From charlesreid1


A death cart enters a cemetery, halting at a broad pit. A man follows, walking behind the remains of his family. And then, "no sooner was the cart turned round and the bodies shot into the pit promiscuously, which was a surprise to him," Defoe wrote, "for he at least expected they would have been decently laid in." Instead, "Sixteen or seventeen bodies; some were wrapt up in linen sheets, some in rags, some little other than naked, or so loose that what covering they had fell from them in the shooting out of the cart, and they fell quite naked among the rest; but the matter was not much to them, or the indecency much to any one else, seeing they were all dead, and were to be huddled together into the common grave of mankind." This was democracy at last, "for here was no difference made, but poor and rich went together; there was no other way of burials, neither was it possible there should, for coffins were not to be had for the prodigious numbers that fell in such a calamity as this."

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The core of the idea is there: that a change in the motion of a body is proportional to the amount of force impressed on it. But to turn that conception into the detailed, rich form it would take as Newton's second law of motion would require long, long hours of deep thought. The same would prove to be true for all his efforts over the next twenty years as they evolved into the finished edifice of his great work, Philosophiœ naturalis principia mathematica—The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy—better known as the Principia. For all his raw intelligence, Newton's ultimate achievement turned on his genius for perseverance. His one close college friend, John Wickens, marveled at his ability to forget all else in the rapt observation of the comet of 1664.

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Newton labored through the summer. That September, the Great Fire of London came. It lasted five days, finally exhausting itself on September 7. Almost all of the city within the walls was destroyed, and some beyond, 436 acres in all. More than thirteen thousand houses burned, eighty-seven churches, and old St. Paul's Cathedral. The sixty tons of lead in the cathedral roof melted; a river of molten metal flowed into the Thames. Just six people are known to have died, though it seems almost certain that the true number was much greater. But once the fire destroyed the dense and deadly slums that cosseted infection, the plague finally burned itself out. That winter, reports of cases dropped, then vanished, until by spring it became clear that the epidemic was truly done.

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Aside from such minimal nods toward the instruction of the young, Newton did as he pleased. He loathed distractions, had little gift for casual talk, and entertained few visitors. He gave virtually all his waking hours to his research. Humphrey Newton again: "I never knew him [to] take any Recreation or Pastime, either in riding out to take air, Walking, bowling, or any other Exercise whatever, Thinking all Hours lost, that was not spent in his Studyes." He seemed offended by the demands of his body. Humphrey reported that Newton "grudg'd that short Time he spent in eating & sleeping"; that his housekeeper would find "both Dinner & Supper scarcely tasted of"; that "He very seldom sat by the fire in his Chamber, excepting that long frosty winter, which made him creep to it against his will."

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But work to what end? Year after year, he published next to nothing, and he had almost no discernible impact on his contemporaries. As Richard Westfall put it: "Had Newton died in 1684 and his papers survived, we would know from them that a genius had lived. Instead of hailing him as a figure who had shaped the modern intellect, however, we would at most...[lament] his failure to reach fulfillment."

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"I thought that publication should be put off to another time, so that I might investigate these other things and publish all my results together." He was trying to create a new science, one he called "rational mechanics." This new discipline would be comprehensive, able to gather in the whole of nature. It would be, he wrote, "the science, expressed in exact propositions and demonstrations, of the motions that result from any forces whatever and of the forces that are required for any motions whatever."

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He analyzed the motion of a pendulum. He inserted some older mathematical work on conic sections, apparently simply because he had it lying around. He attempted an analysis of wave dynamics and the propagation of sound. On and on, through every phenomenon that could be conceived as matter in motion.

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But Newton does not choose to end Book Three here, and his decision reveals how much the work as a whole acts to persuade and not merely to demonstrate. To be sure, no one thinks of Newton as a novelist, or of the Principia as a galloping read. But Book Three—and the volume in its entirety—can be experienced as a kind of epic of gravity, and to bring that tale to its heroic close, Newton spins his account outward once again, into the realm of the comets.

