Detective and Genius

A sinecure is a cushy, do-nothing job, often given as a reward to political supporters, or to public figures as a “retirement job”. Before there were speaking tours and book deals, most American presidents took sinecures as heads of universities or charities after leaving office, for example.

It’s probably no surprise that England was (and still is) the undisputed heavyweight champion of sinecures. Centuries of rival factions vying for the Crown led to the creation of hundreds of patronage jobs for supporters. Although most of these sinecures have been eliminated, a few – such as the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and the Constable of the Tower of London – still exist.

Few sinecures were as sought after as the post of Warden of the Royal Mint. The job only required a few public appearances a year, and the actual day-to-day job could be sublet to almost anyone. Most importantly, the job paid well: around £415 a year in the late 1600s. This was a lot of money at the time. A typical “gentleman” only made around £280/year, a high-ranking bishop would make £72/year, and a military officer could take home around £60/year. Considering that a common seaman made £20/year and a laborer made a mere £15/year, the Warden’s salary was an enormous sum of money for most.

But if the Crown thought they were they were getting a man who would just show up and collect a paycheck when Sir Isaac Newton was appointed to the job, they had another thing coming.

*     *     *

Isaac Newton is mostly remembered today for his work in physics. After all, his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica formed the basis for all modern physics, and when Newton needed a new type of math to describe his theories, he invented calculus to do it. But it’s important to remember that young Isaac Newton was interested in… well, almost everything. He wanted to know how objects moved in the air, in a vacuum, and under water. He wanted to know how light and vision worked. He was even interested in the philosophy of science itself, how science’s new discoveries would impact religion and mankind.

It wasn’t until after Newton’s death that his obsession with alchemy was made public. Newton really did feel that his physics theories kept God out of the equation, and although Newton wasn’t conventionally religious, he was troubled enough by the concept of a “Godless Universe” that he relentlessly pursued alchemy as proof of God’s existence. After all, to see a common metal transformed into gold would be unmistakable proof of God’s existence, no? To that end, Newton built a laboratory with his own hands, and spent thousands of hours testing chemicals and metals of all kinds.

*     *     *

William Chaloner was born sometime between 1650 and 1665 to a family of weavers in Warwickshire. He was clever but not smart, and such an unruly child that early in his life he was sent to the then-small town of Birmingham to apprentice with nail makers. Nails were made almost entirely by hand back then, and the job paid pennies for hot, thankless work. Thanks to the low pay, nail makers were happy to occasionally supplement their incomes by counterfeiting small coins, especially a small coin called a groat, which was worth four pennies. The nail makers were so prolific that “Birmingham groats” became a term in the language, and the fake coins made up a considerable percentage of the national coinage.

Then as now, London was the largest city in England by far. By the late 1600s, London was larger than England’s next six largest cities combined. London proved an irresistible attraction to tens of thousands of unemployed and underemployed men in the countryside, and William Chaloner was no different. But London was, in many ways, a closed city as well. Although the power of the medieval guilds was waning, their many rules and regulations were still in effect. This kept wages high by keeping all these country newcomers out of legitimate jobs. And the criminal underworld was no different: gangs had their own structure and social connections which kept newcomers out, too.

Because of this, Chaloner at first sold dildoes and fake watches on the street… and by “fake watches”, I literally mean fake watches. Pocket watches were a new and expensive luxury item at the time, and Chaloner sold discs of cheap pewter held together with a weld and with a watch face painted on one of the discs. He then tried his hand at confidence jobs, where a confederate would break in to a house and steal an item; Chaloner, claiming “divine powers” would pretend to locate it and return it to its rightful owner… for a fee, of course. Chaloner then had a brief career as a japanner, the European attempt to copy the Asian lacquerwork so popular at the time. Although it’s likely that Chaloner japanned furniture and other large items, it’s also known that he japanned used clothing. Cloth was expensive, and used clothing, once coated in lacquer, could look almost as good as new. It was also a painstaking process, since the cloth could wrinkle so easily. It also gave Chaloner a lot of practice at coating things.

*     *     *

Newton was born in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, in Lincolnshire, in 1643. His father, a prosperous farmer, died before he was born. His mother remarried, and Newton was sent to The King’s School in the small market town on Grantham at the age of twelve. His stepfather died in 1659, and Newton’s mother made him come home, in hopes of turning Isaac into a farmer like his father. Newton hated farming, and his mother eventually let him go back to school. In June 1661, Newton was admitted to Cambridge as a sizar, a type of “working scholarship” in which Newton cleaned tables and swept floors to pay for his education.

