Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2003:
COUNTERFEIT

by John H. Lienhard

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 work.

(Theme music)


J. Kelly, Illegal Tender: How Technology has Always Helped Counterfeiters -- and Their Opponents. Invention & Technology, Summer 2005, pg. 20-29.

Almost counterfeit-proof $20 bill
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. Lienhard.