Isaac Newton, detective

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 11, 2013

One of the various odd twists in the saga of real-life famous detectives is that, in recent years at least, it seems like they have returned with one peculiar caveat: they’re people famous for other things, and detectives mainly if not exclusively within the pages of mystery novel series. Recently, however, I came across a kind of exception to the exception to the rule:

Front cover of 'Newton and the Counterfeiter'

This design by Hsu + Associates

I don’t know where I saw this but it attracted my attention right away. Aside from its connections to my own little project, I love history, particularly British history, and I think reading something further about Newton had been in the back of my mind for a while as well.

This is a nice brief biography of Newton (or Sir Isaac, I suppose, to give him his due) with, of course, particular focus on his “detective career.” I do think that “detective career” is a bit of a stretch, though I can understand why the phrase it was chosen. (Got me to read it, didn’t it?) But calling Newton a detective is all the same technically both anachronistic—the term did originate in London in fact, but not for nearly another 150 years—and just a bit of a plain fudge.

Newton did, it seems, perform detective work in his battle against counterfeiters, and one William Chaloner in particular. But, then, he was probably as much a prosecutor and district attorney (or whatever the English equivalent would be) as he was a detective, in these matters, in addition to the job as Warden (later Master) of the Mint that was his real title and reason for getting involved in them.

Still, aside from the fact that Newton and the Counterfeiter makes excellent reading, it also offer a potentially interesting fit with some of the speculation I indulge in Brilliant Deduction. The concept of a specialist profession dedicated to investigating mysterious crimes did not exist, or at any rate in a lasting fashion, until the 19th century, but it seems to me that some people must certainly have performed some of the same functions for centuries and perhaps millennia beforehand, and moreover that at least a few of them were probably very very good at the role, even if it they had other, more central responsibilities.

Newton’s years rousting London’s community of coiners, and associated rogues, constitutes a tempting hint that this isn’t just guesswork on my part. It’s also intriguing because, while as Warden of the Mint he was naturally concerned fairly exclusively with crimes of counterfeiting, this same challenge occupied prominent parts in the careers of the great professional detectives in Brilliant Deduction: Pinkerton, Lees, and of course William Burns who, during his years as a Secret Service operative, was almost as exclusively focused on counterfeiters as was Isaac Newton.

It was also somewhat interesting to discover how much of Newton’s fictionalized activities in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle had some basis in history, even beyond what I had realized.

Meanwhile, all this aside I can highly recommend Newton and the Counterfeiter. It’s well-written, well-researched, but entirely accessible, and was a pleasure to read.

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