Newton would end up spending most of his adult life in Cambridge. He didn’t even visit London until 1689, when he was elected as a member of the Convention Parliament which brought William and Mary to power. Newton made little impression there – the only reference to him in any parliamentary records is a request he once made to close a window due to a draft.

But London opened his eyes. Whereas Cambridge was a sleepy college town filled with people Newton had known and argued with for years, London was a bustling metropolis that seemed to be the center of the world. Newton desperately wanted to move there, but his only income was from his £100 a year professorship at Cambridge. If only someone would help him get a job in the capital…

*     *     *

England’s financial system was in a state of complete disarray in the late 17th century. There were several reasons for this.

This first was that William III formed the Grand Alliance and waged a nine-year war against France. Although English monarchs had been waging expensive wars for centuries, the sheer scope of this particular adventure severely strained the English economy. The government debt was so large that the Bank of England was created in 1694 to both service that debt and to rebuild the Royal Navy, which had lost several ships at the Battle of Beachy Head. Investors in the bank began trading deposit receipts with each other, thus creating the first modern paper banknotes.

The second problem had to do with “clipping”. You might have noticed that American coins that were once made of silver – dimes, quarters, half-dollars and silver dollars – have ridges around the edges. Although they’re strictly traditional today, they used to serve an important purpose. Before the ridges were added, it was easy to take a few coins, shave off a bit of the edge, then exchange the coins and repeat the process until you had a big pile of gold or silver. Adding those ridges, called “mills” in the coin trade, prevents this by making it much more difficult to clip, and makes any clipping immediately obvious to the holder.  And this was important when coins were made of gold or silver. Although milled coins had been struck in England as early as the 1560s, it wasn’t until 1662 that milling was made a standard feature of English coins, along with the inscription DECUS ET TUTAMEN (“An ornament and a safeguard”). But there was another problem: although the post-1662 machine-made coins were much more uniform and secure than their hand-stamped predecessors, the Mint had no legal authority to recall older coins. So the older, easier to counterfeit coins remained in existence.

The third problem was the large number of counterfeit coins in circulation. Part of this had to do with good, old-fashioned crime and greed.

But there was another, somewhat more legitimate, reason why counterfeits existed, and that has to do with the fourth problem… which was that gold was cheaper in Europe than it was in England. Enterprising Englishmen gathered as many silver coins as they could find, melted them into ingots, and shipped them across the English Channel to Europe. There they would be swapped for cheaper gold, which would be shipped back to England. The gold would be sold for marginally more silver, melted and shipped back to Europe again, sold for gold, and sent back to England. The process was repeated over and over again, in what was as close to a perpetual money machine as they come. Although the price difference in gold between London and Europe was only a few percentage points, it was enough to cause a mass exodus of silver out of England. We’re talking tens of thousands of pounds of silver a year, most of which should have been made into silver coins. And since the face value of older, hand-made coins was the same as the newer, machine made coins, it was the newer coins which were shipped overseas to be melted. And why not? If the US Mint made quarters out of both gold and paper, wouldn’t you horde the gold quarters and spend the paper ones? Another way to look at the problem was that silver coins were worth more as silver than they were in currency. In other words, a quarter was worth 25¢ as currency, but 40¢ to a silver trader.

So while there was plenty of the typical, garden-variety counterfeiting of coins that always went on, there was also a shortage of small coins which created a huge, inadvertent demand for any kind of coins. Prices on everyday items like butter and cheese went up, not because of increased manufacturing costs or heightened demand, but because it was hard to find farthings, so merchants demanded shillings. Workers at the lower end of the scale found it hard to get paid, since their employers had no coins to pay them with. England’s economy was on the verge of seizing up.

The situation came to a head in 1695, when King William was at war in France. The monarch faced the embarrassment of not being able to pay his troops. This was the direct cause for the formation of the Bank of England, which sold shares to the public, raising £1.2 million for the government. But the immediate problem of the coinage remained.

Several of England’s greatest minds were asked for their thoughts on the issue, and Isaac Newton weighed in.

