Posted tagged ‘Alchemy’

Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging: Q: How did Newton get rich? (A: He mastered a mundane form of alchemy.)

February 1, 2008

Three hundred and eight years ago this Sunday, Feb. 3, Isaac Newton finally got his hands on the one sure way to multiply gold.

This time Newton had got his hands on the real thing — not the phantom he had pursued so deeply in his alchemical researches. It’s true that seven years before he had convinced himself that he had discovered the Philosopher’s stone. With it he believed, he had found the secret that allow the adept to begin with a stock of gold and then, as he wrote in his last alchemical manifesto, “you may multiply [it] to infinity.”

He believed — and held on to that faith for a few weeks, before recognizing his error, and then (perhaps coincidentally) falling into the deep depression that has led Newton historians to call 1693 his black year.

That experience more or less cured Newton of alchemy — not that he abandoned what he saw as its animating idea, but he did give up trying to turn its concepts into a practical experimental program. (He did in fact perform a few more laboratory experiments in the mid 1690s, but with nothing approaching the intensity of his pre 1693 research).

But the failure of his alchemical ambition did not end his deep involvement with the gold in it’s vulgar, day to day manifestation. In 1696, Newton left his academic job in Cambridge to begin life as an officer of the Royal Mint. And then, on February 3, 1700, he managed to make his way into the top job, taking the post of Master and Worker of the His Majesty’s Mint.

There he had formal responsibility for the production of all England’s coin. As of 1700, the official coinage was silver, with gold guineas and half guineas serving as convenient high denomination tokens that could be exchanged for “real” silver money. (How big a chunk of change was a guinea? About one week’s wages for a skilled London craftsman.)

Over the next decade and a half, Newton would preside over the death of the English silver currency; by the late teens, gold became the de-facto standard — a shift driven in part by a mis-pricing of the value of a golden guinea as measured in the value silver could command on an increasingly globalized market for precious metals. (The full legal switch to the gold standard came only in 1844, with the passage of the Bank Charter Act.)

The switch from silver to gold did not bother Newton. In fact, though he was as scrupulously honest as any man — more so than most in that patronage and corruption ridden age — he personally gained from any event that brought more metal into the Mint and spat more coins out. In his first post at the Mint, he received only a stipend — a generous one, to be sure: 500 pounds a year by 1699 — but not a foundational fortune, not an inheritance.

At the same time, it’s important to note that he worked for his money, more than any prior holders of his Mint offices for the previous century at least.He did the paperwork, made himself an expert assayer, kept exceptionally accurate accounts (shortly after coming to the Mint, he fought the Treasury over a discrepancy of two pence. Two pence! He was, in fact, one of England’s first real civil servants — along with his friend, the philosopher John Locke, who earned his keep at the same time as one of the founding eight commissioners of the Board of Trade.

This was, in other words, another side of the revolution in science — the very first steps (a lot of the one-forward, two-back variety) towards instituting an ideal of disinterested expertise in government.

That took a while — some might say that we are still waiting

Civil service — bureaucracy, if you will — was still in its infancy in England when Newton became Master of the Mint, however, and there were definitely some bugs left in the system. The job was one of the great surviving feudal privileges left for powerful patrons to deliver to loyal supporters. He got both a substantial stipend — and a percentage of every pound of silver or gold minted into coins. Now you were talking real money, an income that handily topped four figures in the busier years.

When Newton died in 1727, with almost three decades of his cut from the Mint’s prodution in hand, he left an estate — excluding the land inherited from his mother — worth 30,000 pounds. That’s between four and five million pounds in contemporary currency. Newton died rich…

…And thus was proved the proposition that the surest way to make a pile of money is to make it yourself.

Q.E.D. — with this qualification: don’t try this at home, kids.

(This last is a long distance tease for my book-in-progress — which will have a lot more to say about Newton and some of the more questionable ways English men and women tried to make money back in the day. My telling of that story is due out on Houghton’s Winter 08-9 list.)

Images: Sir Godfrey Kneller, “Isaac Newton,” 1702 and “Coining Press used by the Royal Mint,” 1818. Source: Wikipedia Commons.