While countries – including Singapore with our Smart Nation initiative – are moving towards an increasingly cashless future, the traditional dollar bill still holds much value in more ways than one.
Before it started taking the form of multi-coloured notes crammed with historic images, serial numbers and holograms, it was a simpler piece of paper detailing the amount of money a private party owes the recipient.
Go further back in history, and you’ll discover that people used to trade and barter, exchanging items to purchase others. Many societies used animals (cows, especially), a practice that remains a reality for certain parts of Africa such as South Sudan.
China saw a time when trading weapons was popular, but they eventually traded them for coins – an object that isn’t as capable of drawing blood as its forerunner.
Believed to be the first country to use paper money, China started issuing them privately in the Tang Dynasty. Europe only adopted this practice in the 17th century, before the rest of the world caught on as well.
It has since evolved from mere commodities into collector’s items. The Central Bank of Malaysia, for instance, conceived of the world’s largest banknote in December 2017. Measuring at 22cm by 37cm, the bill (which is worth 600 Malaysian ringgit) was unveiled to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Federation of Malaya Independence Agreement.
Image Source: lunaticg blogspot
For some, the everyday banknote can be considered as a form of art as well, with the illustrations and images included in its design. Not to mention, they differ in each country.
In the States, they’re known for featuring past presidents in green with the words, “In God We Trust”. In Zimbabwe, they once printed banknotes with the highest denominations in the world (up to one hundred trillion dollars) – it’s the most number of 0s you’ll see on any note. Antarctica is home to the most beautiful banknotes, despite not being legal tender and only made as collectibles.
Some cities even have their own currencies, from Detroit’s $3 bills to the local pounds of Totnes, a town in England, where the local banknotes used to be simple, white and glossy with a font that bears a dangerous semblance to Papyrus.
Beyond the surface allure, our banknotes have come a long way in technological developments as well, all in the name of security. Before, criminals could get away with printing counterfeits for long periods of time without being caught. These days, if one were to commit such a crime, you’d need to invest thousands of hours and dollars to recreate a believable stack of faux money.
This is because of the many layers of security features in a bill. The canvas on which the banknotes are printed is, for one, no ordinary piece of paper that you can buy from your regular stationery store. It is usually made of cotton, which is sometimes mixed with other materials such as linen and polymers.
These types of paper are made from scratch in exclusive paper mills, using recipes that are kept under lock and key. The ink used is also unique – some change colour when viewed at an angle, and some are only visible under UV light.
The watermarks on a banknote aren’t simply printed over the paper either, but formed within the sheet by manipulating its thickness. Giving off a positive-negative effect, they produce a distinct, 3D look when held against a light. Besides that, most modern banknotes also include raised prints, engravings and metal or plastic security threads.
1.Australia’s $5 Bills
Image Source: ZMEscience
Perhaps the country that takes the cakes with the most high-tech banknotes in the globe is the land down under – Australia. After all, they were the first to adopt polymer notes in 1988. Today, their humble $5 bill is a cornucopia of security gems.
One of the first things you’ll see on its polymer surface is a transparent window that runs from the top straight down to the bottom, creating a large slit. And inside this window are several thrilling elements such as a 3D septogram with a coloured border, an eastern spinebill that changes colour and moves its wings, and a building with a number that changes direction (it disappears during the transition between facing forwards and backwards).
It also features a rolling colour effect, microtexts, and technicolour patterns with fine lines printed in multiple directions. Shine a UV light on it, and the bird, serial number and year on the bill will glow.
2. America’s $100 Bills
Image Source: DailyMail
Issued in 2013, these paper bills have stuck to the traditional blend of cotton and linen. But they’re no less advanced. Ditching the old green stacks, the US$100 banknotes have upgraded to include intaglio printing techniques for that rough tactile element, microtexts within two images and the watermark, and colour-changing features.
The front of the note, for instance, displays an inkwell with a representation of the Liberty Bell inside it. Tilting the bill changes the bell’s colour from copper to green. The same thing happens with the copper “100” symbol beside it.
When held up to a light, the banknote reveals a thin embedded security strip (which glows pink under UV light) to the left of Benjamin Franklin’s likeness, as well as a watermark of his face in the white space to the right.
The pièce de résistance, however, goes to the blue 3D security ribbon that’s woven into the middle of the bill. Consisting of hundreds of thousands of micro-lenses, it features tiny holograms of the “100” numeral that turn into bells – they even move around the strip as you tilt the bill.
Image Source: worldatlas
While Australia’s notes are all polymer and America’s are all paper, Singapore stands between them with the best of both worlds. Most of our denominations have embraced the polymer trend, except for the $50 note. Still, they’re all armed with state-of-the-art elements.
They both have intaglio texts and images, microprints, invisible details (only evident under UV light), and motion-triggered optical illusions. The more commonly used polymer notes include shadow images, two see-through windows (one of which is embossed with its denomination), and a security thread shaped like the outline of the Singapore island.
Our $50 paper notes, on the other hand, include more complex hidden images, and anti-colour copying line structures. Its silver security ribbon looks broken up into dashes on the surface, but appears as a continuous line with a series of text when held against a light. On its own, it features holograms of the Singapore lion and the logo of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.
Polymer vs Paper
Image Source: Medium
It seems that polymer bills are getting more popular with 23 countries hopping onto the bandwagon as of 2011 – and it’s easy to see why. Despite being more expensive to print, plastic banknotes have a longer lifespan. They don’t crease or tear easily; they are resistant to dirt and moisture; and they are recyclable.
But is it really more secure than paper? Well, it used to be. Counterfeiters are slowly catching up, and finding new, affordable ways to reproduce plastic cash. The most recent country to come under attack? Australia.
Perhaps the answer isn’t to choose between the two, but to merge them, creating hybrid bills with features unique to both materials. Paper notes with polymer windows, or polymer notes with paper security ribbons, for example.
Bitcoin’s first physical banknotes
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Whether we’re sticking to cold hard cash or ditching them for digitised transactions, the fintech sector is certainly progressing from both sides. And taking yet another step to change the way we use and view money is a Singaporean fintech startup, Tangem, that recently released the first physical Bitcoin banknotes in May 2018.
It’s an odd combination as it defeats the purpose of having virtual transactions that are traceable and recorded permanently in a public ledger. With banknotes, these bitcoins can be stolen like actual cash.
Known as Tangem Notes, these smart Bitcoin bills aren’t made of paper or polymer. They’re not sheets that you can bend. Rather, they’re basically hardware storages – thin cards embedded with chips that carry their value. At the moment, they’re only available in two denominations – 0.01 BTC and 0.05 BTC.
Because it only costs Tangem $2 to make one of these banknotes, the firm didn’t take long to go into mass production, printing millions of units in preparation for circulation not just in Singapore but the entire globe.
Will it take off and sit alongside its traditional counterpart as a legitimate banknote? No one knows. Until then, we’ll probably keep filling our wallets with paper and polymer bills, the most technologically advanced commodities that we take for granted every day without realising.