The Big Idea: Tom Levenson

Issac Newton: You know him as the man who invented calculus and described the physical world with a model that persisted until Einstein. But there was another side of Newton: Crime-fighter! No, he didn’t wear a mask and a cape; it’s not that kind of crime fighting. Rather, in 1695 Newton left the academic life to become Britain’s Warden of the Royal Mint — and in doing so ended up matching wits with a master counterfeiter.

It sounds like fiction, but it just happens to be true, and Tom Levenson’s new book Newton and the Counterfeiter lays out the story for you. And how did Levenson find the story in the first place? It begins with a letter from a man, begging for mercy.


This is another one of those books – I think several “Big Idea” essayists have had this experience – that started with something small, just one tile out of place in a room I thought I knew.

My first hint that I would have to write what would become Newton and the Counterfeiter came in 1992 or so. I was researching a book on musical and scientific instruments, and I had reached the point in that narrative where I had to check on Isaac Newton’s thinking about music and nature.  I found some good stuff – my favorite was his attempt to map onto a musical scale the sequence of colors revealed when sunlight passes through a prism.

But I was brought up short by an excerpt of a letter to Newton that I found in one of the older works I consulted. It was a sad, desperate note, in which a condemned man – William Chaloner – groveled, begging for his life.

That stopped me.  It wasn’t relevant to what I was working on.  But still, I wondered, what was a prisoner awaiting execution in Newgate Jail doing writing to a man recognized in his own time the greatest mind of the age?

It was a stray moment of curiosity, just a loose end, and I let it go in the press of getting another book out the door. But I didn’t entirely forget it either, and over the next few years, I kept reading around Newton’s life.  The first-order answer to my question was easy to find:  all the biographies will tell you that Newton left Cambridge in 1696 to take up what was supposed to have been a sinecure as Warden of the Royal Mint – a reward both for being the smartest man alive and for having picked the right side in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that put William and Mary on the throne in place of the last Stuart, James II. It was the Warden’s official duty to track down coiners and counterfeiters – and Chaloner had boasted of having produced counterfeits with a face value of thirty thousand pounds — so there was the formal connection between the two men.

But even so, I was still stuck in the realm of facts; I didn’t know how – or even if – I could come up with what I needed to turn this moment of contact between the criminal and the financial bureaucrat into a story rich enough to produce a book worth writing (and reading).

Getting there took both a stroke of luck and a year of flailing with the writing of what I found.  The luck came when I found the only surviving trove of Newton’s criminal case notes, not catalogued with the bulk of Newton’s official Mint papers. There were over four hundred separate records, with more than a hundred bearing on his pursuit of Chaloner.

With those documents, mostly summaries of depositions given by witnesses, associates, paid agents and informers that Newton was ultimately able to place in Chaloner’s jail cell, I had all the plot I needed to propel a book – complete with some lovely grace notes as well.  I particularly enjoyed the three days it took me to track down just what Chaloner was selling in what one contemporary called “tin watches with dildoes in them.”

And yet, despite this rich lode of material about criminal life and its detection in late seventeenth century London, the book still lacked something, an idea to animate the facts of the case into something larger than just another narrative of crime and retribution.  I started writing anyway – this was in the middle of 2006. I had the material in hand after all, so I thought I could just bull my way through from incident to meaning.  But after about four months and about a quarter of a draft manuscript in hand, I stopped. I had hit a point where whatever I tried to write as the next chapter just didn’t work, and I put it all down to think.

I finally realized what should have been obvious:  the book told the story of Isaac Newton tracking down a criminal.  It was about the man who led the scientific revolution demonstrating what it was like to live such a transformation every day on the streets of London.

Nailed!  I took several months to do some more research, re-organize what I had written to that point, and get on with the rest of the story. But now I had a reason to animate each plot point large and small that moved my tale forward.

Here’s a small one:  at one point I was looking for just a little scene-setting detail, something that would allow me to place Newton in some weather on a particular day, just to get a bit of the feeling of being there.  I discovered on the day that Newton was writing to John Locke, pissed about something that had passed between them, Locke himself had recorded the weather conditions.

That led me to the fact that the man who made Locke’s thermometer was the first to use serial numbers to identify a scientific instrument maker’s products.

And that’s important because one of the critical ideas that Newton himself advanced was that the new science had to come up with a kind of evidentiary hygiene – some way to make sure that measurements made by different observers could be assessed and compared.

For the book as a whole, this notion that I could get a sense of what living the scientific revolution meant to those who were there at the moment gave me a way to connect to the rest of his life the story of Newton tracking down the prolific and dangerous Chaloner.  He organized his questions, gathered evidence, reshaped his web of information into a chain of cause and effect:  this is the familiar Newton, exploiting the method we still use to investigate the material world, not to solve the motion of a comet, but to penetrate a criminal conspiracy.

In the event, Chaloner put up a grand fight.  He evaded Newton’s attempts to capture him for almost two years – a cat and mouse game traced in my book.  But the story ends the way true crime usually does:  with the doomed Chaloner begging his adversary for that one last chance that does not come.

What?  You expected the bad guy to be able to escape the smartest man in history?  Couldn’t happen.


