Isaac Newton: Scientist, Astronomer – and Master of the Royal Mint

Isaac Newton: Scientist, Astronomer – and Master of the Royal Mint

Natasha sheldon - June 15, 2017

Sir Isaac Newton is one of the most influential scientists of any age. He laid the foundations of classical mathematics, revealed the laws of gravity and built the first reflecting telescope.

But the last years of his life were spent on a more prosaic pursuit when he accepted a position as warden and later master of the Royal Mint. Here, Newton applied his scientific knowledge and perseverance to the reform of the British currency. He remained in the post until the end of his life.

But why did such a scientific luminary take such a job? And how could a scientist improve the world of British finance?

A Life of Science

Depending on whether you use the Julian or the Gregorian calendar, Isaac Newton was born into a poor farming family on December 25, 1642- or January 4, 1643. Newton’s father had died three months earlier and his mother quickly remarried, leaving Isaac with her parents. She did not return until 7 years later, a widow again and with 2 daughters and a further son in tow.

Newton was a clever boy and educated at Grantham Grammar School in Lincolnshire. But his brilliant future career may have been somewhat less illustrious if it were not for his headmaster Henry Stokes. Newton’s mother pulled him out of school before he had finished his studies as she wished him to provide for her and his siblings through farming. Stokes ensured his protégé finished his schooling and Newton escaped to a place at Cambridge University to study ethics and the natural philosophy of Aristotle.

Isaac Newton: Scientist, Astronomer – and Master of the Royal Mint
Sir Isaac Newton as a Boy. Google Images

But Newton became distracted from philosophy by science. He began to set up a private laboratory in the grounds of Trinity College as he became bored with his curriculum studies. A notebook from this period begins with notes on Aristotle but slowly changes to fill up with scientific and mathematical theories.

So, when Newton finally graduated from his formal studies, it was without distinction. But once again, he was fortunate in attracting the attention of one of his tutors, this time Isaac Barrow, the professor of Mathematics. So Newton stayed at Cambridge, dedicating his time to mathematics, physics, and astronomy.

In 1664, he was forced to return to Lincolnshire when the Great Plague shut Cambridge University down. This was to be a fortunate thing, for it was during his time at home, Newton began work on the subject he is best known for: The theory of Gravity.

Isaac Newton: Scientist, Astronomer – and Master of the Royal Mint
Isaac Newton and his many discoveries. Google Images

Gravity and Other Discoveries

The story of Newton’s discovery of gravity is largely anecdotal, based on a tale credited to the French author Voltaire, who was supplied with the information by Newton’s niece. But the English antiquarian William Stukeley confirmed the story, claiming Newton himself had told him it to him first hand in 1726.

Either way, in 1684, Newton explained to the public what stopped the universe from flying apart when he published his first treatise on gravity “De Motu Corporum” before expanding on the principle in 1687 in “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica”.

But this was not all. In 1665-66, Newton developed the binomial theorem and differential and integral calculus. By 1667, he was a Fellow of Cambridge and two years later a Professor of Mathematics. By the time he was 30 in 1672, he was a Fellow of the Royal Society.

But by 1678, Newton was dabbling with alchemy, using furnaces and chemicals. His experiments centered on metal and totaled 108 in all. Some were strange, to say the least, including the analysis of taste of metals such as lead, gold, mercury, and arsenic!

The Nervous Breakdowns

These experiments may have had their part to play in the two documented nervous breakdowns Newton suffered.

Newton was known to be a deeply private person. His private papers give away very little about his thoughts and feelings. But what they do reveal is a tendency towards depression and a black temper. In a list of his ‘sins’ Newton recorded in his late youth, Newton describes ‘punching my sister”, “striking many” and “Wishing death and hoping it to some.’

The first breakdown in was in 1678. During this period, Newton cut himself off to an unprecedented extent, engrossing himself in alchemy. His mother died the following year, exacerbating matters. This breakdown may have been caused by overwork accentuating preexisting tendencies.

In 1693, Newton again became depressed. This time he was erratic and paranoid, turning on his friends and then withdrawing from them. His digestion became poor and he began to suffer from insomnia. The crisis in his mental health came after he stayed awake for 5 solid nights, leading him to lose his grip on reality.

Analysis of surviving fragments of Newton’s hair show his body contained four times the normal amount of lead, arsenic, and antimony and 15 times the normal level of mercury. It is very likely that this last mental crisis actually had physical causes, namely poisoning from Newton’s alchemical experiments.

Isaac Newton: Scientist, Astronomer – and Master of the Royal Mint
The Royal Mint in the Tower of London. Google Images

The Royal Mint

Three years later, in 1696, Newton, now in his 50’s was appointed warden of the Royal Mint in the Tower of London. He was to remain in this post until his death in 1727.

It might be supposed that Newton’s decline in health prompted him to throw over his studies in favor of a safe and staid career. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Newton took the job because of the social position it offered him- and that he craved. Newton, unlike his contemporaries at Cambridge, had been awarded no state position, a sign that the establishment recognized their eminence. This irked him.

Charles Montague, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Newton’s close friend secured the appointment at The Mint. In 1694 he wrote to Newton ““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.”

The job ticked all the boxes for Newton. “The office is the most proper for you, ” continued Montague. ‘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.”

Newton arrived at a time of change. The coinage of Britain was badly debased by clipping and forgery. So the decision was taken to recall all the old silver coins, some dating back to Elizabeth I and beyond and re-mint them. Auxiliary mints, subordinate to the main mint were set up around the country to complete the huge task.

Newton didn’t need to become heavily involved in the process. But he threw himself into his work with gusto. He applied his scientific and alchemical skills to ensure that the weight and purity of metal in all coins was equal, bringing to coinage, in his own words a ‘much greater degree of exactness than ever was known before’.

Cutting out Counterfeiting

Newton also helped create the first coinage of a united Britain after the Union with Scotland in 1707. But his most surprising achievement at the mint occurred when tackling the question of counterfeiting.

Counterfeiting during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a capital offense and viewed as treason. Men convicted of forging currency were hung, drawn and quartered. Women were burnt. Although he hated the punishments meted out by the law, Newton became an enthusiastic pursuer of counterfeiters. As well as personally cross-examining 100 witnesses, informers and suspected counterfeiters, Newton also caught at least 28 himself! Disguised, the scientist would visit the bars and taverns where he could find counterfeiters and informers.

One famous case was that of William Chaloner. Chaloner was a career criminal, so successful that he lived as a gentleman and had friends in high places. He saw an opportunity to include The Mint in his schemes. So he petitioned parliament to allow him to inspect it- on the pretext of improving its processes. But Chaloner really intended to actually use it to strike false coins.

Newton discovered his scheme. He put Chaloner on trial for counterfeiting. Although Chaloner’s friends obtained an acquittal, Newton was not deterred. He reinvestigated, obtained more, damning evidence and in 1699, Chaloner was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.

Isaac Newton: Scientist, Astronomer – and Master of the Royal Mint
Isaac Newton and his white light experiments. The Spalenka Letters

Continued Work in Science

But even though he took his work at The Royal Mint seriously, Newton never ceased his scientific studies. A point to cite is his work in optics.

Newton first began experiments in this field in the 1660s. In 1668, he constructed the first reflecting telescope. This provided him with the tool to discover white light.

While he was working at the mint, he continued to investigate the phenomenon. He found that white light was made up of the same colors as rainbows, oily water or soap bubbles. In 1704, he published his findings in ‘The Opticks”.

In 1704, Newton was knighted by Queen Anne at Cambridge- the ultimate recognition of all his achievements-in science and for the state.