Monday, October 31, 2005

Read This Weekend

I was fortunate to read some very interesting articles this weekend.

In this post, two articles from The American Heritage of Invention and Technology, which is the single most interesting magazine I've ever read.

First, an article on currency and how its physical characteristics have evolved as a response to counterfeiting ("Illegal Tender"). Here are a few pieces of information:
--the reason that coins have a raised circle stamped around them is a vestige from the days when coins were made of silver or gold. People routinely "clipped" silver or gold from the edge of the coin. When Isaac Newton (master of the Royal Mint) declared in 1704 that the standard weight of a Spanish "piece of eight" should be 17.5 pennyweight (about 27 grams), a New York sea captain noted "not one piece in a hundred weighs so much." The raised circle allowed detection of clipping.

Another technique to counteract clipping was known as "reeding" ( still used with the U.S. dime or quarter), where closely spaced parallel lines are inscribed on the edge).

--The U.S. financed the Revolutionary War with paper currency. The British counterfeited the bills in an attempt to undermine its value. In 1777 in New York City (still British occupied), newspapers offered "counterfeit Congress-Notes for the Price of the Paper per Ream."

Counterfeiting was also heavily used by the Germans in WWII in an attempt to devalue the British pound.

--In 1862 the New York Times estimated that 80 percent of banknotes in circulation were forgeries. Even conservative estimates placed the number at over 30 percent.

--The U.S. government begin issuing paper currency for the first time in 80 years during the Civil War. Portraits were used on the bills because we immediately identify the accuracy of faces with a high degree of precision. The bills used black ink in front and green in the back. That's why they were called "greenbacks."

--The Secret Service, which was founded in 1865, came into existence as an organization to fight counterfeiting.

--The first technology that was widely used to improve the quality of counterfeit currency was photography.

--Today it's estimated that almost 75% of counterfeit American currency is created outside the U.S.

--Counterfeiting is also unfortunately the reason that some color printers include a code in microdots on every printed document that can be used to identify the printer. [Formerly the code was just decipherable by the Secret Service, but I saw an article a few weeks ago that said it had been decrypted externally]

--If you've seen a merchant use a pen to mark incoming bills from customers, it's probably an iodine pen. Iodine turns the starch in regular paper black, but the actual paper used to print official currency has no starch.

--We may have plastic currency at some point in the future. Australia has used plastic currency since 1988.

That's just a small sample of what's in the article. I knew that currency design changed in response to counterfeiters, but I didn't realize it was the dominant reason it changed (and continues to change) until reading this article.

Second, and this is a real doozy, I found out that the U.S. at one time had an atomic cannon.

I know. Those two words surprised me as much as they probably did you.

It was only fired once, as a test, but the Army built a cannon capable of firing an atomic shell called the T-124, a compact version of the Hiroshima bomb.

The size of the cannon was incredible--85 feet long and 85 tons. It was so large that two transporter vehicles had to be used with the cannon on a platform between them. The shell required a 280mm (11-inch) cannon, but the Army had nothing with a muzzle that large, so they built one based on the German "Slim Bertha" 280mm cannon.

That's all bizarre enough, but it gets even stranger. This was during the Korean War, and Eisenhower decided that high-profile nuclear tests would put pressure on the Communists. So they announced these tests and it became a big tourist attraction, incredibly. Las Vegas promoted it as a great vacation idea--come to Vegas and see a nuclear test. Here's a description of some of the advertising:
One brochure featured a man, a woman, two children, and a dog standing beside a station wagon and pointing with glee at a mushroom cloud rising in the background.

Surreal. And you know I'd like to get my hands on one of those brochures.

The atomic cannon test was one of the tests in this series, and it did fire successfully (the propellant charge was 150 pounds) and detonate at the target site. On May 25, 1953.

Twenty of these cannons were made, but none were ever used in battle. And believe it or not, a few are still around. The actual cannon used in the atomic test is at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Another is just outside Fort Riley, Kansas, and a third is on display at the Army Ordnance Museum in Aberdeen, Maryland.

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