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Locke had offered to help his friend Newton gain the post of Master of Charterhouse, a boys' school in London. Newton recoiled at the thought. "You seem still to think on Charterhouse," he wrote, but "I believe your notions & mine are very different about the matter." What was wrong with the proposal? Everything. "The competition is hazzardous," he complained, "and I am loathe to sing a new song" in hopes of persuading the mighty to throw him a sop. Still more galling, the pay was meager, beneath him. "Its but 200 pounds per an besides a Coach (wch I reccon not) & lodging"—not enough to live in the style to which Newton aspired nor fit reward for a man of his reputation.

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Doing so, he became, in effect, a foot soldier in what he and his contemporaries understood to be a radically new approach to knowledge. We now call this transformation the scientific revolution, and it is often imagined as a series of heroic battles, victories in a war against ignorance led by men whose names resound like those of triumphant generals—Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, the greatest of them all. But in fact, the shift in understanding that such men led was carried forward through the daily actions of hundreds, then thousands of people who for pleasure, profit, or both set out to use reason and experimentation to order their surroundings. Practical rationalists such as Jethro Tull and his disciples tried to bring the methods of the new natural philosophy to bear on the farm. Amateur naturalists catalogued the habits of animals painstakingly observed over days, weeks, months. One of the more famous among them was Erasmus Darwin; born four years after Newton's death, he absorbed the Newtonian credo that material events must have discernible material causes, and he grappled with the question of the origin of species that his grandson Charles would solve a century later.

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Instrument makers began to establish the crucial idea of standards, common measures that would enable observers anywhere to trust one another's results. Thomas Tompion, the maker of Locke's thermometer, was the first craftsman known to have used serial numbers to identify his finished pieces—bringing science's tools into the nuts and bolts of efforts to systematize the material world.

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No later than the early 1680s, William Chaloner abandoned his master and set out on "St. Francis's Mule"—that is, on foot—"with a purpose to visit London." The capital was for him more of a goal than a specific destination. He had no plan, no idea of what to do once he got there.

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At last, he wrote, he succeeded, forging the legendary "stone of the ancients." With that, Newton allowed his most extravagant language to fall away and simply recorded what happened next. "You may ferment them wth [gold] & [silver] by keeping the stone & metal in fusion together for a day, & then project upon metals." This stage, "the multiplication of the stone in vertue," created a kind of catalyst, the ultimate goal of millennia of alchemical investigation. Then, as Newton wrote, a touch of color returning to his prose, "You may multiply it in quantity by the mercuries of wch you made at first, amalgaming ye stone wt ye [mercury] of 3 or more eagles and adding their weight of ye water, & if you desgine it for mettalls you may melt every time 3 parts of wth one of ye stone ... Thus you may multiply to infinity" (italics added). The philosophers' stone. Power without limit—and knowledge too. It was the alchemist's dream, realized at last. Praxis ends with a discussion of whether his newly formed philosophers' stone was the "quintessential matter or Chaos out of which man and all ye world was made."

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To paraphrase Albert Einstein, Newton wanted to know what choices God made when He created the world. More deeply, he wanted to understand what comes next—what the divinity is doing now in the physical cosmos of space and time.

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Lowndes, the leading public figure arguing for devaluation, welcomed Newton's reasoning and support. He still found it hard to make his case, because at its core was a radically modern thought: the King's imprimatur was a mere fiction and not the working of a kind of magic that determined the absolute worth of a given piece of silver. By Newton's logic, the word "shilling" could be thought of as no more than a convenient way to express what a given amount of silver bullion was worth as a commodity. In that view, units of currency—shillings, half-crowns, guineas—could not be absolute statements of value, extensions of the divine authority of kings. Instead, they were relative claims of the prices of quantities of metal—of anything—and those values could change with every shift in conditions in the real world.

