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The Art and Technology of the New $100 Bill

By Wesley Fenlon

Amazing technology may make the $100 bill very difficult to counterfeit, but the art that went into its design is no less impressive.

There's a new $100 bill on the streets, and Benjamin Franklin is no longer the star of the show. Franklin's face still adorns the note, bigger than ever, but the blue vertical stripe next to his head is what first grabs your eye, and it's what will, supposedly, make the new $100 bill impossible to counterfeit. In a lengthy and fascinating feature on the creation of the bill, Esquire's Chris Jones writes that only a single company in the world can create that counterfeit-proof stripe. That company is Crane & Co., located in Dalton, Massachussettes. The Crane family has been making the paper--cotton and linen--for American money since 1879.

The new bill's security ribbon "was invented by a small Georgia company by the name of Visual Physics, which gave a hint about its product, or at least the idea behind it: the microscopic interplay of light and the human eye," writes Jones. "[Doug Crane] has advanced degrees in paper science and biomedical engineering, and he is fiercely protective of his family's legacy. After Visual Physics paid a visit, Crane & Co. bought the company and every scrap of its intellectual property, effectively trapping its ribbon in this redbrick mill."

Peer closely at the ribbon, and you'll see small images--100s and liberty bells, floating in a sea of blue. And when you move the bill, the images move, too, but not in the way you'd expect. Tilt it side-to-side, and they shift up and down. Tilt it up and down, and they shift side-to-side.

"The ribbon itself is a collection of microscopic lenses, like the pixels on your TV, but much, much smaller," Jones writes. "On a single note, the quarter-inch-wide ribbon contains 875,000 of those lenses. When they catch the light, they magnify the icons — the 100's and the Liberty Bells — that have been printed on the ribbon beneath them. That printing is among the smallest accomplished in the history of the world. If, instead of symbols, Crane wanted to magnify text, the font would be small enough to print the entire Bible on the surface of a single dime — twice."

The movement of the objects within the ribbon will, hopefully, make it virtually impossible to counterfeit. Just as importantly, it will make attempted fakes easier to spot for the average person. If there's no movement within the ribbon catching your eye, something's wrong.

An engraver will spend months carving Thompson's drawings into a metal plate. And that engraved plate will eventually be used to create printing plates to press money.

Amazingly, that ribbon isn't inserted into the paper of the bill. The paper is created around it, in one of the many secretive processes involved in printing money. Other elements of the bill designed to prevent counterfeiting are detailed in a cool visual guide to the bill.

The rest of Esquire's article covers the artistry of designing a bill and all the complications of the creative process, and each step along the way takes an immense amount of care and dedication. For example, the designer of the bill, Brian Thompson, began working at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing at the age of 19. He had no training in currency design. He worked as an apprentice for years, hand-lettering the font on bills with incredible precision. And he mastered the skills necessary to draw and shade the figures and objects on bills. Twenty four years after joining the Bureau, he's designed his own bill.

And the artistry doesn't stop there--an engraver will spend months carving Thompson's drawings into a metal plate. And that engraved plate will eventually be used to create printing plates, and, finally, those plates will be used to press money. But that's the short version. The long version is much cooler.