Like Magic: The Tech That Goes Into Making Money Harder To Fake : All Tech Considered Imagine the Founding Fathers walking across the bills in your wallet. Like something out of Harry Potter, increasingly complex animation technology is being developed for use in paper currency.
NPR logo

Like Magic: The Tech That Goes Into Making Money Harder To Fake

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/559092168/559618481" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Like Magic: The Tech That Goes Into Making Money Harder To Fake

Like Magic: The Tech That Goes Into Making Money Harder To Fake

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/559092168/559618481" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now it's time for All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONEY PRINTING MACHINE)

SHAPIRO: That is the drumbeat of money being printed at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. And what is being printed on $100 bills these days is pretty amazing. Thanks to new technology, it may be only a matter of time before we look at Ben Franklin and he winks back. Reporter Allyson McCabe explains.

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: In 2005, shortly after earning a master's degree in electrical and computer engineering, Sam Cape responded to a mysterious help wanted ad. He didn't know much going into the interview, but what he saw blew his mind.

SAM CAPE: It was slid across the table to me during the interview. And I didn't know whether I could touch it, if it would shock me. I mean, it seemed like it was alive.

MCCABE: The object Cape held in his hand was a prototype of a technology he'd go on to develop as the R&D director for Massachusetts-based Crane Currency, which has produced the paper for U.S. bank notes since 1879. And since 2013, Cape's motion technology has been woven into every $100 bill.

CAPE: The motion technology uses tiny lenses that are about 23 microns in diameter. That means you can fit several of them, probably a dozen of them, on the tip of a human hair.

MCCABE: These lenses magnify underlying microimages to create an intriguing visual effect, sort of like a 3-D crackerjack prize.

CAPE: When you tilt the bank note left and right, the images go up and down. When you tilt the bank note up and down, the images go left and right. And we took that to the next level with the U.S. hundred because we also introduced an image that switches from the Liberty Bell to the numeral 100.

MCCABE: You can see this effect on a thin ribbon next to Ben Franklin's face. It's one of more than a dozen visual effects on the $100 bill. Cape says further refinements are in the pipeline for use here and abroad, and the technology is already in more than a hundred denominations worldwide.

CAPE: Right now we're in production on the even next-generation technology called surface. And this is going to allow for even larger images and more engaging three-dimensional effects.

MCCABE: More sophisticated animations may be possible, even games. But the Bureau of Engraving and Printing's director, Len Olijar, says the new technology serves a very practical purpose.

LEN OLIJAR: Today there are 12 billion $100 notes in circulation around the world. Our currency is really the world's currency to a significant degree. And we face counterfeiting threats on almost all of the continents right now. So we need to have a very robust set of security features.

MCCABE: Olijar says cutting-edge visual effects are hard to replicate and help to deter the bad guys.

OLIJAR: Less than one-hundredth of 1 percent of the notes in circulation are counterfeit.

MCCABE: He says one of the most effective security features is the paper itself. It's made of cotton and linen, and has a distinctive feel enhanced by a raised printing process. Olijar says paper currency offers security advantages over digital cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.

OLIJAR: I think United States currency has a very strong brand and that it is anonymous yet safe to use in transactions. And people hold it for a store of value. They know the United States currency is good today, good tomorrow and good forever.

MCCABE: Cape says he hopes to keep it that way for reasons both scientific and sentimental.

CAPE: You can always trade with paper currency no matter what technological snags you run up against. And it's just, you know, you're not going to slip a computer chip into your nephew's birthday card. I mean, something about having that cash pop out, you know, it's memorable.

MCCABE: Like a crackerjack prize, only more valuable. For NPR News, I'm Allyson McCabe.

(SOUNDBITE OF 9TH WONDER AND MURS SONG, "FUNERAL FOR A KILLER")

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.