Several thousand miles to the west and a couple of decades later, a second area was
going through the birth pains of a second Industrial Revolution. This was the nascent
United States of America, and there, the trouble centered not on coinage but on currency.
The Americans had had problems with their money since the first Englishmen set foot
on the James Peninsula and Plymouth Rock. The seventeenth-century European definition
of “money” was coinage – specifically, coinage made from gold and silver. English
North America offered many products, but precious metals were not among them. While
it was true that Massachusetts managed to create a fairly extensive silver series
during the second third of the seventeenth century, it was also true that the only
way the colony was able to do so was to melt down other people’s coinage, acquired
through illicit trade. The Crown soon put a stop to such escapades, leaving Massachusetts
and the other colonies desperately short of “normal” money. They experimented with
distinctly abnormal monetary expedients, ranging from wampum to tobacco to beaver
pelts, but by the turn of the eighteenth century, they had blundered towards the
solution that would power their economies for the remainder of the colonial period
and the first century or so of independence. The solution was paper money, a nonmetallic
substitute for coinage.
Massachusetts led the way, in 1690. The other colonies quickly followed suit. The
original issues were meant to pay for troops and military supplies, but local authorities
soon saw currency’s potentials for fueling colonial development, enhancing colonial
infrastructures: in time, notes would be issued to build a lighthouse in Georgia,
a poorhouse in Pennsylvania, and for debtor relief everywhere. When the War of Independence
broke out, rebel authorities adhered to eighty-five years’ worth of fiscal tradition:
they based their military activities on paper money. Their people were accustomed
to the medium – and besides, there was no viable alternative.
The Revolutionary War exposed the weaknesses of such money. The insurgent authorities
issued promissory notes, payable (theoretically) in Spanish-American Pieces of Eight.
The bills might have performed adequately, had the war been brief and the rebels
victorious. But events proved otherwise, and faith in the Americans’ paper began
spiraling downward, with no end in sight. For it to retain any of its stated value,
its audience had to be convinced that at least it was genuine, could not be created
by anyone outside the charmed circle of the official print shop.
As things stood, this was a tall order indeed. The eighteenth century knew of only
two ways of producing paper money. It could be printed from engraved plates. Or it
could be created from moveable type. Neither method was perfect. Engraved plates
meant copper plates, because no one had learned how to engrave on steel. Copper plates
wore down fairly rapidly and must then be retouched or re-engraved – putting at risk
the absolute identity of design that lies at the heart of any counterfeit deterrence.
The typeset method made possible far greater numbers of identical notes, but those
notes would be perilously easy to counterfeit, due to their (unavoidable) crudity
of line and design. American currency was vulnerable to forgery, regardless of how
it was created. Counterfeiting and alteration had been problems throughout colonial
days: they worsened during the Revolution, as local criminals and His Majesty’s Government
took advantage of the emergency.
THE INDUSTRIALISATION OF MONEY: CRISES, RESPONSES, SUCCESS AND FAILURE
by Dr Richard Doty
This paper by Dr Doty was given as a presentation at the Numismatic Association of
Australia's 2007 Congress, and is published in Volume 19 of their Journal. Through
the kind generosity of the NAA, and to mark the Boulton Bicentenary, the full text
I am most pleased and honored to be with you for a second time, at this second All-Australian
Numismatic Conference. I wish to talk to you about a body of research that has occupied
me, to a greater or lesser degree, for nearly thirty years. It embraces a fairly
circumscribed period – roughly, the years between 1760 and 1825 – and two countries,
Great Britain and the United States. Specifically, it centers on what happened to
money in each country when a new set of technological, demographic, and economic
practices came into play.
The new set of practices is more commonly known as the Industrial Revolution, and
it inspired a new set of demands – roughly the same demands in each country. These
demands had at their heart the provision of more, and safer, money, so that the promise
of the new age could be fully achieved. And in a curious display of interrelatedness
and synchronicity, the monetary crises engendered by the Industrial Revolution were
found to be solvable by the new products and methods of production made possible
by the new era. In other words, the same movement created both an emergency and the
way to solve it, all in a single go.
