The remarkable story of the world’s first ever financial crash on its 300th anniversary

Money for Nothing

The South Sea Bubble and the Invention of Modern Capitalism

By Thomas Levenson

Published 3rd September 2020  Hardback £20.00  ISBN 9781784973940

The South Sea Company was formed to monopolize trade with Spain’s American colonies. But it had almost no ships and did precious little trade. So it turned its hand to playing money games, until, in 1720, it launched the first great stock market boom, fraud and bust, in what is now remembered as the South Sea Bubble.  The financial engineering pioneered in the Bubble didn’t go away. Instead, it evolved into the same kinds of market manipulation that brought the world’s economy crashing down in 2008.

In the moment, though, it all seemed to work brilliantly. Exactly 300 years ago, in June 1720, South Sea shares hit their peak, a ten-fold gain. Britain’s punters—up to and including the King’s mistresses—had grown incredibly, impossibly rich—on paper. And then the carousel stopped and thousands lost their shirts. Isaac Newton, the Duke of Portland (England’s richest man) and others lost heavily.

Tom Levenson’s superb account of the South Sea bubble dissects that huge scam—but that tale isn’t just a disaster story.  It is also the story of the birth of modern financial capitalism: the idea that you can invest in future prosperity and that governments can borrow money to make things happen, like funding the rise of British naval and mercantile power. These dreamers and fraudsters may have ruined Britons, but they made the world rich.

For further information please contact Amelia Knight, Midas PR Tel: 07771 791 210/020 7361 7860    Email: [email protected]


Thomas Levenson is the author of Newton and the Counterfeiter, a bestselling book about Isaac Newton’s time as Master of the Royal Mint. He published The Hunt for Vulcan in 2016, a book shortlisted for the Science Book Prize. He is a Professor of Science Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a frequent visitor to London.

Praise for The Hunt for Vulcan: “Levenson’s style gives life to each of the episodes of his story with good humour and a lightness of touch” Times Literary Supplement

“His impressive talents as a good old-fashioned storyteller […] provoke such a sense of narrative excitement. He’s a thoroughly user-friendly explicator of the more abstruse notions of theoretical physics and relativity theory” The Sunday Times

“A charming tale about an all-but-forgotten episode in science history. It might document a planetary snipe hunt, but the delights found along the way are real enough.” The Wall Street Journal

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