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Thus, lurking within the argument for devaluation lay a genuinely unsettling idea. Money need not be seen as merely a thing, a tangible object jangling in one's purse. It could be understood as a term in an equation, an abstraction, a variable to be analyzed mathematically—as in fact skilled traders had been doing more or less explicitly every time they played the markets in Holland against those in London.

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The unquestioned leader of the anti-devaluation forces was John Locke. To be sure, Locke recognized the need to recoin; the miserable state of the clipped coinage was as obvious to him as it was to anyone in England. But apart from melting down old silver to mint new coins, all else—the old weight and face values for each denomination—should remain constant. To do otherwise, he argued, would violate the very nature of money. After all, changing the number associated with a coin, calling a crown-weight piece of silver seventy-five pence instead of sixty, for instance, would not make that coin buy more silver bullion than it had previously. "I am afraid no body will think Change of Denomination has such a Power." Locke's argument is correct; it is merely another way of stating the fact of devaluation: a devalued silver shilling contains and buys less silver metal than a higher-silver-content one did yesterday. But that was beside the point. The reason silver escaped to Amsterdam was because each transaction brought more Dutch gold than the same weight of silver stamped into shillings and crowns could buy in England.

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they will be of another mind when they consider that silver is a matter of nature different from all other" (italics added). It was, he said, "the thing bargained for as well as the measure of the bargain." To Locke, silver was unique in the material world: alone in nature it was the fixed center around which all else learned its worth.

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Newton was right, but Locke grasped what his friend did not. Devaluation was a weapon aimed at the moneyed, and especially the landowning class—those whose rents would fall by the amount of silver shaved from the legal measure of a shilling piece.

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Newton could not respond swiftly enough. Trinity's records show that he left Cambridge for London on March 21 to discuss his prospects. Evidently what he found at the Mint's headquarters in the Tower of London satisfied him. The Chancellor had assured him that the Warden "has not too much bus'nesse to require more attendance than you may spare."

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More likely, he would have hired a horse, as became a gentleman. He would probably have broken the journey at the inn at Ware, waiting there, just as Chaucer's pilgrims had three hundred years before, for enough of a company to gather to provide mutual protection along the isolated stretch of road that followed, a notorious haunt of highwaymen.

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TO MOST PEOPLE in the 1690s, paper money was an oxymoron, as ridiculous and self-contradictory as a wise fool or a cowardly lion. Paper could not be real money. But faced with the cost of the war and the fact of a debased coinage, the demand for something—anything—that could pass between buyers and sellers, debtors and creditors, forced the issue.

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That's how it began: money, captured on a sheet of paper. It rapidly became something more. By lending the full sum of its deposits (and soon enough, even more) to the government, and by issuing notes against that same capitalization that depositors could spend, the Bank of England performed the essential economic miracle: it created capital out of thin air. This was the birth of what is known as fractional reserve banking, the foundation of the modern financial system. In a fractional reserve bank, working on the assumption that only a small percentage of depositors will demand their share back at any given time, the institution lends more than the sum total of its capital. How much more is the question.

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Banks that lend too great a multiple of their deposits risk running out of cash if too many depositors demand payment. If the banking system as a whole lends too little, credit tightens, loans become more costly, and economic life suffers. (Bank regulators can use the reserve requirement—how much cash as a percentage of loans a bank is required to keep on hand—as a tool to tighten or loosen credit, and thus, in theory, keep an economy from becoming either too sullen or too exuberant. The gap between that theory and actual practice is not, perhaps, as small as economists would wish.)

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So, two weeks after the Bank received its charter, the directors formally decided that "the Notes for Running Cash being considered liable to be counterfeited, for preventing thereof it was ordered that they be done on marbled paper Indented." Thus decorated, Bank of England notes—in practical terms, the first bank-issued paper money in the world—entered circulation in June 1695. They were immediately popular. As early as 1697, almost 700,000 pounds circulated as running notes—and this pile of what passed as cash quickly took on a life of its own.