Newton, thinking much like a modern economist, understood that coin clippers and silver exporters were behaving rationally. While both were crimes that carried the death penalty, the lack an effective police force meant that there was little risk for such a large monetary reward. Newton’s proposed solution was twofold: first, the Mint needed to recoin all of England’s currency. Melting the older, hand-stamped coins and reissuing them as new, machine-stamped coins would greatly reduce clipping, if not eliminate it all together. Secondly, the new coins would need to contain less silver but retain the same face value. In other words, by making the 35¢ quarters smaller, they’d be worth 25¢ in silver, which took away the profit in melting them down and shipping them to Europe.

Newton’s ideas – and similar ideas from others – were shot down. Although both of his ideas were economically sound, the problem was that devaluing the currency would affect the wealthy… the very people in Parliament who would vote on such a measure. And if you cut the amount of silver in coins by 15%, you were effectively cutting their incomes by 15%. And that wouldn’t do.

*     *     *

Shortly after giving up on japanning, Chaloner turned to counterfeiting. He knew the basics of counterfeiting from his days in Birmingham, but a friend, a goldsmith named Patrick Coffey, gave him his master’s degree. With an engraver named Thomas Taylor, Chaloner’s little gang became renowned for producing fakes of the highest quality.

But counterfeiting is a two-step crime. Counterfeit money is, by itself, worthless. Almost anyone can produce fake coins or banknotes; the challenge is to pass them off as genuine currency. This has traditionally been handled by organized crime. And, as long as there have been counterfeiters, they’ve tried to insulate themselves from the criminals who pass their funny money.

And that was what made Chaloner different. As his fake coins were converted into thousands of genuine ones, Chaloner had the money to buy a lush home in Kensington, a fancy carriage, and dozens of suits. He integrated himself in proper society. And he published, at his own expense, many pamphlets about the issues of counterfeiting, coin clipping, devaluing the currency, recoinage, and monetary policy in general. Chaloner, now seen by the public as an expert on coinage matters, would sometimes squeal on his criminal competitors, claiming to have “discovered” their misdeeds while doing research for his pamphlets. This served two purposes: it gave Chaloner credibility with the general public, and also got rid of his criminal competition. That, and on at least one occasion he received at £1000 reward for turning them in!

But William Chaloner wasn’t content to simply double-cross a few minor counterfeiters. Not at all. He had plans, big plans. He planned to con the Royal Mint itself.

*     *     *

On March 19, 1696, Newton received a letter from Charles Montague, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, England’s version of a treasury secretary. Newton had been appointed Warden of the Royal Mint, the London job he had wanted for so long!

Earlier that year, on January 16, Parliament approved the recoinage, with the proviso that the new coins retain their traditional weights. Newton threw himself into the task. Years of alchemy experiments had taught him much about metallurgy, and his mathematical mind took in every aspect of the coin-making process. In the end, Newton came up with what might be the first comprehensive industrial efficiency review in history.

He couldn’t have been happy with what he found. The Mint was actually run by three people, the “Warden”, the “Controller” and the “Master and Worker”. Although the three jobs were ill-defined and their duties often overlapped, it was generally the responsibility of the Master to handle the day-to-day operation of the Mint. And the current Master of the Mint was the hopelessly out-of-his-depth Thomas Neale. Neale had previously been the Groom Porter to Charles II, James II and William III, a job that involved making sure the king was well-stocked with playing cards and dice, and to settle gambling disputes between players.

Neither Neale nor the assistant he paid to do his actual job were prepared for the recoinage. The Mint was given the task of producing £7,000,000 in new coins as quickly as possible… far more coinage than the Mint had produced in the preceding thirty years. Although Newton had no legal authority to do so, the Mint was in such a sorry state that he was able to use the information he’d gathered – thousands of pages of observations and data – to force Neale out. Although Neale still collected his paycheck as Master, Newton was the absolute ruler of the Royal Mint.

With Neale gone, Newton was able to make changes that the Mint so desperately needed. He added two new furnaces to melt the raw silver, which increased the capacity to five tons a day. He refurbished the Mint’s half-century old assembly line, repairing old machines and adding new ones. Most importantly, he used his efficiency review to determine the optimal rate for pressing coins. Newton’s system actually made coins at a slower pace than the old method, but by improving several health and safety aspects of the process, men could work for hours at a time, instead of the 15 to 20 minutes at a time as they had before.

The results spoke for themselves: the Mint quickly began pressing £15,000 a week, an almost unimaginable improvement over the old system. Soon, £50,000 could be made in a week. By late summer of that year, the Mint struck £100,000 in just six days, a record for any mint in Europe. The recoinage, which most had reckoned would take years, was completed by the summer of 1698, a mere 18 months.

