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.
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.