Friday Isaac Newton Blogging: How nice it is to be wrong, Newton and the South Sea Bubble Edition
One of the great pleasures of the writing life is the stuff you learn. There is the material that you seek out during the research of any project, and then there are the moments of serendipity.
One of these just came my way, in the form of one of the happiest corrections of error I have ever received.
In my writing about Isaac Newton — that book I’ve overmentioned…you know, Newton and the Counterfeiter, (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound and in the UK, Amazon.co.uk, Waterstones, Blackwells, Borders, John Smith & Son) — along with a number of pieces for newspapers and websites, I’ve spent a fair amount of time talking about Newton’s failed investment in the South Sea Company. (See this for a quick account of Newton’s encounter with that famous bubble, or check out the epilogue of the book for an expanded telling.)
In talking about the book and Newton’s connections to contemporary financial difficulties with Bloomberg.com’s Manuela Hoelterhoff, I said this:
[Newton] hated being reminded of any mistake. The only reference that people have found to his South Sea losses is in the comment: “I can calculate the orbit of a comet, but I cannot calculate the madness of the people.”
That was true, as far as I knew, when I said it a couple of weeks ago. All the usual sources — see especially Richard Westfall’s still-definitive Newton biography, Never at Rest — made reference to one remark someone recalled Newton making: “I can calculate the orbit of a comet, but I cannot calculate the madness of the people.” The rest was even remoter hearsay: his niece’s statement that Newton had lost twenty thousand pounds by buying into the South Sea Company at the height of the bubble, and a report that he could not bear to hear the name of the company mentioned ever after.
I did spend some time tracking down the various memoirs, and I couldn’t add anything to that…so that’s what I wrote in my book and that’s what I told Manuela.
But I’m wrong, I know it, and I’ve seen the proof.
It turns out that there remain — after almost three hundred years — some Newton papers that have not bubbled to the surface. Every now and then, a few letters emerge and get sold into the archive/collector trade. Several late letters between Newton and his once-dear friend Nicholas Fatio de Duillier hit the auction block a few years ago.
I heard about the sale, but one of the letters, at least (I don’t know the whole story) was bought by a private collector. I had talked to one of the reigning experts on Newton and Fatio about the emergence of some new Fatio material — that would be Cambridge University’s Scott Mandelbrote — but he told me that there was nothing in the material that he could not yet share with me that bore directly on my story of the encounter between Newton and his counterfeiting nemesis, William Chaloner…and this was true.
But I didn’t tell Scott that I would be talking about Newton and the South Sea Bubble — and if I had, I might have had a heads-up on the second and much more robust example of Newton’s disgust at his loss that we now can cite.
The letter in question was written by Newton to Fatio on September 14, 1724. It’s short — one long paragraph in all, and is mostly concerned with adminstrative matters regarding Fatio’s membership in the Royal Society, and Fatio’s request for Newton’s help in presenting some new work to that body. It’s marked by the complete absence of warmth or connection — a startling contrast to the urgent affection of letters Newton wrote to his younger friend back in the early 1690s.
But the most striking passage in the letter comes in the first couple of sentences. Fatio had apparently sought Newton’s advice concerning– or maybe had touted to him — an investment in the “York Building Companies (sic) Fund.”
Newton disclaimed any interest — he had heard that the company in question was in a bad way, for one thing. And for another:
“I lost very much by the South Sea company wch makes my pocket empty, and my mind averse from dealing in these matters.”
There you have it: unmistakable documentary proof that I was wrong in my declaration that there was only one reference to Newton’s despair at his loss.
I couldn’t be happier.
I had believed that Newton felt the distress reported in the various indirect accounts previously uncovered. I wrote my story accordingly — always trying to be clear about the one-remove quality of the reports on which I based that belief.
But now I know it.
I’ve seen it for myself, in Newton’s own hand, over his (to me) familiar signature. This is one of the small satisfactions of doing history, these sudden moments of connection across time and vast differences in context and experience — that instant when you feel the presence of a human reality intelligible to one’s own. And it’s nice to know that however wrong I was to say there was just one Newton reference to the South Sea debacle, I was right to let my readers know that Newton winced at the memory of the Bubble year.
One last thing: I’m very grateful to the letter’s owner, the man who purchased it at that auction a little while back, Mr. William (Bill) Mason. Mr. Mason, whose name may be familiar to those involved in the kind of high finance that brought our friend Isaac so low, wrote to me after reading my chat at the Bloomberg site, sent me a photograph of the letter, and gave me permission to write about it here. My thanks — it is just a pleasure to come across something like this, and Mr. Mason swift and unfettered readiness to let me talk about this in public is a real act of generosity.
As I said at the top — I can’t recall a correction that has made me smile so wide.
Image: Hermann Moll: A New & Exact Map of the Coast, Countries and Islands within ye Limits of ye South Sea Company …, London 1711