Ben Franklin vs. the Counterfeiters

Wartime is always an opportunity for foes to flood rival economies with fake currency. Destabilizing a country’s finances can bring it to its knees pretty quickly—a contributor to the social disorder described in Michael C. Grumley’s new dystopian thriller set in the near future, Deep Freeze. The value of real money drops and inflation soars. The historical aspects of counterfeiting offer equal inspiration to authors.

In colonial times, when the country wasn’t even formed yet and faith in its future may have been a bit shaky, counterfeit money was a particular risk. Colonials preferred to rely on coinage—they could always give it the “bite test”—but when coins were in short supply, they would accept paper money more as an IOU, rather than final payment. Eventually, of course, paper money grew to be trusted and had intrinsic value. Demonstrating how seriously the legitimate currency producers took this issue, Franklin and other authorized producers often printed “to counterfeit is death” on the notes they produced. And, indeed, several Tories most responsible for distributing counterfeit bills were hanged.

This was before holograms, imbedded security strips, 3D security ribbons, microprinting, color-shifting inks, and before at least 18 countries adopted polymer plastic banknotes developed and printed in Australia. Nevertheless, printers such as Franklin (he was an inventor, after all) deployed a succession of new printing methods and materials to foil the criminals.

Earlier this week—on Franklin’s 318th birthday—the American Philosophical Society (founded by Franklin in Philadelphia) presented a talk by Khachatur Manukyan from the University of Notre Dame on Franklin’s innovations. He and his team in the Nuclear Science Laboratory have done detailed analyses of some 600 paper money notes, printed from 1709 to 1790 to identify Franklin’s methods. Of course, he didn’t have these scientific tools, but he certainly was aware of how to differentiate his currency from that of a common counterfeiter.

For a time, Franklin printed the skeleton of an actual leaf on the back side of his bills (sage, maple, parsley, for example). A leaf’s complex structure is hard to duplicate. He used deliberate misspellings and deployed natural graphite pigments and colored inks that differed from the darkness and composition of inks counterfeiters usually had available, and his inks may have been more stable in color over time. He developed the threads of color in the paper, watermarks, and grainy, translucent fillers, like powdered mica to establish a gloss. Some of his efforts also made the paper more durable. One of his bills just “felt” right. As his methods changed over time, counterfeiters were forced to keep innovating too.

Counterfeit “detectors” and a good eye helped colonists steer clear of bogus bills. Cashiers who run your $20 under a UV light are following a long, venerable tradition!

Skeletal leaf photo by Mark Longair and Ben Franklin photo by Ervins Strauhmanis; both with Creative Commons license 2.0 Generic licenses.

2 thoughts on “Ben Franklin vs. the Counterfeiters

  1. Ben Franklin was one of our greatest Founding Fathers. His visage graces our $100 bills today. Back when I was working a favorite technique of counterfeiters was to take a five dollar bill and soak it in a degreaser solution. This would erase the printing on the surface. The crooks would then use a computer to print the picture of a hundred dollar bill over the erased five. These bills looked authentic. However, the watermark of Abraham Lincoln’s face still remained on the altered currency. I once had to demonstrate this in court. I can’t think of two better “backups” than old Honest Abe and Ben Franklin.

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