While historians debate the precise time of the beginning of the British Industrial
Revolution, most would place its inception at sometime between 1760 and 1790. It
would be characterized by gradual, then accelerating trends in three branches of
human endeavor. These trends began in relative isolation, but they soon came to interact
with each other to a progressive degree. The first phenomenon was a growing utilization
of previously unpopular or largely overlooked substances, such as iron and coal.
The second was the organization of labor in a more rational, hence more productive,
fashion. And the third was the creation, or at least the relative perfection, of
a new motive force for the production of goods. This was the power of steam.
The study of the connections between people, technology, and objects is a relatively
new phenomenon. In the case of the Industrial Revolution, one could likely say that
this “long view” could not be achieved until a decent interval had transpired between
the events under consideration and the modern timeframe of the modern historian.
Eyewitnesses could not afford to take a detached view of what was going on: rather
than the possibilities inherent in the movement, they, and a train of historians
that came after them, tended to center on the problems it created – the dark, satanic
mills, the exploitation of female and child labor, the backbreaking hours in the
factory or mine, the miserable wages: all of this has provided the ingredients for
a sort of industrial folklore. But there was another problem created by the Industrial
Revolution that was largely overlooked by eyewitnesses, leaving a fleeting impression
on their minds, none at all on the minds of the historians who followed. This was
the difficulty inherent in paying wages of any kind, however low, to the new industrial
The Industrial Revolution meant the uprooting of labor, taking it from a traditional
place, where traditional methods of payment had always obtained, and translating
it to a distinctly untraditional place, where no one knew anyone else, where time-honored
methods of exchange would no longer function. We have tended to see the new age primarily
in terms of steam power. But the second of the three trends noted above, the organization
of labor in a rational way, was at least as important to the success of the Industrial
Revolution. Indeed, it predated the application of steam power, was more important
than steam power. You could have a factory without steam. But steam existed only
in order to power factories.
With or without the steam engine, the repetitive, tightly organized activity inherent
in the factory system was a distinctly unnatural mode of human behavior. The first
mill owners and mill workers soon learned that what everyone had always regarded
as the “natural” methods of payment and exchange simply would not work in the new
environment. If owners wanted to attract and retain mill workers, they would have
to pay them regular wages, in cash. And since current salaries were modest indeed,
what would be required would be large quantities of low-denomination coins.
In Great Britain, this posed a major, if temporary, problem. The public coiner, the
Royal Mint, was charged with providing a stipulated amount of coinage each year rather
than a stipulated number of coins. It did not take the eighteenth-century equivalent
of rocket science to figure out that it was far easier to strike, say, a thousand
golden guineas than 504,000 copper halfpence (24 x 21 x 1,000). The less-than-overworked
denizens of Tower Hill cheered the discovery: during most of the sixty-year reign
of George III, they only struck copper during the first half of the 1770s and silver
only during part of one year, 1787. But even had the Royal Mint been more co-operative,
more inclined to rise to the challenge presented by the new wage earners, it would
have been hard-put to assist. It still relied on antiquated machinery inherited from
an earlier epoch. An observant if personally interested industrialist named Matthew
Boulton estimated that a human-powered press of the balancier type could strike twenty-seven
medium-size coins per minute. Ever if he were correct (and I don’t think he was,
not in this instance), the Royal Mint had no interest in proving him right, or wrong.
Not when it came to copper coinage. Inevitably, a monetary shortage in the opening
days of the Industrial Revolution would turn into a full-blown crisis as the movement
The private sector responded, if the public sector would not. Beginning in 1787,
firms on the fringes of the new industrialization began striking and circulating
copper tokens, the great majority valued at a penny or a halfpenny. They were quickly
joined by private coppers from closer to the center of things – the Midlands, the
North, and of course London. The more popular of the private tokens (or commercial
coins, as they were often known) were targeted by forgers, most commonly operating
in the back alleys of Birmingham, then as now the center of the British metal trade.
But the forgers were more likely to create fakes of circulating coins than tokens.
