Wednesday 2nd February 2011

The 20th January 2011 issue of the London Review of Books features two mentions of Samuel Pepys. Unfortunately, both are only available online to subscribers, but here are a couple of interesting quotes.

The first is about changes in coinage in the late 17th century:

William [III, Prince of Orange] had been dealt a difficult hand. The national stock of sixpences, shillings, half-crowns and crowns fell into two groups, the old and the new, each with a total face value of around ten million pounds. The old coins, dating from before 1662, had been made by brawny ‘master moneyers’ in the Mint workshops at the Tower of London, chopping slices from a silver rod and striking an image on both sides using a hammer and die. Apart from being easy to counterfeit, these hammered coins had become seriously degraded, partly through ordinary use (many were more than a century old) and partly through deliberate tampering: the manufacturing process left a fringe beyond the imprint of the die, and anyone with clippers or a file could shave a little silver off a hammered coin. By the 1690s, most old coins had lost about a third of their original substance.

In 1662 the Royal Mint went over to a new method of manufacture. Samuel Pepys, who was one of the first to make a tour of the new workshops at the Tower, was enchanted by his glimpse of a pioneering form of mass production. He watched perfectly uniform discs of assayed silver pouring out of horse-powered presses; he saw them locked into machines that engraved a pattern on the edge and added the defiant legend decus et tutamen (‘ornament and safeguard’ – milled coins would be proof against clipping and filing); and he saw them slipped under mechanical hammers that struck deep impressions on both sides with a clarity and precision that the strongest old-style moneyer could never have matched. ‘They say that this way is more charge to the king than the old way,’ Pepys wrote, ‘but it is neater, freer from clipping or counterfeiting … and speedier.’

The new British coins, beautifully minted with a full measure of fine silver, were a source of national pride; but they were also a national folly. They were harder to counterfeit than the old ones, but just as easy to melt down, either to forge old-style coins at a higher face value, or to create bullion that could be sold overseas at a premium. The Mint set an extra trap for itself by issuing a run of high-value coins struck not from silver but from the finest African gold, popularly known as guineas. They were originally meant to be worth 20 shillings, but they had no explicit denomination and were soon trading at 21 or 22. By the time William was pleading for cash to pay his troops in Flanders, guineas were worth 30 shillings, offering a mute but implacable commentary on the value of the British coinage. It was a hard problem; but something had to be done.

Here’s the diary entry in which Pepys is impressed by the new techniques. There’s a bit more, in which John Locke insists that coins have an intrinsic, “natural” value due to their silver content, rather than the purely symbolic value we acknowledge currency to have these days, but that’s probably a big enough quote already. It’s from a review of Thomas Levenson’s Newton and the Counterfeiter by Jonathan Rée.

For completeness, the other good Pepys-mentioning article was this review of Ted McCormick’s William Petty and the Ambitions of Political Arithmetic by Steven Shapin, about the polymath, Petty, who designed a kind of catamaran, the Experiment in the 1660s:

The ship was an experiment in science, technology and entrepreneurship. No one had ever seen such a vessel; it violated the conventions of the shipwright’s art; and among the knowledgeable it was generally an object of ridicule and opposition. There was, Petty acknowledged, ‘scarce a good word for it’ from anyone in the business. Most experts thought it wouldn’t work, and some worried that, in the unlikely event it did, it would be a technology too far. Samuel Pepys, the Navy Board’s clerk of the acts, was a supporter, while the master shipwright Anthony Deane said Petty’s design ‘must needs prove a folly’. The navy commissioner Peter Pett told Pepys that the double-hulled ship was ‘the most dangerous thing in the world’: if it was successful, the secret would get out, and it would be the ruin of English trade and sea power. The Dutch, with whom England was about to fight the second instalment of a series of naval wars, might use the shallow-draught ship to sail right up the Thames and lay London waste.

On 13th February 1665, Pepys calls the ship “a brave roomy vessel.” The whole article is well worth a read.

Do drop me a line if you happen to come across any other Pepys-related snippets around the place that could be highlighted here.

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