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America's Money Technology Sucks

Why is our cash so ugly? Seriously. Even Canada has more advanced money than America!
April 24, 2013, 8:45pm
Images via Federal Reserve

With limited fanfare, the Federal Reserve announced the release date for the latest edition of $100 bills on Wednesday. This is a big deal. The latest update introduces a slew of new anti-counterfeiting measures, including a wild-looking 3D-security ribbon.

But that's not why this is a big deal. It's a big deal because the United States $100 bill with Benjamin Franklin's mug famously on the front is the most popular bank note in the world (by total value). As Quartz explains, the share of $100 bills in global currency has been on the rise for the past four decades and there are now over 820 million $100 bills in circulation around the world. This is why that wild-looking 3D-security ribbon better work.


But is a shiny little strip really the latest, greatest thing that America could do to thwart counterfeiters? The new design is extra ugly—at least for old fogies like me who grew up with greenbacks—so maybe the Secret Service is hoping that sick apricot-colored ink will scare counterfeiters away. It's also the latest in a series of upgrades that started with what we'll call the Big Ben edition. Those are the bills that came out in 1996 with the big portrait of Benjamin Franklin, introducing a design theme that's now been appled to the $5, $10, $20 and $50 bill. (Poor little $1 is stuck looking silly and outdated, like the smelly kid at school who's still wearing bootcut jeans. Meanwhile, rich old $50 bill looks like the kid who just went on vacation to Washington, DC, and came back with one of those "FBI" hats and too many cheesy American flag T-shirts.)

All that said, American money is getting more complex, at least from a security point of view. The two new security features on the $100 are really upgrades of old security features. Like the $100 bill before it, there's a security strip in the new note. The new strip is a little trippy, though. It displays a column of bells that transform into 100s when you tilt the bill back and forth, and it's woven into the paper of the bill, making it more difficult to counterfeit. There's a similarly trippy image of an inkwell with a bell inside to the right of Benjamin Frankin's portrait that changes colors when viewed from different angles.

There are other details, too. There is a second security strip that's more or less just like the one that already exists in big bills. The printing is more sophisticated and incorporates something called the "enhanced intaglio printing process." Long story short, it makes the ink around Benjamin Franklin feel rough to the touch. There some other familiar ink tricks like the color-changing "100" that we've seen on bills before and a new, super ugly yellow 100 on the back. There's a watermark that shows Benjamin Franklin's face if you hold the bill up to the light and some printing that should be hard to counterfeit.


But come on, America, can't we do better? The fact that our money gets uglier by the minute aside, we're still dealing with ink on paper, and as inkjet printers become more advanced, counterfeiters are going to figure out how to get around these security features. Remember: Counterfeit bills don't have to be perfect. They just have to be passable.

Other countries grok this notion. Australia is famous for its indestructible plastic cash. Almost thirty years ago, after a destructive bout with counterfeiting in the 1960s, the country introduced the first of its polymer-based bank notes. As the name implies, the bills are literally made of plastic, making them not only very difficult to replicate, but also virtually indestructible. Australia says the polymer bills last four times as long as paper. So by 1996, the year that the new Big Ben edition came out, all of Australia's bank notes were polymer bills. And Aussies have endless fun at bars, placing bets on who can rip an Australian bill in half. Do not engage in this game. You will lose.

No seriously, Australian cash will kick your ass. The innovation doesn't stop at the polymer base, a technology that Australia developed itself and has since exported to other countries. Nowadays, Australian bills more or less incorporate all of the same security features—watermark, microprinting, embossing, vignettes, etc.—and then some. They're produced using a printer called Super Simultan that prints both sides of the bill at once so that they line up perfectly. (Since conventional printers only do one side at a time, they often maligned making it easy to spot a fake.) There's also a little plastic window with the transparent image on it. Try to get your HP Inkjet to reproduce that.

Like I said before, the Australian technology is being picked up by other countries. Now everyone from Canada to New Zealand and Bermuda to Romania uses the technique. It's especially popular in tropical countries where paper deteriorates more quickly. The medium allows for some pretty creative and colorful outcomes, perhaps best showcased by Romania's bank notes:

Even Canada has more advanced money than America! That's right. Those hockey-playing, maple-syrup drinking, poutine-eating, friendly greeting-making Canucks have more futuristic dollar bills than we hard working Americans do.

None of this spells doom for the U.S. of A. In fact, there are surely plenty of cost-related reasons for America not to give the Australian polymer method a try. The simple fact that the $100 is the most popular bill in circulation suggests that to radically alter its design could be a really complicated endeavor.

So get used to the ugly new money. It's just like the ugly old money, but worth a little less, because financial crisis. Ultimately, you should consider yourself lucky to get your hands on the ugly new money. Plenty of people around the world would kill for a hundred dollar bill no matter what it looked like. (Remember that scene in Slumdog Millionaire?) So stop whining, rich boy.

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