Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist

by Thomas Levenson

In 1695, Isaac Newton—already renowned as the greatest mind of his age—made a surprising career change. He left quiet Cambridge, where he had lived for thirty years and made his earth-shattering discoveries, and moved to London to take up the post of Warden of His Majesty’s Mint.

Newton was preceded to the city by a genius of another kind, the budding criminal William Chaloner. Thanks to his preternatural skills as a counterfeiter, Chaloner was rapidly rising in London’s highly competitive underworld, at a time when organized law enforcement was all but unknown and money in the modern sense was just coming into being. Then he crossed paths with the formidable new warden. In the courts and streets of London—and amid the tremors of a world being transformed by the ideas Newton himself had set in motion—the two played out an epic game of cat and mouse.

  • Format: eBook
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547416618
  • ISBN-10: 054741661X
  • Pages: 336
  • Publication Date: 04/12/2010

About the book

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.

About the author
Thomas Levenson

THOMAS LEVENSON is a professor of science writing at MIT and the author of three previous books: Einstein in Berlin, Measure for Measure, and Ice Time. He is also the producer of ten documentaries for which he has won numerous awards.



“Except God”


    The tower of Great St. Mary’s catches what daylight remains as a young man passes the town boundaries. He has come about sixty miles, almost certainly on foot (his meticulously kept accounts show no bills paid to livery stables). The journey from rural Lincolnshire to the university has taken him three days. The walls of the colleges shadow Trumpington Street and King’s Way, but at this late hour, Trinity College is closed to visitors.

    The young man sleeps that night at an inn, and the next morning he pays eight pence for the carriage ride to the college. A few minutes later, he passes beneath the Gothic arch of Trinity’s Great Gate and presents himself to college officials for the usual examination. Their scrutiny does not take long. The records of the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity for June 5, 1661, register that one Isaac Newton has been admitted into its company.

    On its face, Newton’s entrance to Trinity could not have been more ordinary. He must have seemed to be yet another example of a familiar type, a bright farm youth come to university with the aim of rising in the world. This much is true: now nineteen, Newton was indeed country-bred, but by the time he set foot in Trinity’s Great Court it was apparent that he was deeply unsuited for rural life. And he would prove to be a student unlike any the college had ever encountered.


Nothing in his beginnings suggested any such promise. On Christmas Day, 1642, Hannah Newton gave birth to a son, who was so premature that his nurse recalled that at birth he could fit into a quart jug. The family waited a week to christen him with the name of his father, dead for three months.

    The infant Isaac was at least reasonably well off. His father had left an adequate landholding, including a farm whose owner enjoyed the grand title of Lord of the Manor of Woolsthorpe. For the time being, however, the inheritance fell to baby Isaac’s mother, who was soon able to remarry up. Hannah’s second husband, a local clergyman named Barnabas Smith, had a church living, a considerable estate, and admirable energy for a man of sixty-three; he would produce three children with his new wife over the next eight years. There was, it seemed, no place for an inconvenient toddler in such a vigorous marriage. A little more than two years old, Newton was abandoned to the care of his grandmother.

    Of necessity, the child Newton learned how to live within his own head. Psychoanalysis at a distance of centuries is a fool’s game, but it is a matter of record that, with one possible exception, the adult Newton never permitted himself real emotional dependence on another human being. In the event, his upbringing did not dull his brain. He left his home and village when he was twelve, moving a few miles to the market town of Grantham to begin grammar school. Almost immediately it became obvious that his intelligence was of a different order from that of his classmates. The basic curriculum—Latin and theology—barely troubled him. Contemporaries recalled that when, from time to time, “dull boys were now & then put over him in form,” he simply roused himself briefly “& such was his capacity that he could soon doe it & outstrip them when he pleas’d.”

    In between such interruptions, Newton pleased himself. He drew eagerly, fantastically, covering his rented room with images of “birdes beasts men & ships,” figures that included copied portraits of King Charles I and John Donne. He was fascinated by mechanical inventions, and he was good with tools. He built water mills for his own amusement and dolls’ furniture for the daughter of his landlord. Time fascinated him: he designed and constructed a water clock, and made sundials so accurate that his family and neighbors came to rely on “Isaac’s dials” to measure their days.

    Such glimpses of an eager, practical intelligence come from a handful of anecdotes collected just after Newton’s death, some seventy years after the event. A closer look can be gained in the notebooks he kept, the first surviving one dating to 1659. In tiny handwriting (paper was precious) Newton recorded his thoughts, questions, and ideas. In that earliest volume he wrote down methods to make inks and mix pigments, including “a colour for dead corpes.” He described a technique “to make birds drunk” and how to preserve raw meat (“Immers it in a well stopt vessel under spirits of wine”—with the hopeful postscript “from whose tast perhaps it may be freed by water”). He proposed a perpetual motion machine, along with a dubious remedy for the plague: “Take a good dose of the powder of ripe Ivie berrys. After that the aforesd juice of horse dung.” He became a pack rat of knowledge, filling page after page with a catalogue of more than two thousand nouns: “Anguish. Apoplexie. . . . Bedticke. Bodkin. Boghouse. . . . Statesman. Seducer. . . . Stoick. Sceptick.”