*     *     *

What Newton didn’t know when he took the job was that the Warden of the Mint was also the chief investigator and prosecutor of counterfeiting in London. Newton, quite busy with the recoinage, didn’t pay much mind to that aspect of the job at first. And even when the Treasury gently reminded him of his duties to go after counterfeiters, Newton seemed to pursue the matter with only a token amount of effort.

It wasn’t a job most would relish. Obtaining a conviction for counterfeiting was harder than you might think. Counterfeiting was a form of treason against the Crown, and thus carried the death penalty. Despite the popular view of the times as bloodthirsty, juries were usually reluctant to sentence a man to death for faking a few coins. And a previous warden had created a well-intentioned, but misguided, reward system where £20 – a year’s wages for most – would be awarded to anyone who ratted out a counterfeiter. Juries had heard so many flimsy stories from people who really just wanted the £20 that they had grown weary of convicting anyone who had not been caught red-handed.

*     *     *

Chaloner’s pamphlets had attracted the attention of Charles Mordaunt, Earl of Peterborough and Earl of Monmouth, and a former Lord of the Treasury. Mordaunt had fallen out with William III, and saw Chaloner’s pamphlets as a way to attack Charles Montague, the man who had appointed Newton to his position. Mordaunt used his influence to get Chaloner an audience with the Privy Council, for which he spun a magnificent web of intrigue, lies, truths and half-truths. Unfortunately, Chaloner was so convincing that the Mint launched its own investigation, which prevented Chaloner from executing his secret plan of becoming Master of the Mint himself. What’s worse, the criminals Chaloner squealed on turned around an informed on him when investigators came calling. Chaloner thus found himself in Newgate prison awaiting trial for counterfeiting.

Hard as it might be to believe in today’s hyper-connected world, law enforcement folks in England weren’t keen on sharing information with each other back then. Sometimes this was because of personal politics, like Mordaunt’s revenge plot against Montague. But most of the time information wasn’t shared due to compartmentalization. One could have a criminal record a mile long on one side of London, and officials on the other side of the city would have no idea about it, unless your crime was so heinous that it attracted a lot of attention. So Chaloner was able to essentially repeat his story to Montague via a letter from Newgate. Montague ordered his immediate release so he could testify to a group of Lord Justices about the Mint’s “corruption”.

In a nutshell, Chaloner testified that Mint employees had made fake coins for themselves, that they had struck fake coins that were brought in from the outside, and that they had “rented” the coining dies to others for a fee. Mixing truth and fiction, he told the Lord Justices that many Mint employees were corrupt (false) and that each person had a job so specialized that no single Mint employee could detect a counterfeit coin (true). He implicated several in the plot – even his own alias, a “Mr Chandler”. He lastly told the Lords that the Mint needed someone who understood the minting process as a whole, hinting that he was the man for the job. His secret plan: to seize the dies for himself.

It just so happened that Newton was at Parliament for an unrelated reason that day, and the two men almost collided in a hallway. Newton had Chaloner arrested and sent back to Newgate for his earlier crimes.

But Newton knew little about the criminal justice system. He expected an open and shut case against Chaloner. What he didn’t know was that Chaloner had paid a publican named Michael Gilligan to bribe Newton’s main witness, a man named Thomas Holloway. Chaloner gave Holloway £20 and paid for his passage to Scotland, where English law couldn’t be enforced (Holloway would later discover that most of the money he’d been given was – surprise, surprise – counterfeit). Without his star witness, Newton had little to go on. The case against Chaloner collapsed, and he walked out of the courtroom, in triumph, as a free man.

Little did he know that he’d pissed off the wrong person. Isaac Newton, the Albert Einstein of his day, the man who’d invented physics and calculus, suddenly had a new mission in life.

To see William Chaloner hanged.

*     *     *

To that end, Newton literally threw himself in his work. Using his mathematical mind, he systematically put together a complete picture of counterfeiting in London. He spent hundreds of pounds creating a network of informants and spies. He began attacking the problem from the ground up, going after the street-level gangs that distributed the fakes, then slowly working his way up to those who supplied the counterfeiters with safe houses and tools. In only a few months, Newton created what amounted to a large private police force.

And he was soon to bring it all down on William Chaloner.

*     *     *

Although Chaloner is most remembered for counterfeiting coins, he also dabbled in paper money as well.