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The five pounds that Mr. Smith deposited on Tuesday became ten by Wednesday: the five lent to support the army in Flanders and the five Smith could hold as a running cash note. This simple trick was the first in the sequence of novel gyrations of money that was about to turn London into the financial center of Europe and, within a century or a little more, of the entire world.

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Eventually, Newton identified the perfect pace: if the press thumped just slightly slower than the human heart, beating fifty to fifty-five times a minute, men and machines could stamp out coins for hours at a time. That pounding set the rhythm that Newton used to drive the entire Mint. Newton's drumbeat got results, fast. The record of the recoinage as a whole is one of an enormously complicated and expensive undertaking that was completed smoothly, efficiently, and mostly safely. (Only one man died at the rolling mills, an amazingly low number given the intensity of the work.) Under Newton's control, where once the sum of 15,000 pounds per week had been thought unattainable, soon the presses were turning out 50,000 pounds a week.

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In June 1699, matters had so far returned to normal that the Mint sold off the machines it had added to handle the national crisis. By then, the Mint under Newton's direction had totally remade England's stock of silver money, a total of 6,840,719 pounds. The total cost of the effort was huge—about 2,700,000 pounds, most of which represented the lost metal in clipped coins accepted for recoinage at face value. But for that price England had bought a whole new silver coinage with which to buy, trade, and fight.

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The swift and ample transfer of silver coins from the Tower into public hands, beginning in the autumn of 1696, quelled the deepest fears of the day. There were no currency riots. The poor of London did not rise up to demand the return of good King James. King William continued to complain about the lack of money, but he was able to keep his army in the field, and by September 1697, after it was clear that the recoinage would be completed satisfactorily, he even achieved a peace with Louis XIV. Nothing directly links the success of the effort with England's domestic calm or its military success abroad. But the fears that had seemed almost overpowering less than two years before disappeared from the record of public concern as the recoinage wended its way to a quiet, competent end.

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By early 1697, Newton's network of informers, undercover agents, and street muscle had turned him into the most effective criminal investigator London had yet seen.

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Among the great mass of men and women outside the learned societies, the scientific revolution was making inroads on understanding as the world of money came fully into being. Paper money, exchangeable promises, bonds, and loans are all abstractions. To understand them, to accept them—even to suborn them—took a capacity for the kind of mathematical reasoning that was just beginning to infiltrate all kinds of new ideas, including that demanded by the new physics. Figuring out the present value of a bond, for example, or how to price the risk (likelihood) of government default, demanded and demands a quantitative, mathematical turn of mind—just as calculating the orbit of a comet did and does.

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Isaac Newton and William Chaloner fought their last battle the next day, March 3. English trials in the late seventeenth century were swift and ruthlessly to the point. There were no lawyers. Prosecutions in most felony cases were handled by the victims of crimes themselves, or by local authorities in cases, such as murder, where victims could not speak on their own behalf. Crimes against the Crown required some agent of the state—the Warden of the Mint or his designated mouthpiece, for example—to stand as the aggrieved party. Chaloner had to speak for himself. There was no presumption of innocence. He had to offer an affirmative defense—either an outright argument of innocence or some demonstration that the prosecution's witnesses and evidence were sufficiently tainted so as to leave the case unproven. It was still an unpopular position that the defendants might benefit from the counsel of someone learned in the law. As the influential early-eighteenth-century legal scholar William Hawkins wrote, it should require "no manner of Skill to make a plain and honest Defence."

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The trial took place in the Old Bailey, which stood just beyond the western side of the London city wall, about two hundred yards from St. Paul's Cathedral and conveniently close to Newgate. The building, erected in 1673 to replace the courts lost in the Great Fire of 1666, contained a ground-floor courtroom that was open to the sky, the better to reduce the risk that prisoners with typhus would infect judges and juries. (The danger was real. The courtroom was enclosed in 1737, and in the worst of the incidents that followed, sixty people died following a court session in 1750, among them the Lord Mayor of London.)

