May 24, 2024

Benjamin Franklin put early anti-counterfeiting measures into paper money

A colonial currency note issued by New Jersey in 1763

Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

US founding father Benjamin Franklin developed paper money innovations long before earlier historians thought such methods were in use – and may even have been used as anti-counterfeiting measures.

Khachatur Manukyan at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and his colleagues analyzed the structure and chemical composition of more than 600 banknotes printed by Franklin and his associates between 1709 and 1790. For comparison, they performed similar analyzes on paper money printed by printers and other counterfeiters.

They found that Franklin and his associates began adding indigo-dyed blue fibers and threads to paper money as early as 1739—more than a century before the invention traditionally credited to paper manufacturer Zenas Marshall Crane. For the first time, the study also showed that Franklin used a natural graphite-based black ink to print money, whereas other printers and counterfeiters at the time relied more on inks produced by burning vegetable oils or hunting bones.

“This [coloured fibre] later techniques were used to print federal dollars, and then in other currencies around the world,” says Manukyan.

The researchers examined the chemical composition of the inks, fibers and paper used in Franklin’s printing processes. They also used electron microscopes to study in detail the physical structure of printed bank notes – which a process that required researchers to extract and examine paper silver samples hundreds of times thinner than a human hair. They used such small samples to avoid unnecessary damage to the historical artifacts, says Manukyan.

The analysis also revealed that Franklin incorporated flakes of the translucent mineral muscivite into paper pulp as a way to strengthen the durability of paper money as early as 1754.

The results “add well to Franklin’s practical scientific summary of achievements”, he says Farley Grubbeconomist at the University of Delaware and author of The Continental Dollar: How the American revolution was financed with paper money.

But Grubb is more skeptical of the idea that these ink and paper innovations were intended to help prevent counterfeiting. He described colonial America as having more cases of people counterfeiting coins instead of paper money, and says that large-scale counterfeiting of paper money was “rare” at the time.

The most notable attempt at counterfeiting came during the revolutionary war in America, when the British copied and mass-produced the Continental dollar issued by the Continental Congress as “a new kind of state-to-state warfare”, says Grubb. But he says that Congress remembered and the bills were put in question instead.

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