The Bank of England began issuing banknotes in June 1695, and within two months forgeries appeared on the market. These weren’t crude imitations: they were printed on the same type of marbled paper that the Bank itself used, and the engraving showed considerable skill and care. And it was, of course, the work of William Chaloner. He was busted when the paper supplier squealed on him when bank officials came to investigate. Chaloner turned for the state and surrendered his unused paper, gave details about how he’d committed the crime, gave bank officials the names of his conspirators, and even gave them details about a hitherto unknown check fraud scheme against the Bank. Incredibly, Chaloner was not only not prosecuted, he was given a £200 reward and allowed to keep the proceeds from his counterfeiting!

Lotteries were also common in England at the time. They had even become quite sophisticated. In 1694, Thomas Neale, Master of the Mint, introduced a lottery in which he offered 100,000 tickets at the relatively small sum of £10 a piece (as he’d intended, many less wealthy individuals pooled their resources to buy shares of tickets). The lottery offered several cash prizes of between £10 and £1,000. The lottery received great press when “common folks” like a stonecutter, stationer and hosier won big prizes. But there was a twist – each ticket converted to a bond which paid the bearer £1 a year for sixteen years. Unfortunately, someone in the government badly misjudged the financial situation, and the government was unable to keep up payments. The lottery collapsed, and the government suspended payments until 1698.

The English government was desperate for cash, so Neale proposed yet another lottery. This time the lottery was attached to the excise tax on malt (and thus, beer). This time 140,000 £10 tickets were issued. And while the Malt Lottery also offered cash prizes and interest payments, it had its own unique twist: the notes themselves were legal tender, and could be spent anywhere in the city. The public weren’t sold on the idea though – thanks to the collapse of the previous lottery, only 1,763 Malt Lottery tickets were sold. The Treasury, stuck with 138,237 unsold tickets, simply declared them to be legal tender. The tickets still weren’t popular, though. Who would take a piece of paper when you could get a gold coin instead? The Treasury finally dumped the tickets on the Royal Navy, who ended up paying sailors with them.

*     *     *

Chaloner was desperate for cash. He’d long since sold his home and carriage, and was so cash-starved that he couldn’t even afford to begin a counterfeit coin operation. Faking the Malt Lottery tickets – if successful – would be a much more cost-effective way to earn some money. So he contacted an old friend, Thomas Carter, who got him in touch with a man who had seed money: David Davis. Chaloner had no idea that Davis worked for James Vernon, the Secretary of State. Davis contacted Vernon, who gave him £100 to buy 200 fake tickets, which Davis then turned over to Vernon. Vernon ordered Davis to find Chaloner, his conspirators, and the plate used to print the fake notes.

Vernon was on the verge of arresting Chaloner when Newton crashed his party. Newton had finally located Holloway in Scotland, and he was prepared to testify against Chaloner for Newton. As soon as Chaloner heard this, he did his best to disappear. Vernon was livid, and put all the pressure he could on Davis to find Chaloner. Unbeknownst to Carter, Chaloner had sold some tickets on the side, and a man named Catchmead sold a pack of fakes to a pawnshop. The pawnbroker was arrested trying to pass the fake notes, which sent Davis and Vernon into a frenzy. If the public knew that Vernon had actually funded a counterfeit operation – even as a sting – confidence in the malt tickets would disappear. Vernon played the only hand he could, offering a £50 reward for Chaloner’s arrest. We don’t know the details of what went down, but within days of the offer a man named Robert Morris marched Chaloner to Newgate.

*     *     *

Newton had been busy since he last saw Chaloner. In addition to tracking down Holloway, he’d located dozens of witnesses who confirmed that Chaloner’s status as a counterfeiter. Whereas Newton had only taken a handful of depositions in all of his previous coining cases combined, with Chaloner he took dozens. And he was smart about it, too: in many cases he’d choose to not question the criminal himself, who was fully prepared for Newton’s line of questioning. He’d instead question the criminal’s wife or girlfriend. Inexperienced at being questioned, they’d fold, allowing Newton to hit the criminal with his own wife’s testimony. And when Chaloner showed up at Newgate, Newton really started turning the screws. He made sure that Chaloner was as isolated as possible, lest he bribe someone again. Chaloner might have had suspicions, but he couldn’t know for sure that at least three of his cellmates worked for Newton, and they memorized every name and place that Chaloner mentioned.