Counterfeit copper had long been a problem for the British working class. Writing
in the mid-1860s, Samuel Smiles tells us that by 1753, “not less than half the copper
coin in circulation was counterfeit” – and this was more than three decades prior
to the beginning of increased wage payments and the real monetary crisis. By the
beginning of the 1790s, a correspondent of the Gentleman’s Magazine could bluntly
state that “not the fiftieth part of our copper currency is legitimate” Copper fakes
were joined by silver fakes: according to John Craig, plain white-metal disks were
commonly substituted for legitimate shillings and sixpences (most of which had been
struck a half-century earlier and hence were likely to be nearly as smooth as the
counterfeits). To this motley were added Spanish-American dollars and their subdivisions,
sometimes countermarked and sometimes not, sometimes genuine and sometimes not. To
an educated observer on the scene in the year 1790, it would have been clear that
the coming to fruition of a new, industrial, wage-based economy was very much in
danger, and that a solution to the monetary stranglehold must be found, and found
quickly. If not, the promise of a new and better age would remain unmet.
The insurgents eventually won their war (with a little help from their friends),
in spite of their currency. By the end of the 1780s, a new, stronger, conservative
national government had been erected on the ruins of the wartime Continental Congress.
With an eye to what had just taken place, the new regime decided that it would eschew
the currency medium as much as possible (and would force the states to do the same),
substituting good coinage for it. This was unrealistic. Someone once observed that
you can’t preach Karl Marx to the weather. Similarly, you can’t preach a hard-money
doctrine where no hard money exists, or can be made to exist. Whether the new, Federalist
authorities wished it or not, their countrymen would still depend on paper money
– for there simply weren’t enough coins to go around. A new, national Mint, set up
in 1792, did little to solve the shortage: by 1830, it has been estimated that the
Mint had still not managed to make one American coin of each denomination available
to each citizen – and this, after forty-seven years of effort!
Two additional factors now came into play, creating even greater pressures on the
nation’s monetary system. First, the population grew rapidly, almost doubling between
1790 and 1810. Inevitably, the American economy, or at least that portion of it dependent
on coinage or currency, also grew. Second, by around 1800, the first stirrings of
the Industrial Revolution were being felt on the American side of the Atlantic Ocean.
By British standards, what was happening was modest indeed: a few mills here and
there, a few thousand workers in those mills. But the new factories and factory hands
were being injected into a monetary system that was already very weak.
Two closely-related problems came into being; together, they would have a profound
effect on the story of American, and world, numismatics.
We’ve seen the first before – the need to pay wages in order to attract workers to
the factories. The second problem, while certainly not unique to the United States,
was probably more crucial there than elsewhere. That is, were the new industrialization
to flourish, were it to achieve and transcend the “takeoff” stage of development,
enormous new sources of money for investment and purchase would have to be created,
regardless of how new workers were paid.
Currently, there was only one object widely available for such purposes, the paper
But: It would have to be privately- produced and -issued: under the new federal Constitution,
the national government had denied such activities to itself and to the states. It
would have to be produced in large amounts. And it would have to be unforgeable.
The latter almost certainly meant that it would have to be created from engraved
metal plates. But the productive life of those plates must somehow be extended. As
in Great Britain, if a way could not be found around the challenges created by the
Industrial Revolution, matters could not go forward, but must stall, and finally
retrogress. And just as in Great Britain, a gifted band of curious souls would find
ways out of the current difficulties, using the new products, processes, and possibilities
brought forth by the Industrial Revolution to do so.
Let us examine the succession of solutions, first in Great Britain and then in the
United States. At the center of the British response stood a Birmingham industrialist
and (self) promoter named Matthew Boulton. Boulton was the guiding spirit behind
Soho Manufactory. It had originally been devoted to the production of what the eighteenth
century called “toys” – intricate, small objects, ranging from buckles to watch chains
to buttons, all made from metal. In the late 1760s, Boulton entered into partnership
with a morose Scottish inventor named James Watt. Watt had invented an improved steam
engine with a separate condenser, improving motive force while cutting the consumption
of coal. Watt would continue to fiddle, tinker, and improve his machinery. Boulton
would find ways to sell it to a waiting world, either through new and improved products
or through purveyance of the power itself – the sale of steam engines.
