Unveiling Benjamin Franklin’s Innovations in Anti-Counterfeiting Measures for Colonial Currency

by Liam O'Connor
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Benjamin Franklin's Anti-Counterfeiting Innovations

A team of researchers from the University of Notre Dame has shed light on Benjamin Franklin’s pioneering methods of anti-counterfeiting in the printing of money during the Colonial period. These findings come courtesy of an intensive study, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Photo Credit: Barbara Johnston / University of Notre Dame

Cutting-edge techniques in physics have offered an unprecedented view into the nascent stages of monetary systems in early America.

While Benjamin Franklin is widely recognized for his contributions like the invention of bifocals and the lightning rod, this research suggests that his ingenuity in money printing should not go overlooked. Throughout his career, Franklin printed approximately 2.5 million currency notes for the American Colonies using notably original methods.

The Complexity of Colonial Currency and the Risk of Forgery

Spearheaded by Khachatur Manukyan, an associate research professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, the research group has dedicated seven years to analyzing almost 600 currency notes from the Colonial era. These notes are part of a broader collection housed at the Hesburgh Libraries’ Rare Books and Special Collections. The collection spans 80 years and includes currency notes not only from Franklin’s network of printing establishments but also from other sources and a series of counterfeit bills.

Manukyan emphasized that Franklin was driven to print money not merely in his capacity as a printer but also as a statesman concerned with the Colonies’ financial and, consequently, political independence. He stated, “The Colonies’ economic independence was crucial for their political sovereignty. A large amount of the gold and silver coins imported to the British American colonies were quickly expended on overseas-manufactured goods, thereby depleting the Colonies’ monetary reserves essential for economic expansion.”

Analyzing Franklin’s Unique Features Through Advanced Technology

The team employed state-of-the-art spectroscopic and imaging equipment to closely examine the specific materials—inks, paper, and fibers—that set Franklin’s bills apart from counterfeits. Photo Credit: Barbara Johnston / University of Notre Dame

One persistent challenge of the era was the constant threat of counterfeiting. Franklin had to innovate security features to make his bills distinctive and less vulnerable to forgery. Manukyan noted, “To ensure the bills remained reliable, Franklin had to be continually innovative, as his ledger detailing these printing methods has been lost.”

Chemical Insights into Franklin’s Anti-Counterfeiting Methods

Manukyan and his researchers used advanced instruments available at various Notre Dame research facilities to identify the unique elements of Franklin’s printing methods. One major revelation was that Franklin’s genuine bills contained minimal traces of calcium and phosphorus, in contrast to the counterfeit bills, which had significant amounts of these elements. Moreover, the team discovered that while Franklin generally used “lamp black,” a pigment obtained from burning vegetable oils, for most of his printing tasks, his currency notes employed a special black dye made from rock-sourced graphite.

Innovations in Paper Technology

An unexpected finding was Franklin’s early use of embedded colored silks in his paper, a technique later commonly attributed to paper manufacturer Zenas Marshall Crane in 1844. Additionally, they identified a translucent substance known as muscovite in Franklin’s papers, the quantities of which increased over time. The researchers believe that this material was initially added for durability and later served as a counterfeiting deterrent.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration and Challenges

The project required an unusual level of interdisciplinary cooperation, combining expertise in physics, history, and art conservation. Manukyan acknowledged that working with such rare and sensitive materials presented unique challenges but underscored the invaluable contributions of interdisciplinary collaboration to their groundbreaking discoveries.

This study was financially supported by an internal grant from Notre Dame Research. The project’s research team comprised individuals from diverse academic backgrounds, including physics, chemistry, finance, and art conservation.

Reference: The study, titled “Multiscale analysis of Benjamin Franklin’s innovations in American paper money,” was published on 17 July 2023 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2301856120.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Benjamin Franklin’s Anti-Counterfeiting Innovations

What is the primary focus of the research conducted by the University of Notre Dame?

The research primarily focuses on uncovering Benjamin Franklin’s innovative anti-counterfeiting methods used in printing Colonial American currency. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and used cutting-edge physics techniques to analyze historical notes.

Who led the research team?

The research team was led by Khachatur Manukyan, an associate research professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Notre Dame.

What specific methods did Benjamin Franklin employ to prevent counterfeiting?

Franklin used unique pigments, specialized black dye made from graphite, and innovative paper materials like embedded colored silks and a translucent substance known as muscovite to make the bills hard to counterfeit.

How many Colonial-era currency notes were analyzed in this study?

The research team spent seven years analyzing a trove of nearly 600 notes from the Colonial period, which is part of an extensive collection developed by the Hesburgh Libraries’ Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Notre Dame.

What challenges did the research team face?

Working with rare and archival materials posed special challenges, requiring an uncommon level of interdisciplinary collaboration involving fields such as physics, history, and art conservation. Handling these sensitive and sometimes one-of-a-kind materials required extreme care.

Was Benjamin Franklin solely a printer in this endeavor?

No, Franklin was not solely a printer in this effort. He was motivated by the broader goal of ensuring the financial and political independence of the American Colonies. Franklin saw the creation of a reliable and stable monetary system as essential for the Colonies’ economic and political sovereignty.

What were the findings related to the chemical composition of Franklin’s bills?

The team found that the genuine bills had minimal traces of calcium and phosphorus, unlike counterfeit bills that contained high amounts of these elements. Franklin’s printed currency used a special black dye made from graphite, which was different from the common “lamp black” pigment obtained from burning vegetable oils.

What novel technologies were employed in this research?

State-of-the-art spectroscopic and imaging instruments were used, housed in various Notre Dame research facilities including the Nuclear Science Laboratory, the Center for Environmental Science and Technology, the Integrated Imaging Facility, the Materials Characterization Facility, and the Molecular Structure Facility.

Is this the first time that Franklin’s contributions to anti-counterfeiting have been explored?

While Benjamin Franklin is better known for other inventions like bifocals and the lightning rod, this research serves to highlight his lesser-known but equally significant contributions to anti-counterfeiting measures in money printing.

Who funded the research project?

The research project was financially supported by an internal grant from Notre Dame Research.

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