The Color of Money: Bureau of Engraving and Printing Produces Millions of Dollars a Day

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Barbara Klein. Today on our program, we visit the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C. to learn about how American dollars are made. Last year, the Bureau produced about thirty-eight million bills a day. Printing money requires both artistic and technological skills. The bills are made so that they are interesting to look at but very hard to copy. In total, there are sixty-five separate steps required to make a dollar bill.

(MUSIC: "Give Me Money?")

Guided tours of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington D.C. are a popular activity for visitors. These tours are a good way to learn new and interesting facts about the history of money and its complex production methods. It is also very exciting to stand in a room with millions of dollars flying through machines.

TOUR GUIDE: "All right, Ladies and Gentlemen, once again welcome to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. And this is where the color of money begins. The money making process begins when a yearly order sent by the Federal Reserve Board. That order will then be divided in half. Half will be done here in Washington, D.C. and the other half will be done in Fort Worth, Texas".

Next, the Bureau orders special paper from the Crane company in the state of Massachusetts. The paper is actually cloth since it is made up of seventy-five percent cotton and twenty-five percent linen. This paper is made so that it can last a long time. And, it is made with details that make it hard to copy. For example, bills contain security threads. These narrow strips of plastic inside the paper run along the width of the bill. This special paper is also made with very small blue and red fibers. Both of these designs make it very hard for counterfeiters to copy. Counterfeiters are criminals who create false money.

The first stage of production is called intaglio printing. This is done on high-speed presses using printing plates onto which images have been cut. Each plate receives a layer of ink, which gathers in the cut areas of the plate. Then, each sheet of paper goes into the press to receive the printing plate. The machine forces about twenty tons of pressure onto the printing plate and paper. One side of a dollar bill is printed in green ink, while the other is printed in black. Each side must dry for about forty-eight hours.

The printing plate used in this process is created from hand-cut engravings called master-dies. Highly skilled artists called engravers draw images into soft steel to make the dies. There are separate dies for the different images on the bill, such as the portrait of the president, the lettering, and other designs.

After each master-die is copied, they are fitted together to make a printing plate that has thirty-two copies of the bill being printed. A master-die can last for many years. For example, the master-die with the picture of President Abraham Lincoln was made in the eighteen sixties. It was used again this year to redesign the five-dollar bill.

Next, the large printed sheets are carefully examined to make sure there are no mistakes on any of the bills. This process used to be done by people. Now, computers do the work.

TOUR GUIDE: "OCIS is an acronym for Off-line Currency Inspection System and this is where the money from the last phase will be inspected.

Now that blue box will take a picture to size of the sheets of the money and compare its cut, color and shape with the master image sent by the Federal Reserve Board. It will take that picture and break it down into over one million pixels. Every single last one has to be absolutely correct."

In this part of production, the thirty-two bill sheets are cut into sheets of sixteen. In the next step, the bills are printed with a series of identifying numbers and seals.

TOUR GUIDE: "And this is where the money from the last phase will be put to its final state. If you look to the left of the room ladies and gentlemen, there is a tall machine with green ink at the top of it. That is the machine that will print your serial numbers, Federal Reserve seal and Treasury seal onto the money."

The serial numbers on the money tell the order that the bills were printed. Other numbers and letters printed on the bill tell when the note was printed, what space on the printing plate the bill occupied and which Reserve bank will issue the bill.

Once the money is printed, guillotine cutters separate the sheets into two notes, then into individual notes. The notes are sorted into "bricks", each of which contains forty one-hundred-note packages. The bricks then go to one of twelve Federal Reserve Districts, which then give the money to local banks. Ninety-five percent of the money printed each year is used to replace money that is in circulation, or that has already been removed from circulation. The Federal Reserve decides when to release this new money into use.


You may know that America's first president, George Washington, is pictured on the one-dollar bill. But do you know whose face is on the two, five, ten, twenty, fifty and one hundred-dollar bills? They are, in order, President Thomas Jefferson, President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, President Andrew Jackson, President Ulysses Grant and statesman Benjamin Franklin.

During the tour, visitors can learn many interesting facts about money. For example, the average life span of a one-dollar bill is twenty-one months. But a ten-dollar bill lasts only about eighteen months. The one hundred-dollar bill lasts the longest, eighty-nine months.

One popular question that visitors ask is about the two-dollar bill. This bill is not printed very often. This is because many Americans believe two-dollar bills are lucky, so they keep them. Two-dollar bills do not have to be printed often because they do not become damaged quickly like other bills. People can send their damaged or torn bills to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The Bureau will replace damaged bills with new bills. However, it is illegal to purposely damage United States currency in any way. Anyone found guilty of damaging American money can be fined or jailed.


The Bureau of Engraving and Printing first began printing money in eighteen sixty-one. It operated in a room of the Treasury building. Two men and four women worked together there to place seals on money that was printed in other places by private companies. Today, The Bureau of Engraving and Printing has over two thousand employees in its two printing centers in Washington and Fort Worth.

The Treasury Department continually works to change the design of bills to make it difficult for counterfeiters to copy. One method it uses is called microprinting. For example, what looks like a very thin line around the edge of a portrait may actually be the words "The United States of America" printed in very small letters. Also, many bills now have color-shifting ink that looks like metallic paint. In the last five years, the ten, twenty and fifty-dollar bills have been redesigned. All the bills are mostly green. But other colors are added when they are redesigned.

The newest design in American currency is the five-dollar bill, which was released earlier this year. This new bill has a second watermark. A watermark is an image that can be seen from both sides of the bill when it is held up to light. The new five-dollar bill also has a security thread that is on the right side of President Lincoln's picture. On older designs, this thread was on the left side.

The new bill also has an area that is printed in purple ink. The number five is printed very large to help people who do not see well. The next note that will be redesigned is the one hundred-dollar bill. This is the highest value bill now used in the United States.

American money might soon be legally forced to change its appearance in more extensive ways. In May, a federal appeals court ruled that the design of American money discriminates against blind people. Most other countries make bills in different sizes depending on the value of each note. But American dollars are all the same size. The American Council for the Blind brought the case to court.

The judges decided that the Treasury Department has failed to show that it would be too costly to make American dollars so that blind people could tell their value by touch. The Treasury Department says it would cost over a hundred and seventy million dollars to order new printing presses and as much as fifty million dollars to make new printing plates. Other experts estimate that it would cost over three billion dollars to redesign food and drink machines to accept bills of different sizes.

It might be a long time before this case is settled in court. Until then, the printing presses at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing will continue to produce the green dollars that are recognizable to people around the world.


Our program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Bob Doughty. Our programs are online with transcripts and MP3 files at Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.