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The impression of an overwhelming presumption of guilt grew as Newton's parade of six prosecution witnesses entered the chamber. With that entrance, Chaloner was able to gauge the direction of the testimony he would have to counter. Before he had an instant to gather his wits, however, the trial began. That prosecution was a probably deliberate muddle. Newton seems to have taken to heart the advice he got a year earlier, that he could simply throw enough dirt around to convince the jury that Chaloner must have done something bad. The prosecution's witnesses essentially ignored the central claim of the indictment. Rather than dwell on proving that Chaloner had actually produced more than one hundred coins, both false gold and false silver, of five different sizes and designs, all in a single day, Newton's witnesses took the jury on an extended tour of the previous eight years of Chaloner's career.

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The book also presented Newton's first full declaration of all that he believed to be true, across the range of investigations that had consumed his life. He argued for intellectual humility; in a draft of the introduction he acknowledged, "To explain all nature is too difficult a task for any one man or even for any one age. Tis much better to do a little with certainty & leave the rest for others that come after than to explain all things by conjecture without making sure of any thing."

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As he had predicted, the recoinage, however successful as an industrial operation, was a failure as monetary policy. The decision to recoin without devaluing had the predicted result: silver continued to flow across the English Channel, buying continental gold at cheaper prices than those offered by the exchange rate between silver shillings and golden guineas. By 1715, most of the new silver specie struck through 1699 had vanished. In response, more or less by accident, the basis of British currency shifted from silver to a new gold standard.

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Newton, first of necessity and then with more intention, oversaw this shift. In doing so, he found himself exploring the same kind of global information networks he had used to advance his arguments in the Principia. This time, instead of data on the tides and observations of comets and the motion of pendulums at various spots on the planet, he investigated what he quickly realized was a worldwide trade in gold. By 1717, he was able to sum up in detail what was going on. Gold was much cheaper in China and India than in Europe, Newton told the Treasury. That imbalance sucked silver—much of it mined originally in the New World—not just out of England but out of the entire European continent. This was its own kind of action at a distance: the faraway, almost occult attraction of Asian gold markets putting European silver into a predictable trajectory, one to be explained with the same habits of mind that had brought the revolutionary study of gravity to its completion thirty years earlier.

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In a strikingly modern-sounding passage, he wrote, "If interest be not yet low enough for the advantage of trade and designs of setting the poor on work ... the only proper way to lower it is more paper credit till by trading and business we can get more money." And even more radically he wrote, "Tis mere opinion that sets a value upon [metal] money," adding, "We value it because we can purchase all sorts of commodities and the same opinion sets a like value upon paper security."

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the South Sea Company agreed to take over some of Britain's official debt—that whole bestiary of obligations, bonds, and lotteries issued to pay for the nation's wars. The company recapitalized the debt with a loan of £2.5 million to the government and then converted the older obligations it had received into shares in the new company. The promised trade never materialized, and the company began to act almost exclusively as a kind of bank—and an innovative one at that. In 1719, Parliament passed a bill permitting the South Sea Company to purchase more government obligations, again converting a range of public debts into a single, easily tradable form: stock in a company that could be bought and sold on the nascent market in London's Exchange Alley. The creation of a permanent, easily transferable debt would prove to be a very valuable tool, one that some historians have credited with financing the great leap to global power the British Empire achieved over the next century and a half. But that financial revolution did not occur without the occasional setback—including, notably, the fiasco of the South Sea Bubble.

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Before his death, Newton offered his own version of an epitaph. In perhaps his most famous moment of self-reflection, he wrote: I don't know what I may seem to the world, but as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered around me.

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Those who had known him took a different view. In 1730, John Conduitt was considering the design of Newton's monument in Westminster Abbey. He received a letter from a man who had once engaged Newton's thoughts as deeply as anyone ever would. Nicholas Fatio de Duillier remembered when the Principia had appeared like prophecy, a revelation. Thus he proposed the text for the inscription to be carved into the memorial: " Nam hominem eum fuisse, si dubites, hocce testatur marmor." The phrase can be translated, "If you doubt there was such a man, this monument bears witness."

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