    The notebook contains other lists as well—a phonetic chart of vowel sounds, a table of star positions. Fact upon fact, his own observations, extracts cribbed from other books, his attention swerving from “A remedy for Ague” (it turns on the image of Jesus trembling before the cross) to astronomical observations. The mind emerging on the pages is one that seeks to master all the apparent confusion of the world, to bring order where none was then apparent.

    At sixteen, though, Newton had no idea how to reconcile his abilities to his place in life. An exercise notebook from his school days provides a glimpse of real misery. It is a unique document, the purest expression of despair Newton ever committed to paper. He sorrows for “A little fellow; My poore help.” He asks: “What imployment is he fit for? What is hee good for?”—and offers no answer. He rails, “No man understands me,” and then, at the last, he collapses: “What will become of me. I will make an end. I cannot but weepe. I know not what to do.”

    Newton wept, but his mother demanded her due. If Isaac had exhausted what his schoolmaster could teach him, then it was time to come home and get back to what should have been his life’s work: tending sheep and raising grain.

    Let the record show that Isaac Newton made a miserable farmer. He simply refused to play the part. Sent to market, he and a servant would stable their horses at the Saracen’s Head in Grantham and then Newton would disappear, making a beeline for the cache of books at his former landlord’s house. Or “he would stop by the way between home & Grantham & lye under a hedg studying whilst the man went to town & did the business.” On his own land he paid no more attention to his duties. Instead, he “contrived water wheels and dams” and “many other Hydrostatick experiments which he would often be so intent upon as to forget his dinner.” If his mother gave him orders—to watch the sheep, “or upon any other rural employment”—as often as not Newton ignored her. Rather, “his chief delight was to sit under a tree with a book in his hands.” Meanwhile, the flock wandered off or the pigs nosed into his neighbors’ grain.

    Hannah’s attempt to break Newton to rural harness lasted nine months. He owed his escape to two men: his uncle, a clergyman and a graduate of Cambridge, and his former schoolma...


"Levenson reveals the remarkable and true tale of the only criminal investigator who was far, far brainier than even Sherlock Holmes: Sir Isaac Newton during his tenure as Warden of the Royal Mint. What a fascinating saga! It allows us to see the human side of Newton and how his amazing mind worked when dealing with practical rather than theoretical questions.” 

—Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein, His Life and Universe and Benjamin Franklin: An American Life 


Newton and the Counterfeiter is a wonderful read that reveals a whole new side to a giant of science. Through a page-turning narrative, we witness Isaac Newton's genius grappling with the darker sides of human nature, an all too human journey reflecting his deepest beliefs about the cosmic order. This is a gripping story that enriches our sense of the man who forever changed our view of the universe.” 

—Brian Greene, author of The Fabric of the Cosmos 


As the great Newton recedes from us in time, he comes increasingly into focus as a man rather than a myth—thanks in no small measure to this learned and lively new study from the estimable Thomas Levinson.” 

--Timothy Ferris, author of Seeing in the Dark 


Newton and the Counterfeiter is both a fascinating read and a meticulously researched historical document: a combination difficult to achieve and rarely seen . . . Recommended for anyone who wants to know the real story behind this astonishing but largely overlooked chapter of scientific history.” 

--Neal Stephenson, author of Cryptonomicon and Anathem 


"I absolutely loved Newton and the Counterfeiter. Deft, witty and exhaustively researched, Levenson's tale illuminates a near-forgotten chapter of Newton's extraordinary life--the cat-and-mouse game that pitted him against a criminal mastermind--and manages not only to add to our knowledge of the great mathematician but to make a page turner out of it. This book rocks." 

--Junot Díaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao  


Newton and the Counterfeiter is a delicious read, featuring brilliant detective work and a captivating story . . . a virtuoso performance.” 

--Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind 


"I loved Levenson's book. It's a rollicking account of the fascinating underbelly of seventeenth-century London--and reveals an aspect of Newton I'd scarcely known of before, yet which shaped the world we know. A tour de force." 

--David Bodanis, author of E=MC2 


"Levenson's account of this world of criminality, collusion and denunciation is meticulously researched and highly readable...the tale of Newton the economist is one worth telling." -- New Scientist 


"Levenson demonstrates a surpassing felicity in his brisk treatment of this late-17th-century true-crime adventure...Swift, agile treatment of a little known but highly entertaining episode in a legendary life." 

-- Kirkus Reviews 


"Highly Reccommended." -- Library Journal 


"Newton and the Counterfeiter packs a wonderful punch in its thoroughly surprising revelation of that other Isaac Newton, and in its vivid re-creation of 17th-century London and its fascinating criminal 

haunts." -- Providence Journal 


"Newton and the Counterfeiter is as finely struck as one of Newton's shillings." -- The Oregonian 


"Levenson transforms inflation and metallurgy into a suspenseful detective story bolstered by an eloquent summary of Newtonian physics and stomach-turning descriptions of prison life in the Tower of London...Newton and the Counterfeiter humanizes a legend, transforming him into a Sherlock Holmes in pursuit of his own private Moriarity." -- Washington Post