal Society 2, 136-45 (1963). When I proposed a review of the Levenson book to the Numismatic Bibliomania Society, editor Wayne Homren shot back: “How does it compare to Craig?” Levenson draws on the same sources as Craig: Newton’s papers, the mint archives, court records, a biography of Chaloner, Chaloner’s own petitions and letters. Where numismatist John Craig presented the facts, videographer Thomas Levenson brings them to life.

This lively historical narrative of criminology and jurisprudence animates Sir Isaac Newton’s career as a detective and prosecutor. Levenson delivers to print the videographer’s impact of sight and sound. Levenson introduces us to Newton in a series of establishing shots, pan-and-zoom vignettes that sketch and detail the events spotlighting the intellectual and emotional development of the man easily nominated as the greatest scientist. You walk down the alleys and into the pubs where Sir Isaac Newton investigated crimes against the British Royal Mint which he served as warden and master.

Levenson opens the book by outlining Newton’s intellectual and emotional development. Complementing his work in mathematics, astronomy and optics, Newton also experimented with alchemy, performing purifications and alloys of metals. Emotionally, Newton’s isolation was rooted in self-abnegation. The hint of a homosexual dalliance comes as an instantaneous action, the lifelong reaction to which only distanced his social relations to ethereal planes. You could get no closer to Newton the man than you could to the Man in the Moon. Thus, this combination of unflinching pursuit of difficult theoretical and empirical truths, bulwarked by a stellar disregard for other people’s feelings made Newton the perfect prosecutor.

Aug 01, 2016

The book takes a while to get to the crime story part -- it goes through the physics and the alchemy first. The book also covers a lot about 17th century monetary policy.

Dec 06, 2012

Interesting. Showing a different side of Isaac Newton. This is definitely not one of the stories that I ever heard.


Add a Summary
Sep 19, 2011

The scene is 17th-century London's pestilent underbelly, riddled with pickpockets and quack doctors, the stink and groans from the Tower of London, brothels and drunkards. Petty criminals are shaving the edges off coins and melting the silver. Counterfeit coins litter the circulating currency. A serious gambler runs London's Royal Mint. But in 1696, a new Warden of the Mint takes over, and, breaking out of the job description, goes about cleaning up the mess. His name is Sir Isaac Newton.

"Isaac Newton?" science writer Thomas Levenson rightly asks at the start of his new book. "What had the man who had brought order to the cosmos to do with crime and punishment, the flash world of London's gin houses and tenements, bad money and worse faith?"

That's exactly the question that's been simmering in Levenson's mind for a decade. And the result is this inventive biography with a healthy dose of page-turning detective drama. Writing with the sharp eye of a historian, Levenson pulls you into the unexamined life of this brilliant scientist-turned-dogged criminal investigator as he pursues the wily, counterfeiting con-artist William Chaloner.

London had no real police force or fingerprint records at the time. Newton alone had to gather enough evidence to condemn the man with a scheme to infiltrate the Mint. And he did so with no restraint, venturing disguised into London pubs to spy on Chaloner's associates. Down to the apostrophes from Newton's pen, it's a real-life thriller you don't need to be a history-buff to appreciate.

Age Suitability

Add Age Suitability

There are no age suitabilities for this title yet.


Add Notices

There are no notices for this title yet.


Add a Quote

There are no quotes for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number


Subject Headings


Find it at Library

To Top