It was probably inevitable that Matthew Boulton would think of harnessing one of
his partner’s engines to a coining press. He’d been making buttons since the 1760s,
and the manufacturing processes connected with these objects were not vastly different
from the minting of coinage. Steam power would be a natural addition to the manufacturing
process, and there is some evidence that Boulton saw it as such by the mid-1770s.
Moreover, he had a fierce pride in his town: Birmingham had a fully-deserved reputation
as the center of the British counterfeiting industry, a reputation that deeply hurt
this man, whose fortunes were so tightly bound up with those of the town of his birth.
What if he could turn things around, make Birmingham the center of monetary excellence
rather than monetary fraud? And what if he could create safe money, especially safe
copper money, for the new legions of industrial workers?
Here, he had two objectives. He wanted to increase the output of legitimate money,
to be sure. But he appears to have been more interested in finding ways of making
coinage impossible to replicate outside that establishment legally responsible for
its creation. The employment of steam power was central to the achievement of both
In a striking display of the connections between events within and beyond Numismatics,
and of the possibilities of borrowing from one field for the benefit of another,
Matthew Boulton succeeded in conceiving, moving towards, and finally reaching both
goals, increased production and unforgeability, by means of the new technology and
products spawned by the Industrial Revolution. In essence, he turned that movement
upon itself, forcing it to solve the monetary crisis it had helped to create.
Boulton was endlessly optimistic – either that, or endlessly naïve. He was agitating
for a regal contract to strike Great Britain’s copper money as early as 1787, at
which time he did not have a mint, was unclear as to what qualities an unforgeable
coin struck by steam could, or should, embrace. It would take ten long years before
he got his contract. In the meantime, he learned by doing. He secured a patent for
a new moneying press in mid-1790. It featured an overhead wheel, connected to a steam
engine. The wheel had eight cams or pawls on its lower surface, and they in turn
engaged and disengaged the arms of screw presses, which in turn struck the coins.
The mechanism was cumbersome, made an infernal racket, broke down frequently – but
it worked: its first outing occurred in the late summer of 1789, and each press was
capable of striking forty or more pieces per minute.
As in America, so here: while Boulton’s name may have appeared on the patent, the
invention was, as so much else in the industrialization of money, a truly collaborative
effort. He does indeed deserve credit for the initial concept of applying steam power
to a coining press, but James Lawson, Peter Ewart, William Murdock, even James Watt,
contributed to the success of the enterprise. John Southern was especially important,
and he would eventually deserve almost as much credit for the new moneying as did
Boulton himself. But when Boulton and his associates harnessed the power of steam
to a coining press, strange things happened. They inevitably changed the form of
the coin itself.
The changes arose from the greater downward force made possible by steam’s application.
If you wanted to quickly strike a large number of coins, and you had a large amount
of force available for the purpose, your coining dies would have to be cut in shallow
relief. You would also be obliged to add a third die to the other two – a collar,
to restrain the outward flow of metal. Since you would have to eject your coins from
that collar rapidly and easily, the latter would have to be plain or vertically grained
– any other possibilities were off-limits. So the edges of your coins might be plain,
vertically reeded, or lettered or ornamented incusely – but any other possibilities
could not be countenanced. All of this inevitably flowed from the application of
steam power to the coining process.
But these were precisely the characteristics Matthew Boulton had always considered
desirable and attractive in coinage. Shallow relief would be very difficult to convincingly
replicate on the outside. It would be gentler on dies that must now strike more coins,
with greater force, than ever before. The precise, vertical edges on the new coins
would discourage clipping and forging. Steam power would make his new money cheaper
to elaborate, which meant that he could put more metal into each piece – another
discouragement to forgers. Steam power would also allow for thicker coins – again,
more metal, more protection against forgery. Finally, Boulton believed that each
coin must be identical with every other coin: so from the mass-production of coins,
his mind retrogressed to the mass-production of coin dies. Steam power would play
no part here, but the shallow relief he found so appealing would play a crucial role:
it would be far easier to mass produce shallow, identical dies than the deeply-cut
tools of the pre-industrial age.
