Benjamin Franklin’s Contribution to the Development of the US Dollar: Combating Counterfeiters

by Andrew Wright

In addition to his numerous accomplishments as an inventor, publisher, scientist, diplomat, and founding father of the United States, Benjamin Franklin made a significant contribution that often goes unnoticed – his pioneering efforts in printing colonial paper currency, aimed at countering the persistent threat of counterfeiting.

Franklin, an early innovator in printing techniques, employed colored threads, watermarks, and imprints of natural objects like leaves to make it exceptionally difficult for others to produce counterfeit versions of his paper bills. Recently, a team of researchers at the University of Notre Dame has shed new light on Franklin’s methods through advanced scanning techniques, uncovering greater details and providing another reason why Franklin’s portrait adorns the $100 bill.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the recent research describes the use of spectroscopy, fluorescence tests, and electron microscopes to gather data. These techniques employ light to identify elements such as carbon, calcium, and potassium in the test samples, while electron microscopes enable the imaging of fine details.

The primary objective, according to lead author Khachatur Manukyan, an associate professor of physics at Notre Dame, was to gain insight into the materials Franklin and his network of affiliated printers used, as well as understand how these materials helped distinguish their bills from inferior counterfeits.

“Our goal was to decipher the types of materials they used,” Manukyan explained in an interview. “During the process, we discovered some intriguing differences between this currency and bills from other printers.”

The researchers examined Franklin’s innovative use of watermarks, indigo-dyed threads, and fillers made of special crystals in his printed bills. These elements served as barriers against counterfeiters. Franklin also employed the technique of “nature printing,” which involved transferring detailed vein patterns of tree leaves onto printing plates.

These techniques created significant obstacles for would-be counterfeiters. Counterfeiters typically aimed to minimize costs, thus hesitating to invest in improving their own printing methods. Franklin’s fillers enhanced the durability of the bills, extending their lifespan compared to the cheaper paper favored by criminals. The addition of dyed threads further complicated the production process for counterfeiters.

Moreover, Franklin’s nature-printed images featured intricate details that posed significant challenges for less skilled printers attempting to replicate them.

The research also revealed that Franklin developed his own ink based on graphite, diverging from competing printers who primarily used ink derived from “boneblack,” a substance similar to charcoal produced by heating animal bones at high temperatures in oxygen-restricted kilns. The significance of Franklin’s graphite-based ink requires further investigation.

However, during the Revolutionary War, counterfeiting proliferated, with a considerable portion allegedly attributed to the British Army. As a result, the subsequent U.S. government refrained from using paper currency for several decades, opting instead for coinage. It wasn’t until the onset of the Civil War in 1861 that the federal government authorized the printing of dollar bills, known as “greenbacks.”

The early U.S. banknotes incorporated several features, including colored threads, which remain in use today in a more contemporary form. Present-day U.S. currency, particularly bills with denominations of $5 or higher, features an embedded “security thread” that fluoresces under ultraviolet light.

This story has been updated to correct the name of the University of Notre Dame.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about counterfeiting

What were Benjamin Franklin’s contributions to preventing counterfeiting?

Benjamin Franklin made significant contributions to preventing counterfeiting through his innovative printing techniques. He employed colored threads, watermarks, and imprints of natural objects like leaves to make it difficult for counterfeiters to replicate his paper bills. Franklin’s use of fillers, nature printing, and his own graphite-based ink further enhanced the security features of the currency.

How did Benjamin Franklin’s methods differ from other printers?

Benjamin Franklin’s methods of preventing counterfeiting differed from other printers of his time. He utilized watermarks, indigo-dyed threads, and fillers made of special crystals in his bills. He also employed nature printing, which involved transferring detailed vein patterns of tree leaves onto printing plates. These techniques created intricate details that were challenging for less skilled printers to replicate, setting Franklin’s bills apart from cheaper counterfeit copies.

What materials did Benjamin Franklin use in his currency?

Benjamin Franklin utilized a combination of materials to enhance the security of his currency. He employed watermarks, indigo-dyed threads, and fillers made of special crystals. Additionally, Franklin developed his own graphite-based ink, distinguishing it from the ink used by other printers that was derived from “boneblack,” a charcoal-like substance produced by heating animal bones. The specific significance of Franklin’s graphite-based ink is still subject to further study.

How did Benjamin Franklin’s efforts influence modern currency?

Benjamin Franklin’s pioneering efforts in combating counterfeiting and improving currency security had a lasting impact on modern currency. His use of colored threads, watermarks, and other security features set a precedent for incorporating intricate elements in banknotes. Many of these features, including colored threads, are still present in modern currency, albeit in more advanced forms. Franklin’s innovations laid the groundwork for subsequent advancements in currency security and anti-counterfeiting measures.

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CuriousReader23 July 18, 2023 - 11:16 am

wow, the sciency stuff they did at Notre Dame to figure out franklin’s secrets is mind-blowing. like spectroscopy and fluorescence and microscopes, whoa! it’s like a detective story but with old money!

MoneyMogul42 July 18, 2023 - 11:50 am

the struggle against counterfeiters is real, even back then. franklin was a genius with all those fancy tricks and fillers. and the brits were sneaky with their fake money during the war, no wonder paper bills were out for a while!

FranklinFan87 July 18, 2023 - 6:00 pm

benjamin franklin was such a smart guy, i always forget all the cool stuff he did. i mean, he printed money that was really hard to fake, who knew? and now his face is on the $100 bill. amazing!

HistoryNerd99 July 18, 2023 - 11:56 pm

i didn’t know that franklin used threads and leaves and stuff in his money. that’s like nature art mixed with printing. and he made his own ink too, wonder why? so interesting!

TriviaLover76 July 19, 2023 - 6:36 am

the fact that they still use colored threads in money today is pretty cool. but now it’s all high-tech with uv lights and security threads. wonder what benjamin franklin would think of our money now?


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