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Isaac Newton is celebrated throughout the world as a great scientific genius, but in his early fifties, he abandoned his life as a reclusive scholar at Cambridge to spend three decades in London, a long period of metropolitan activity that is often overlooked. Through exploring a painting by William Hogarth packed with Newtonian allusions, I describe aspects of Newton’s activities that usually receive little attention.
Taking Hogarth’s conversation piece as my cue, I reintegrate Newton into the metropolitan culture at a time when the British economy depended on global trading underpinned by slavery. Within only a few years, he was making and losing small fortunes on the stock market, manoeuvring for favour at court and entertaining eminent European visitors. Knighted by Queen Anne, and a close ally of the influential Earl of Halifax (who became Chancellor of the Exchequer), Newton occupied a powerful position as President of London’s Royal Society. But he also became Master of the Mint, responsible for the nation’s money at a time of financial crisis. A major investor in the East India Company, Newton profited from the revenue generated by selling African captives to wealthy plantation owners in the Americas, monitored the African gold that was melted down for English guineas, and revised his great book on gravity by soliciting scientific measurements from overseas traders. The Enlightenment is celebrated as the Age of Reason, but the exploitation and disparity it fostered lie at the heart of modern capitalism. – Dr Patricia Fara has a degree in physics from Oxford University (St Hugh’s College), a PhD in History of Science from London University, and is currently an Emeritus Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. Her major research interests are Enlightenment Britain, scientific imagery, and topics related to women in science both now and in the past. A regular contributor to popular journals as well as In our Time and other radio/TV programmes, she has published a range of academic and popular books on the history of science. These include the prize-winning Science: A Four Thousand Year History (2009) and A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in World War One (2018). This lecture is based on her new book, Life after Gravity: Isaac Newton’s London Career (2021).