Wednesday, April 21, 2010
As the U.S. government debuts a new $100 bill on Apr. 21 — this one will be redesigned to ward against digital copying and counterfeiting — TIME traces the history of banknotes from ancient China to modern cocaine dens. Here are 10 tidbits about money that may surprise you
Measuring in at roughly the size of a sheet of legal paper, the world's largest single banknote is the 100,000-peso note created by the government of the Philippines in 1998. Designed to celebrate a century of independence from Spanish rule, the note was offered only to collectors, who could purchase one of the limited-edition notes for 180,000 pesos, or about $3,700.
The largest banknote ever issued by the Bank of England was the £1,000,000 note, issued in 1948 as a temporary measure during the postwar reconstruction in the Marshall Plan. Designed for use by the U.S. government only, the notes were canceled after just a few months, allowing very few to escape into private hands. But just because the notes are out of service doesn't mean they're valueless — in 2008, one of two known surviving notes fetched almost $120,000 at auction.
It might just be the best idea to come to a man in the bathtub since Archimedes' time. While taking a soak, inventor John Shepherd-Barron devised what is hailed as the world's first automatic teller machine, although his claim to the title is a matter of dispute. He pitched the device to the British bank Barclays. It accepted immediately, and the first model was built and installed in London in 1967. Though the machine used PIN (personal identification number) codes, a concept Shepherd-Barron also claims to have invented, it was dependent on checks impregnated with the (slightly) radioactive isotope carbon 14 to initiate a withdrawal, as the magnetic coding for ATM cards had not yet been developed. One other difference from its ubiquitous modern counterpart: it didn't charge a fee.
No one knows the origin of the dollar sign, but the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing has a pretty good guess. The government agency responsible for designing and printing all those crisp dollar bills says the design, originally used to denote Spanish and Mexican pesos, "P S ," came to be written such that the S was on top of the the P. The symbol was widely used before the 1875 issue of the first U.S. paper dollar. And in case you never noticed, it doesn't actually appear on U.S. currency at all.
All bills eventually wear out. The smaller the value, the more often you use it — and the shorter its lifespan. A $1 bill lasts a measly 21 months, while a Ben Franklin can last more than seven years. Over that time, of course, owing to inflation, its value will decline — which is the perfect excuse to spend it quickly.
Following the Civil War, counterfeit currency became such a rampant problem in the U.S. — more than a third of all bills were believed to be fakes — that the government was forced to act. In 1865, a special division of the Treasury Department was created to crack down on counterfeiting before it completely undermined the nation's economic system. That agency still fights bogus money today, but it's better known for its dark-suited agents and intimidating SUVs — it's the United States Secret Service, which also protects the President and other top political leaders. President Abraham Lincoln authorized the Secret Service on April 14, 1865 (ironically, the day he was assassinated at Ford's Theater); its mission expanded to full-time presidential protection following the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. The 6,500-person agency was moved to the newly established Department of Homeland Security in 2002.
From Australia to Trinidad and Tobago, Queen Elizabeth II's portrait has graced the currencies of 33 different countries — more than that of any other individual. Canada was the first to use the British monarch's image, in 1935, when it printed the 9-year-old Princess on its $20 notes. Over the years, 26 different portraits of Elizabeth have been used in the U.K. and its current and former colonies, dominions and territories — most of which were commissioned with the direct purpose of putting them on banknotes. However, some countries, such as Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Malta and Fiji, used already existing portraits. The Queen is frequently shown in formal crown-and-scepter attire, although Canada and Australia prefer to depict her in a plain dress and pearls. And while many countries update their currencies to reflect the Queen's advancing age, others enjoy keeping her young. When Belize redesigned its currency in 1980, it selected a portrait that was already 20 years old.
All money, it turns out, could stand to be laundered: the stuff is filthy. Studies show that a solid majority of U.S. bills are contaminated by cocaine. Drug traffickers often use coke-sullied hands to move cash, and many users roll bills into sniffing straws; the brushes and rollers in ATMs may distribute the nose candy through the rest of the money supply.
(See the top 10 athlete drug busts.)
Also found on bills: fecal matter. A 2002 report in the Southern Medical Journal showed found pathogens — including staphylococcus — on 94% of dollar bills tested. Paper money can reportedly carry more germs than a household toilet. And bills are a hospitable environment for gross microbes: viruses and bacteria can live on most surfaces for about 48 hours, but paper money can reportedly transport a live flu virus for up to 17 days. It's enough to make you switch to credit.
To deal with hyperinflation that reached the ludicrous level of 231 million % and saw the price for a loaf of bread hit 300 billion Zimbabwean dollars, Zimbabwe's newly formed unity government — including bitter opponents President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai — issued a $100 trillion note in early January. (One hundred trillion, by the way, is a 1 with 14 zeroes — making the note the highest denomination in the world.)
Just weeks later, however, the leaders decided to back-burner the hugely devalued Zimbabwean dollar and began allowing people to do business in other currencies. The move managed to curb inflation for several months until a small uptick in July. One hopes some of those $100 trillion notes didn't get spent all in one place.
Paper bills were first used by the Chinese, who started carrying folding money during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) — mostly in the form of privately issued bills of credit or exchange notes — and used it for more than 500 years before the practice began to catch on in Europe in the 17th century. While it took another century or two for paper money to spread to the rest of the world, China was already going through a fairly advanced financial crisis: the production of paper notes had grown until their value plummeted, prompting inflation to soar. As a result, China eliminated paper money entirely in 1455 and wouldn't adopt it again for several hundred years. Another not-so-well-known fact: the word cash was originally used to describe the type of round bronze coins with square holes commonly used in the Tang Dynasty, called kai-yuans.