Newton got all the info he needed when John Lawson, a doctor turned counterfeiter, was sent to Newgate. Newton held Lawson’s life in his hands, and Lawson rose to the challenge of becoming Newton’s snitch. Lawson had a remarkable memory, and obtained information about not just Chaloner, but several others as well. Aside from their both being coiners, Lawson and Chaloner had nothing in common, and Chaloner, thinking he had nothing to fear from the man, soon opened up to him. Lawson reported to Newton everything he needed to know. When Lawson reported that Chaloner has talking about lottery tickets, he knew that Chaloner was focusing on the wrong charges. When Lawson reported on which witnesses Chaloner feared, Newton knew who he had to work on. When Chaloner wistfully said that some people “might die” before they could testify against him, Newton knew who he needed to rush to depose before they were murdered or died of natural causes.

Lawson’s reports went on for weeks. Soon, Newton had amassed a literal mountain of evidence against Chaloner. The counterfeiter, now fearing for his life, wrote Newton several letters. When Newton didn’t reply, Chaloner panicked. He began faking insanity as a last-ditch hope against prosecution. But it wasn’t to be.

On March 2, 1699, Newton appeared before a grand jury. There, to Chaloner’s surprise, he made no mention of the Malt Lottery tickets. Newton had prepared three different counterfeiting indictments, and called only two witnesses (out of the six he had in his pocket) to save some of his ammunition for the jury trial. The jury, convinced by Newton’s arguments and witnesses, returned three counts against Chaloner. The counterfeiter, thoroughly confused, pleaded not guilty.

The great game came to an end the next day in the Old Bailey. Justice at the time was swift and fierce. Juries often heard fifteen to twenty cases a day. There were no lawyers, because why would an innocent person need a lawyer? Criminals were required to provide an affirmative defense – the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” didn’t exist yet. Worse yet for Chaloner, the judge in his case was one Salathial Lovell, a gruff jurist who had a reputation as London’s premier hanging judge. Chaloner could be charming if needed, but it was all useless against Lovell. He had no money to bribe the judge, and his honor’s lofty social status meant that the two had no mutual friends or acquaintances that Chaloner could lean on.

For all his meticulous research, Newton’s case was muddled. This might have been by design, however. Although Newton had a vast quantity of witnesses and depositions against Chaloner, few of them were of much quality. So, like every lawyer before and since, Newton used a broad brush to paint Chaloner as a lifelong counterfeiter. And Newton actually got several of his facts wrong. But it didn’t really matter. What was Chaloner going to say? That the fakes the witnesses claimed Chaloner made in May were actually made in August? Or that the “high quality fakes” one witness described were actually awful?

Thanks to Newtons’ great plan, Chaloner had little to say in his defense. He claimed that Newton’s witnesses were lying to save their own skins… which was partly true. He then claimed that the Middlesex County court in which he was appearing was the wrong venue for crimes committed in the City of London. And he was entirely correct. In later times, he might have gotten the case dismissed entirely. But not in Lovell’s courtroom. Chaloner was found guilty on all counts. The next day, March 4, 1699, Chaloner returned to the courtroom to hear his sentence: death by hanging.

*     *     *

Newton didn’t attend Chaloner’s execution. In fact, after the Chaloner case, Newton seems to have lost interest in pursuing counterfeiters, and went back to having a minimal interest in that portion of his job.

In December of that year, Thomas Neale died. In an unprecedented move in English history, Newton was formally given Neale’s old job. Not only did the Master of the Mint receive £500 a year for the job, he also was granted a fee for every pound of metal that went through the mint. Neale had taken home the truly gigantic sum of £22,000 over the years thanks to the fee. Although it varied from year to year, depending on how busy the Mint was, researchers have estimated that Newton earned an average of £1,650 a year from the fee alone. He was set for life.

The great recoinage and the hanging of Chaloner complete, Newton returned to his scientific work, publishing the book Optiks and becoming president of the Royal Society in 1703. As he aged, Newton became less stand-offish and grumpy and turned into a beloved, jolly old man. He went from a prickly man who scared little children and puppies to a hit a weddings.

As Newton had predicted, the Great Recoinage was something of a failure. The new coins largely stopped clipping and (for a time) greatly slowed counterfeiters. But because the new coins had the same weights as before, a flood of silver continued to flow to Europe. England eventually dropped silver and joined the gold standard, but that wouldn’t happen until 1816.

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