Backstory: Masters of the mint
In a dying art, engravers handcraft money - including this week's new $10 bill - to foil counterfeiters.
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When he started at the Bureau, Madden worried about the older engravers staring so closely at their work for so many hours. He still jokingly wonders about the threat to his sanity from so many tiny details, and then introduces his "assistant" - a remote-controlled monkey head on his desk that cackles at the press of a button.Skip to next paragraph
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Another item on the desk represents perhaps a bigger threat to the engravers' art - a computer. Madden is six months into a test of new software that allows him to draw the fine lines and dashes of an engraved portrait on the screen. He zooms in to demonstrate his working view - an unrecognizable hash of lines and dots - and erases one with the click of a mouse, something he can't do with a burin on steel.
It's a long way from a century ago, when engravers arrived at work in top hats and tails to practice their most respected of arts. For inspiration, Madden keeps a leather-bound scrapbook of portraits from the heyday of engraving. He points out the different lines that represent hair, steel, or flesh, pronouncing some "gorgeous."
Madden thinks the engraver's art will continue into the computer age. He can't imagine anyone who wasn't a trained engraver creating the delicate lines that come together to form a portrait or landscape in miniature. "The more you do it in its classical style, the more you appreciate it," he says.
Only a half dozen countries still employ full-time engravers. Hessler foresees a future where a handful of craftsmen can meet the world's needs, as computers automate the engraving process. "Some of these pieces are so gorgeous they belong in a museum," Hessler says. "I just feel bad that the art form is disappearing."
If the computer threatens the art of the hand-engraver, it has made the job of the criminal easier. Counterfeiting, once the province of the skilled forger capable of replicating the work of artisans like Madden, has been aided by cheap scanners and digital imaging software. "All you need is a finger," says Mr. Felix, holding one up to illustrate the ease of pushing a button on a color copier. "We're adding complexity and colors ... just to thwart the use of the finger."
The artisans have to retain most of the design features, though. The basic elements - the portrait, the intricate border that frames the bill, the overall look - need to be there to inspire confidence in users around the world (some 60 percent of it circulates outside US borders). Thus the challenge is "fitting more and more things in the same amount of space," Felix says.
In the new $10 bill, for instance, Alexander Hamilton has been freed from his oval frame and overlaps the rectangular frame at the borders. Other changes, in color, in the watermark, in the magnetic particles embedded in the ink, will all help thwart the casual counterfeiter. But the more determined fabricator, Felix says, will still be able to turn out a passable copy.
And all the protective measures in the world will not help when a clerk accepts a phony $200 bill with George Bush's picture on it, as reportedly happened at a Dairy Queen in Kentucky.