At this point, other people and commodities entered the equation. Just as Boulton
was finding ways to mass-produce coinage (and coming to require massive amounts of
high-quality steel for the purpose), others in Great Britain were making dramatic
strides forward in the elaboration of that very commodity. Foremost among them was
Benjamin Huntsman, whose “crucible steel” was far superior to anything previously
available, soft and malleable in an annealed state, extremely hard when heated and
quickly cooled – the very thing required for the mass-production of identical coin
The scene now shifts to the other side of the Atlantic, where a gifted band of American
inventors and experimenters would do for currency what their predecessors in Great
Britain had done for coinage: they would turn the Industrial Revolution upon itself,
employing its new products and discoveries to solve a problem it had helped to create.
The leader here was a jack-of-all-trades – inventor, engraver, silversmith, self-promoter
– named Jacob Perkins, resident of Newburyport, Massachusetts. Perkins first appears
on the radar in the middle and later 1780s: he makes elegant silver plate, is tapped
to create some of the dies for a state copper coinage, eventually creates a series
of funerary medals for George Washington. All well and good. But Perkins interests
us because he himself acquired an interest in improving the state of America’s economic
lifeblood, its paper money.
He had done so by the early 1790s. By the end of that decade, he had patented something
he called a “check plate protector”, the first of his two contributions to the industrialization
of paper money. More commonly known as a stereotype plate, the Perkins device consisted
of a metal frame, into which were tightly incorporated no fewer than sixty-four individual
dies, engraved with tiny letters or numbers. Spaces were reserved for the names of
banks, towns, and denominations, engraved on dies of the same type. Tightly clamped
together, this multipiece tool could be used to print money, injecting such a wealth
of detail into its fabrication that, it was hoped, aspiring forgers would take one
look and decamp in despair.
But the mass-production of coin dies presupposed that you have a customer, and a
large one at that, for your wares. As I said, Boulton had his mint up and running
by the late summer of 1789, only to find that his customer, the British Government,
had other things on its mind, had in fact left the shop when its proprietor wasn’t
looking. Soho would eventually get a contract to coin regal copper, and then another,
and another still. But in the meantime, its master must coin as he could. So he did:
Boulton joined others in producing copper penny and halfpenny tokens (his products
are almost always distinguished by their artistry and full copper content), coinage
for India, Bermuda, the Gold Coast, and Sierra Leone – anything to keep the mint
busy, his workmen employed, new concepts tested for the regal coinage which lay just
over the horizon. He finally got his big break in 1797, but by then, he was thinking
beyond coinage, mulling over the idea of a logical extension to his labors. He’d
struck coins and tokens of a new type, and he’d sent them across the world. Why not
create and ship entire mints, so that the world could make his new coinage for itself?
It was done. Boulton was treating with the Russian government just as his first British
coining contract was being signed. When all was said and done, he, his son, and their
Soho enterprise would have provided mints and the engines to power them to Russia,
Denmark, India, Portugal, Brasil, Mexico, and, most satisfying of all, to Tower Hill.
To an observer of the period, this aspect of the industrialization of money would
seem to have been solved, with a vengeance.
But was he a success? Put another way, did the inventions he devised solve the problems
they were intended to solve? Not really, at least not for many years. It could be
argued that they solved matters in one direction, while complicating them in another.
That is, the new, beautiful steel engravings, made possible by Jacob Perkins’ vision,
did indeed render plausible counterfeits somewhat more difficult to achieve. And
more money with the lovely designs could be created than ever before, which was good
for business and employment. But when we reflect on the fact that some of the artwork
on the counterfeit plates was provided by the same engravers who created the images
on the legitimate ones (these artisans were paid by the piece, rather than a regular
salary); when we remember that huge numbers of nineteenth-century Americans were
functionally illiterate and even if not were likely to have a limited exposure to
bank notes and other printed materials; and finally, when we remember that there
were hundreds of note-issuing banks in the United States between 1820 and the American
Civil War, churning out an average of six denominations per bank, whose designs changed
every decade or more frequently – then we must conclude that, whether or not it was
his fault, the Newburyport inventor and visionary actually made matters more difficult
for the average American.
