Sir Isaac Newton was the towering intellectual giant of the ‘Scientific Revolution’ of the seventeenth century. He changed our understanding of mathematics and physics and redefined the way we see the world. But many people may not know that, for more than three decades, he also played a vital role at The Royal Mint.
As Master of the Mint he made a considerable contribution to our coinage and economy, helping to make Britain’s currency one of the most respected and admired in the world. His meticulous report of 1717, commonly known as ‘the valuation of the guinea’, was pivotal in establishing gold coin as the pre-eminent currency of the United Kingdom. It suggested establishing the gold guinea’s value at 21 shillings which paved the way for the introduction of the gold standard a century later. Newton remained Master of the Mint until his death in March 1727, by which time British coins could claim to be the best-made and most trusted in the world.
In 2017 we celebrate a pioneer of science, master of minting, Sir Isaac Newton on a UK 50p coin, with a design created by Royal Mint designer, Aaron West. We recently caught up with Aaron to find out a little more about his design.
Hi Aaron, tell us a bit about yourself
My name is Aaron West and I work in The Royal Mint as a graphic designer.
How did your journey with The Royal Mint begin?
I studied graphic design at University of South Wales for 3 years and then went on to do a PGCE in Higher Education. I started working in retail graphics, designing lots of signs and retail advertising for a local company. After this I worked as a teacher whilst searching for more of a designer role, I then found The Royal Mint post and I have been here for about six years.
How does coin design differ from your other work?
A lot of the designs we do in graphics are flat, so doing the coin competition is really challenging as it not what I am used to. In comparison to retail design work, designing coins is much better; most retail design work is price changes and POS sales, so it can get a little repetitive. I really enjoy working in The Royal Mint design team because we get to work on such a variety of products and campaigns. Coin design is just one of those things we are lucky to be involved in.
How did you find designing a coin different to other design work you have done?
It’s a bit of a challenge at first, coins are so small to work with. On the computer we see it as a design within a unique shape, on the screen everything is large and quite zoomed in so it was a challenge to see what we could design within the size constraint.
You also designed the £2 coin commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, was it different designing a £2 coin to a 50p?
Yes I found the £2 a lot easier. It was different to the process of designing the Great Fire of London £2 coin as that was easier to break up into three distinct elements; the buildings, the river and the iconic flames.
How did you feel designing the coin to mark the 375th anniversary of Sir Isaac Newton’s birth?
It was a challenge to design and a great reward to be shortlisted – and then to have my design win, so it is a great achievement. There is also a nice connection for me working at The Royal Mint as Sir Isaac Newton was once Master of the Mint.
How did you go about designing the coin? Can you talk us through the process?
I entered the design competition a couple of years ago and was keen to explore many ideas and try something a little different. At the time, we had done a lot of portraits so I thought people would be putting Sir Isaac Newton’s portrait on the coin, so I took a gamble. I wanted to go down the scientific route of theories and maths and somehow get that within a coin. Thankfully a lot of research paid off.
Was it your first idea to go with the theories and maths or did it develop?
The 50 pence piece is an unusual shape and portraits sit better on round coins. Instead I researched the scientific elements of Newton’s theories, particularly the ones related to Newton’s laws and planets and bodies in space.
Can you talk us through the different elements of the design?
The reason I picked this theory is because it worked really well within the lines, the lines go through the centre from the top and middle, that worked really well. One thing that I particularly liked was one of the lines that goes through diagonally, when I did the text it goes through the ‘I’ in Sir Isaac Newton, that was a little thing that worked quite well.
In this case the biggest challenge was representing Newton’s theory within the scope of the coin. In order to achieve flat patterns and reflected shapes within the design watch faces became a big part of the research and inspiration. Circular lines worked best within the design which are slightly angled to reflect the light in layers. Once that was achieved I worked with The Royal Mint coin designers to find the background details that would complement the theory; I think the radial circular lines work really well.
What was the most challenging aspect of the design?
My design is based upon elements of Proposition 11, in Book One of Newton’s Principia Mathematica. The proposition proves that if a body orbits, in an ellipse, around an attracting body at the focus of the ellipse, then, under certain conditions, the orbiting body is constantly accelerated towards the central body with a force inversely proportional to the distance between them. In the image on the coin, the Sun lies at the common focal point of three ellipses representing the orbits of different planets.
Because the theory is quite complex and this is just a crop of the certain part of the theory. The challenge was to make sure you got enough of the theory on the 50 pence and for it to make sense. We also had to make sure that it was accurate, so we had the theory produced as a template and put that over the shape of the design to ensure it was 100% accurate. We then had an external expert come and check it and clarified that is was correct.
Can you tell us something we don’t already know about the design – this could be a quirk or something that took a while to perfect?
As the design is so detailed, in terms of lines, text and letters, I wasn’t sure whether I would put my initials on the coin or not. There isn’t a lot of space so I ended up adding them to the bottom right hand corner. They’re a lot smaller than people’s initials usually would be, but it’s not my theory so I wouldn’t really want to steal his thunder, so they’re on there, but quite small!
How do you want your design to be received and what would you want to communicate?
When people see it I hope they will find it interesting and will look at it in a little more detail. It’s quite scientific, so if you’re into science I think you will like it. I think it’s a collectible but I’d be interested to know what the children who are studying Sir Isaac Newton in the curriculum think of the coin.
If you could design another coin what would the subject be?
I would probably want to do a coin to celebrate a sport or an achievement, something that would be recognized in the sports industry. Aside from the 2012 Sporting Series, we haven’t made many sporting designs. Unfortunately, when I started working at The Royal Mint all of the designs for the Sporting Series had been finished, so I’d like to design something sport related next, or maybe something like Disney, those would be cool subjects to get into.
How did you feel when you find out your design had been chosen?
I was happy because my gamble paid off. I’m also really happy that it is going into circulation and that people are more likely to find it in their change – so it’s all quite exciting really.
A friend of mine, who I was in school with, is now a teacher and in school they do ‘coin of the week’ – the students find the coins and study the designs. One student who is also an avid collector found the Sir Isaac Newton coin, he was extremely happy. It’s a great feeling knowing people are out their collecting them and then looking at them in a bit more detail.
Have you found the Isaac Newton 50p on your Coin Hunt yet?
No I haven’t yet. I haven’t found the Great Fire of London £2 coin or the Sir Isaac Newton 50p yet so I need to keep on looking!
What has been the reaction to this whole experience from your friends and family?
I’ve had a great response from family and friends, people always say you don’t leave anything behind when you die so it’s good to know that you’re now a part of history, a piece of metal in your change. Overall the feedback has been good so I’m just waiting to see if they find them in their change.
The Sir Isaac Newton 50p coin is available to buy now, in Brilliant Uncirculated, Silver Proof, Silver Proof Piedfort and Gold Proof – it has also been released into circulation, look out for it on your #CoinHunt, if you find one, share your pictures with us on our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram!