Today, we make money.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Money is such strange stuff -- only an emblem of
our real desires, yet worthless of itself. We get into such trouble
when we lose sight of goods and services, and reach instead for their
emblem. The machinations that brought Enron down reminded us that
only the goods really matter.
Think of all the ways people seek to gain money without doing material good.
Maybe the most honest among them are the counterfeiters. For they, at least,
do not fool themselves.
Counterfeiting has been with us just about as long as money has. Writer Jack
Kelly looks at counterfeiting in America and finds it going on when the medium
of exchange was still wampum.
England punished seventeenth-century counterfeiters by exiling them to America.
Small wonder we find Colonists giving fake coins to Indians and getting back
wampum with the cheap white beads dyed to look like valuable black ones.
Counterfeiting was a two-way scam. In the eighteenth century, the Colonists
imposed draconian penalties for counterfeiting -- branding, cutting off an ear,
life in prison.
Ben Franklin worked for a while at the business of printing money. Ever one with
new ways to skin old cats, he devised a method for thwarting counterfeiters. He
had secret means for capturing the image of a particular leaf -- its veins as
distinctive as a fingerprint -- and including it on the printed bill. Kelly
wonders if he might have outsmarted himself.
To spot a fake bill, stamped with a singular tree leaf upon it, you have to compare
it with a valid bill. Most of the time, the eye reads over that kind of filigreed
detail. But not always! Passing fake bills without getting caught was then, as
it is now, as hard a part of the crime as making fake money was in the first place.
One nineteenth-century technique was for two people to set out -- a shover
and a follower. The follower carried a wad of fake bills. The shover kept
only one fake in his wallet. He'd pass it at a store, and if he was caught, he could
protest his innocence, since the rest of his money was real. Every time he unloaded
a bill, the follower would slip him one more for the next store.
Throughout the history of our country, counterfeiting and coun-termeasures have improved
in a steady rhythm with one another. When I was a child, it was illegal to photograph
money. Actors had to use fake money in movies. Now the complexity of both making and
faking money goes far beyond simple photography. A fifty-dollar bill is a minefield of
embedded traps for counterfeiters. But, like Franklin's embedded leaves, we have to be
alert enough to read them.
So people keep seeking the symbol of goods without providing goods. Kelley tells how the
British tried to wreck the Colonies during the Revolution by circulating huge sums of fake
money. Counterfeiters are still out there today, but now fake electronic money, far more
than with fake paper, does the greater wreckage.
And we still look for the form of money which, as Joris Karl Huysmans wrote in 1884, like
the perfume of the "inimitable jasmine ... is impossible to counterfeit."
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
J. Kelly, Illegal Tender: How Technology has Always Helped Counterfeiters -- and Their Opponents.
Invention & Technology, Summer 2005, pg. 20-29.
A minefield of anti-counterfeiter measures: A delicate rainbow of colors, hidden flags and watermarks,
a numeral in the lower right that changes color when you tilt the bill in the light. Anyone skilled enough
to counterfeit such bills could cetainly obtain them more effectively in exchange for productive work.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H.