Matthew Boulton had created a new, world coin on a single design, and his model had
basically found permanent acceptance, even if there were lively discussions about
the details. Jacob Perkins created the potential for a new, world currency, and it
is a matter of record that the inventions and improvements that he devised would
one day stand as how all the world made its paper money.
Who’s to say which man was the greater failure or success? The essential point is
that without Matthew Boulton and Jacob Perkins, the challenges they faced and the
dreams they pursued, our world would be very different, somehow lesser in its scope,
less “modern” than it is. And that is all that need be said.
Anno Suae L.X.V.I
Perkins’ first stereotype plates were made from copper and soft iron, the only materials
then available. But the inventor soon found that such plates were ill-suited to massive
runs of currency: their intricate details were soon lost in the constant abrasion
of the inking, wiping down, and re-inking processes involved in printing from engraved
plates. Accordingly, Perkins began searching for some material that would be soft
enough to engrave, but that could be made hard enough for sustained use with no loss
of detail. Inevitably, he turned to steel. But it would have to be a special kind
of steel. And it would involve the creation of a very special technology.
What Perkins first sought was the tiny percentage of inexpensive, soft steel that
was flawless and homogeneous enough to be fit for the type of micro-engraving he
had in mind. He found metal adequate for his purpose – and the fact that he could
do so was directly related to other workings of the Industrial Revolution, both in
America and in Great Britain. New processes resulted in new products, and these in
turn would lead to other steps and other goods.
With the special steel in hand, Perkins would be able to achieve the extreme delicacy
of line that he desired. But the soft steel would have to be hardened after it had
been engraved: if not, it would serve his purposes no better than had the copper
and soft iron of his previous attempts. He found a way of hardening his steel after
it had been engraved, a process involving surface cementation. He also found a way
of softening the metal by annealing it in a special way. By 1804, he was able harden
and soften steel plates at will, and this led him to his, and America’s, most crucial
contribution to the industrialization of money.
This was the technique of siderography, the mass-production of complete designs for
printing; its key was the ability to harden and soften steel at will. Jacob Perkins
discovered that a complex design could be engraved by hand on a soft piece of steel,
that could then be hardened by his new technology and finally employed to transfer
the original design onto other soft pieces of steel.
It is unclear how he managed the transfer in the beginning, but he soon came to rely
on a steel roller to do the work, a method still in use until very recently. He’d
perfected the technique of siderography by 1804, was producing notes for more than
a dozen Massachusetts banks in his factory in Newburyport by 1805. He continued to
perfect his craft, adding elaborate reverse printing to some of his products. In
March 1809, Massachusetts passed a law mandating Perkins’ processes for all currency
printed in the state. His future was rosy; but what he had made possible was rosier
still – indeed, was almost beyond calculation.
It has been estimated that a good run with an early copper plate was five thousand
prints, after which it must be retouched or retired. But Perkins’ steel plates were
capable of at least thirty thousand prints, and their designs could be replicated
onto other steel plates as often as desired. America’s shortage of safe money had
been solved with a vengeance. Or so it might have appeared to an intelligent observer
of the year 1810.
Similarities between the earlier episode of Matthew Boulton and the Perkins story
come easily to mind. In both cases, several benign effects of the Industrial Revolution
had to come together before a malign one could be eradicated. Matthew Boulton needed
special steel for his work, and so did Jacob Perkins. Here, both men took advantage
of others’ earlier inventions and efforts to secure what they needed. Steam, experimented
with by others but perfected by his partner Watt, stood at the heart of Boulton’s
reforms. The innovations of Perkins were not dependent on steam, but they did rely
heavily on improved lathes, rolling machinery, and a host of other contrivances by
other inventors. At bottom the work of each man formed the apex of a triangle, dependent
on the labors of others to fill in the sides and the base – to provide the support
and springboard to move everything forward.
