Making change Featured

9:59am EDT July 22, 2002

Everyone has seen those phony-looking $20s by now. And many have been spooked by the rumor that the old, sturdy, stolid $20s will soon be out of business.

It's not true, of course. They all spend the same. But thanks primarily to a small band of vending machine operators, counterfeiters and congressmen, over the next few years you'll need to get used to a whole new style, as America's Industrial Age greenback gives way to an art deco bill that's decidedly vending machine-friendly and laser copier-hostile.

"This is a wonderful example of government at its best," spokesman Larry Felix enthusiastically overstates from his office at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C. Retailers and their associations-but mostly vending machine and currency-counting machine manufacturers and their associations-offered recommendations on how the Bureau might redesign the currency to bring it current with the needs of 21st century commerce.

"The Treasury Department has learned a lot of lessons from this experience," Felix says. Apparently speed wasn't one of them: "It was more than a 10-year process by the time we introduced the $100 bill in 1996," he says.

The new notes come with large portraits and numbers for the visually impaired, color-shifting inks to thwart high-quality color copiers, microprinting, embedded security thread and a watermark to discourage counterfeiters. Future issues may include polymers or laminates to extend the bills's lives, currently estimated from 18 months in $1 denomination to nine years for the $100.

Some changes lobbied for by aesthetes may never come: U.S. Federal Reserve notes retain their same Sargasso Sea-green-and-black tints, against fulminations favoring the florid features of French and other foreign currencies. Bureau designers wanted the new notes to be similar enough to old notes to be accepted as genuine, yet different enough to force merchants to check.

The most important changes can't be seen by the human eye. Money counting and currency-reading vending machines use optical and electromagnetic cues designed into U.S. notes to tell a $1 from a $5, for example, and to dispense appropriate merchandise and change. Each manufacturer builds in recognition of two, three or four of the cues to make their machines distinct from competitors, yet "first time, every time" reliable for their customers.

New $5 and $10 bills are set to be released by Federal Reserve Banks in the spring of 2000. No decision has been made on redesigning the $1 or the oft-avoided $2 bill. The $1 bill may be left unchanged (pardon the pun) simply because many vending machines have note recognition of it hard-wired into their circuitry, whereas larger bills are recognized using software.

As if redesigned paper currency weren't enough, the U.S. Mint has decided to get into the act with a new $1 coin and a whole set of 50 (barring last-minute entry into the Union by Puerto Rico or western Canada) commemorative quarters.

The quarters involved "without a doubt the most extensive public outreach the government had ever gone through on a question of U.S. coinage," says unrestrained Mint director Philip N. Diehl. "It was the realization that we were finally going to run out of Susan B. Anthonys [the execrable 1979-80-era 11-sided failure that commemorated the 19th-century suffragette] that finally motivated Congress" to approve a new dollar coin, Diehl adds.

Or, if you prefer a more bottom-line explanation: "One of the things that really put wheels on this proposal was when [Congress] saw how much money [commemoratives] could make for the federal Treasury," Diehl says.

New dollar coins featuring Native American scout Sacajawea will be a gold-colored alloy, issued early in 2000 once the Mint unloads the last of its lamentable Anthonys-which, by the way, have become increasingly popular with numismatists. The new quarters, with reverse sides designed by the commemorated states, will be released five a year in the order in which states joined the Union.

All the new coins are designed with machine-acceptance in mind, Diehl says. Counterfeiting is less a concern for the nation's coinmaker, he notes. There's just not enough money in it.