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Isaac Newton, undercover agent (Part 1)

Precious metals could be stolen from coins by clipping, plugging, or sweating them. It’s a good thing Isaac Newton was on the case. [1 of 2]

Coins in early modern Europe were often made of precious soft metals like gold and silver. They were a prime target for various types of larceny and scamming. Usually this involved finding some way to extract metal from the coins without changing their overall appearance – so you could have your cake and eat it too, by spending the coin and keeping the leftover bits of gold or silver.

Three techniques stand out: clipping, plugging, and sweating coins. Clipping was simply shaving metal off the edge of a coin. Plugging was more complicated – you punched a hole in the middle of the coin and then hammered it closed again, mashing the soft metal over the gap. Or you could fill the gap with cheaper metal. Sweating is a funny one. Take a bunch of coins, throw them in a bag, and then shake it so that bits of gold or silver dust are worn off the coins. Then you simply gather up the dust. It looked like natural wear and tear (which, in a way, it was).

Having extracted the metal clips, plugs, or dust, it was an easy thing to melt them down and profit accordingly. In late 17th century CE England some countermeasures were in place (putting designs or marks on the sides of the coins so that clipping would be obvious) but it is thought that up to one in ten coins in circulation were forged.

Enter Isaac Newton. Having revolutionised physics and mathematics in his thirties and forties, he was granted the (usually honorary) title of Warden of the Royal Mint. But apparently you cannot give Newton honorary titles, because he decided to fix the problems of English currency.

The first step: the Great Recoinage of 1696. Gather up all the older silver coins and recast them, returning the coins’ value to the owners. But – and this was crucial – people were given the value back according to the weight of the coins and not the face value. Suddenly all those clipped, plugged, and sweated coins were removed from circulation.

The next step: find and punish the counterfeiters. Isaac Newton had himself made a Justice of the Peace and went undercover to track people down. (Note to Hollywood movie producers: undercover Isaac Newton would make a great TV show. I will humbly accept a 10% finder’s fee, as long as it is paid by weight and not by coin.) Forgery was a capital crime, so Newton gathered large amounts of evidence – like witness and informant accounts – to ensure conviction and thus execution of his foes.

Newton’s greatest foe was William Chaloner, the notorious forger, tongue-padder, and dildo-merchant.

[Part Two comes tomorrow.]

Categories: Early modern history Economics & business Europe History Places Politics & law

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

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