Isaac Newton’s London life

The last three decades of the renowned scientist’s life reveal him to be a skilful administrator and social climber

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Inspiration can strike at any time. Archimedes jumped out of his bath shouting “Eureka”, James Watt gazed in wonder at a steaming kettle and Isaac Newton watched an apple fall from a tree. These stories may or may not be true, but they are familiar myths about genius.

Even if Newton did have an epiphany in his country garden, 20 years and a great deal of complicated mathematics went by before he published his great book on gravity. He kept quiet about the apple until he was an elderly man, when he loved reminiscing about how he had spent the lockdowns of 1666-67 safely tucked away in his Lincolnshire cottage to escape the plague. While the microscopist Robert Hooke was striding round the South Downs collecting marine fossils, Newton was analysing the colours of the rainbow, inventing the mathematical technique of calculus and pondering how the moon goes around the earth and the earth goes around the sun.

Eventually, after two bouts of rural isolation, he returned permanently to Trinity College in Cambridge, where he cultivated his identity as a dedicated yet secretive scholar. His reclusive habits gave rise to countless anecdotes reinforcing his reputation as an eccentric, vindictive alchemist verging on the edge of insanity. The only surviving portrait from that time features his prematurely grey hair, fine features and sombre clothes.

But that familiar account of a legendary hero leaves out the last three decades of his life. In his early fifties, Newton abruptly fled from academia to spend over 30 years in London as a metropolitan man about town. Instead of the quiet cloisters and dark libraries of Cambridge’s all-male world, now he moved in fashionable society, a skilful social climber who rapidly learnt how to benefit from wealthy patrons and elevate his salary as well as his status. Before long, he had commissioned the same artist as before – the prestigious Godfrey Kneller – to portray him as a well-nourished sophisticate adorned with a fashionable wig and a fine coat of crimson velvet.

Newton’s wealth and influence grew as he manoeuvred for favour at court, entertained eminent visitors from all over Europe, and invested in the stock market – although he lost a small fortune in the South Sea Bubble, when the value of shares suddenly plummeted. Within a few years, Newton was running not only the Royal Society but also the Royal Mint. Cared for by his niece Catherine Barton, a gossip-column beauty, he lived in a succession of smart houses, commuting once a week to the Mint’s offices, which were crammed inside the Tower of London. This location was ideal for ships bringing in gold from Africa to make coins, although Newton was constantly battling for space with military officials. He felt persecuted by the perpetual noise and commotion made by clanking machinery, tramping soldiers and roaring lions held captive in the Tower zoo. The stench must have been appalling: the Mint’s records show a large annual fee for clearing away horse manure.

Soon after he arrived at the Mint, Newton’s ruthless efficiency made him unpopular with his staff. Determined to run a profitable business, he weeded out corrupt practices and introduced time and motion studies that increased productivity rates but forced workers to repeat monotonous and dangerous tasks at high speed. By introducing milled edges on coins, Newton made forgery more difficult, and he pursued counterfeiters relentlessly, even buying disguises for trusted employees to infiltrate the local taverns and identify criminals, some of whom were sent to the gallows. Newton revamped England’s coinage system, but as so often happens, the rich became richer and the poor even poorer.

Newton ruled similarly autocratically at the Royal Society, where he over-rode opposition to secure new premises and stacked committees in his own favour. Determined to exclude his arch-rival, the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, Newton recruited the help of Princess Caroline. A superb mediator with a clear grasp of their intellectual conflicts, Caroline ridiculed their mutual obstinacy. “But great men are like women, who never give up their lovers except with the utmost chagrin and mortal anger. And that, gentlemen, is where your opinions have got to.”

Fascinated by such stories, a few years ago I decided to investigate Newton’s second bite at the apple of life. At that stage, I had no idea that I would end up thinking about his role in maintaining the national economy – and in particular, the international slave trade that helped to make Britain rich and powerful. My findings have recently been published as Life after Gravity: Isaac Newton’s London Career.

I started by exploring some counter-intuitive snippets of information that lay in full view but had been downplayed. The conventional Newton I had read about was a frugal other-worldly professor, but the London power broker who fascinated me was such a big spender that the inventory of his possessions covered a vellum scroll 17 feet long. As well as numerous plates and pictures, Bibles and bedcovers, he owned the ultimate Georgian luxury of two silver chamber pots. This eminent Enlightenment figure had twice served as an MP for Cambridge University, and he landed both his knighthood and his new job at the Mint courtesy of the powerful Earl of Halifax, Chancellor of the Exchequer, who seems to have enjoyed a long passionate love affair with his niece Catherine Barton.

As I continued my research, I realised that Newton’s previous biographers had chosen not to focus on his global connections. Although there is no evidence that Newton was personally involved in slavery, he did – like many of his contemporaries – benefit financially by investing heavily in organisations such as the East India Company, which sold African captives to wealthy plantation owners in the Americas. In addition, as Master of the Mint he made sure he got the lowest possible prices for gold from African merchants, boosting his income with the fees paid for every coin that was minted. And as an extra advantage, when Newton was desperately collecting data to tie up some loose ends of his theories, he solicited mathematical measurements of the tides from company officials stationed along trade routes. What is now revered as the world’s greatest book on physics incorporates information gleaned from exploitative British imperialists.

The most difficult aspect of writing a book is not ferreting out information, but organising research discoveries into a coherent and compelling story (which entails the painful process of consigning large chunks to the trash can). I wanted to get away from the traditional womb to tomb/cradle to grave style of biography. I could have divided Newton’s London career into sections – science, money, enemies (he had plenty of them) – but I decided instead to experiment by framing my narrative around a picture by William Hogarth. He finished painting it in 1732, five years after Newton died, and its full title is The Indian Emperor. Or the Conquest of Mexico. As performed in the year 1731 in Mr Conduitt’s, Master of the Mint, before the Duke of Cumberland &c. Act 4, Scene 4 (pictured above).

“Mr Conduitt” was married to Catherine Barton and inherited Newton’s position as Master of the Mint. To advertise his own stellar rise in London society, Conduitt commissioned this conversation piece, which shows his fine drawing room packed with elite aristocrats, including three of King George II’s children. The young actors on the makeshift stage are performing a recently revived Restoration play by John Dryden, who had tried to make English audiences feel good about themselves by depicting the appalling behaviour of Spanish conquerors in the Americas.

Hogarth’s pictures were rarely unambiguous: he liked stacking them with symbolic references and double meanings. And so the more I studied this picture, the more I appreciated its complexities. To write Life after Gravity, I travelled round the picture – the room, the audience, the stage – as if I were a fly on its walls. From that unusual vantage point, I scrutinised Newton as he moved among ambitious wheelers and dealers jostling for power not only in Britain, but around the entire world.

The Enlightenment is celebrated as the Age of Reason, but the exploitation and disparity it fostered lie at the heart of modern democracy.

Life after Gravity: Isaac Newton’s London Career by Patricia Fara is published by OUP

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