Newton and the Counterfeiter: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the book. Visit Levenson’s blog. In a nice bit of meta, see him discuss writing this Big Idea piece here. Follow Levenson on Twitter.

23 Comments on “The Big Idea: Tom Levenson”

  1. Sounds interesting, I’ll take a look at the excerpt.

    Note this was also covered in Neal Stephenson’s “System of the World”, though in an assuredly different way.

  2. @Kevin R

    the first thing I thought of when I saw the title was “System of the World”, though it will be interesting to see what actually happened vs. Stephenson’s (highly entertaining) fictionalized history.

    Definitely added to my ever growing reading list.

  3. Sorry to pick nits, but Mr Levenson’s been let down a little by his publisher. The book’s cover clearly shows a view along the Thames of the Palace of Westminster (including Big Ben), which wasn’t built until the mid-19th century after the original medieval palace was destroyed by fire.

  4. Heh, yeah that was my first thought too (“Unknown? Unknown?! Uh, maybe for those unfortunates who haven’t read The System of the World [nerdy guffaw]”)

    I’ll definitely need to check out this book, of course.

  5. The author was a guest on Science Friday on NPR last week. He said he started reading Neal Stephenson’s “Baroque Cycle” when he was writing his own book and had to stop because Stephenson’s Newton was such a strong character. He plans to read all three books this summer.

  6. Sounds interesting. I can’t wait to read this story. Although, it does remind me of “Catch Me If You Can” with Tom Hanks and Leo DiCaprio; a cat-and-mouse chase between the investigator and counterfeiter.

  7. I love the scene in “Catch Me If You Can” where Leo’s character reveals to his fiance that he’s not all he says he is. Her reaction: “You’re _not_ Lutheran!” :-D

    I read the first book of the Baroque Cycle and was unimpressed. I loved “The Diamond Age” and “Cryptonomicon” but just couldn’t get into the Baroque books.

    “Newton and the Counterfeiter” looks good, especially since it’s non-fiction.

  8. I’m definitely adding that one to my wish list.
    I wonder if I’ll be able to order it in Israel…

    I first heard about Newton’s position in the Royal Mint from a statistician I served with in the army. Truly fascinating.

    @Kevin and Ian-

    Thanks for the pointers ; I might add them to my reading list as well.

    Also, @Romeo –

    You reminded me of this particular webcomic :

  9. @Andrew S. #5. Yup, speaking as the Tom Levenson implicated in the book above, I was allowed to “consult” on my cover — i.e. see it a couple of days before lock. When I pointed out that every human artifact in the image was 19th century, I was told not to worry my pretty (sez who? — ed) little head about it; no one would notice.

    Except, of course, they do.

    OTOH, the British edition, due out in late August from Faber and Faber, has a really cool, and completely period appropriate cover. Win some…

  10. But I wanna know what he was selling in “tin watches with dildoes in them”!

  11. @Bebe, no. 15.

    But that would be telling, wouldn’t it? Took me three days of phone calling to get a best-guess, and you’ll have to look in the book itself to see what I found.

  12. By any chance are your research sources listed in the book? I’m intrigued by the book itself, but really really would like to find out about his music/light spectrum mapping. I’ve been playing with that idea for years, though in a strictly dilettante manner.

  13. Robin — that light-and-music story was in my second book, “Measure for Measure,” and I got my start on musical ideas in Newton’s thought in an essay in the now-out-of-print collection of essays “Let Newton Be” (John Fauvel et al., editors). I’m not in my office, so I don’t have my (treasured) copy in front of me, so I haven’t got the author of the essay in hand…but that’s a good place to start.

  14. This sounds fascinating – it’s going on my “to read soon!” list. Of course, the first thought I had was, “Who the hell is this Chaloner? We all know it was Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe who pulled it off!” : )

  15. @Tom Levenson, #16, I immensely enjoyed the excerpt – thanks for including the link – so I think I will have to read the book. In the meantime, I’ll check the OED to see if “dildoes” could be something other than what I’m thinking.

  16. Apparently, the grooves (reeding I think is the correct term) around the edges of coins was Newton’s idea so as to decrease the number of coins that were shaved and the shavings sold or used to make counterfeit coins.
    Still, Newton was NOT a nice person (and I say this knowing full well his might have been the best mind that has ever lived). Being hanged, drawn, and quartered for counterfeiting seems a bit much, even considering the era.

  17. @22. Actually, England started placing grooves (and, I believe, the phrase “decus et tutamen” (sic?) around the edges of coins when they switched from hand-hammering coins to Blondeau’s machines in 1662, well before Newton’s tenure at the Mint.

    As for hanging, drawing and quartering — that was certainly the punishment on the books, but that was usually reserved for those who actually laid hands on (or tried to) the person of the King (see Faulkes, Guy). Counterfeiters were usually just hung until dead, though in the pre-trap door gallows-era that method of execution was not much of a picnic either.

    (Still, not so bad as the fate of women convicted of coining: most were reprieved through one mechanism or another, but the penalty reserved for female traitors was burning, so as to spare the crowd the immodest sight of a woman’s body jerking at the end of a rope. By the late 17th century, most women thus convicted were quietly strangled to death before the fire was lit, but still….)

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