Both Matthew Boulton and Jacob Perkins had fairly precise blueprints for what ought
to happen next. Boulton would strike safe British copper money with the power of
steam, and a grateful monarchy would give him and his heirs the right to do so in
perpetuity. Meanwhile, the exportation of steam-powered coining factories would benefit
people the world over, burnishing the reputation of Birmingham, Soho, and Matthew
Boulton and his heirs. Jacob Perkins would provide banks across the American Republic
with distinctive, identical, and safe paper money, the very sinews of commerce for
generations to come.
Things didn’t quite work out as planned…
Matthew Boulton died in the late summer of 1809. His son, Matthew Robinson Boulton,
had been managing Soho’s affairs for several years. His duties included overseeing
the final stages in the construction of a mint in Saint Petersburg, chivvying along
a second facility for Denmark and starting a third for Brasil, and working with the
officials at the Royal Mint, whose premises on Tower Hill were being rebuilt and
reequipped to Soho’s specifications. The latter facility was ready for limited coining
activity by 1810 and the first objects it struck were – copper coins! Granting that
they were not for British consumption, but for the East India Company; the younger
Boulton was still furious: the government for which he and his father had toiled
so selflessly for so long had broken its portion of a sacred trust. What would happen
What would happen next was a dose of reality, injected into foreign climes. The Russians
took a Soho workman hostage (who happened to be Zacchaeus Walker, Jr., Matthew Boulton’s
nephew) and wouldn’t let him come home for more than a year after his work had been
completed. The mint for Brasil was shipwrecked off the coast of Pará, recovered,
and then hidden away for two decades, the local authorities having successfully applied
to Lloyds of London for the insurance money, which would have to be returned were
the mint resurrected. A mint for Mexico turned into a fiasco when it was belatedly
discovered that the site chosen for its erection lacked reliable fuel and water (which
are matters of some importance, if you contemplate operating a steam engine). And
so it went. Even the most successful projects, involving mints for Calcutta and Bombay,
took a tremendous toll on the Soho technocrats sent out to do the work: nearly a
dozen died, lives that could never be replaced, skills that disappeared along with
the men who had possessed them.
And across the lands where Matthew Boulton’s dreams had reached, strange things were
happening. A minter in Mexico found that he could mass-produce dies in a new way.
Someone in India found a better method for creating and disseminating the portrait
of the new Queen on the new money. And so it went: those to whom the secrets of the
new coining had been entrusted were adding new touches to it, making it their own.
And the industrialization of money acquired a new, local authenticity, one that might
have surprised its original creator, but one that he would likely have come to understand,
if not embrace.
Jacob Perkins’ story had unexpected twists as well. He ran his own security firm
in Newburyport for a number of years. Business was good, so he expanded his plant.
Then in 1815, he was lured away to Murray, Draper, Fairman & Company, prestigious
printers located in Philadelphia. Perkins was attracted to Philadelphia in part by
the promise that all currency to be emitted by the new, Philadelphia-based Bank of
the United States would be created from his plates, employing his design concepts
and his technology. This promise went unmet, and it slowly became evident that he
and his new associates held differing views about how to make paper money both plentiful
Jacob Perkins continued to stress a single, unvarying design, one which might be
less than beautiful, might be even downright homely, but whose sheer consistency
would always keep forgers at bay.
Murray, Draper, Fairman & Company saw things from a completely different point of
view. The partners wanted to create beautiful, intricate designs, relying more on
their artistry than their consistency to foil the forger. In fact, they would create
an entire library of artistic master dies, each easily and quickly transferable onto
working plates by Perkins’ technology. In other words, they wanted a part of what
he could offer, but not what he saw as the most important part. In 1819, Perkins
and Murray, Draper, Fairman & Company parted ways. The leave-taking was amicable,
but it was definitive. Perkins sailed for England, where he arrived in mid-1819,
afire with plans to reform British currency in an American way. He was rebuffed,
not least because of outraged national sentiment: who did this Yank think he was,
anyway? Ardor dampened but not dead, Perkins settled his family in London and lived
there comfortably for the next thirty years, kept afloat by royalties from his various
inventions and enterprises on both sides of the Atlantic. He died in the summer of
1849, perhaps the most fortunate of the early pioneers in the industrialization of