Newton and the Mint
John Vanderbank, Portrait of Isaac Newton, 1727
Isaac Newton knew all about falling apples, but he proved less than expert when it came to playing the stock market. After the South Sea Company promised massive returns from its slave-trading enterprise, Newton gradually built up his stock. In 1720, when the price began climbing steeply, he sensibly sold—but soon made the beginner’s mistake of buying in again at a higher price, only to watch the share value suddenly plummet. By then, he had been in charge of the Royal Mint for over 20 years, so he probably kept quiet about losing a small fortune.
According to mythologised versions of this national hero, Newton was a scientific genius who soared above mundane matters. But even while he was a Cambridge professor, he had twice served as an MP, and gratefully accepted when the Chancellor of the Exchequer offered him a job as Warden of the Mint. This government appointment commanded more wealth, prestige and influence than any of his scholarly activities, and on his 55th birthday—Christmas Day 1699—Newton became its Master, a still more lucrative position that gave him a cut from the organisation’s profits.
Newton continued to confirm and refine his theories of the natural world, but he also became an elite member of metropolitan society who contributed to Britain’s ambitions for global domination. Responsible for manufacturing the country’s coins, Newton also monitored the national economy in a role comparable to governing the Bank of England today. Remaining in power until he died, Newton took decisions that affected Britain’s international trade, reputation and imperial expansion.
Coins were conceptually different from now: instead of being tokens with minimal intrinsic value, they were composed of precious metals. In principle, a coin labelled “pound” was worth a pound after being melted down and converted into bullion, but criminals could make a quick profit by filing slivers from its rim, which made the coin smaller and therefore less valuable. The currency was literally shrinking, and Newton’s first task was to sort the situation out. Making his life still more complicated, international values were based on silver, but the value of gold was soaring. The doyen of gravity predicted confidently that it would fall of its own accord—but he was wrong. Thanks to the policies he implemented, in 1717 Britain became the first country in the world to adopt gold as its standard.