HomePaper MoneyMarket Whimsy: Mothers of Invention

Market Whimsy: Mothers of Invention


Innovative ideas – from architectural marvels to trendsetting bank notes – can occur in unlikely places

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker ….
Charles and Hubert’s column Market Whimsy, which originally appeared in the American Numismatic Association (ANA) magazine The Numismatist, won the 2016 Numismatic Literary Guild’s award for Best Column, Non-Profit Large Publications. The award-winning “Mothers of Invention” was first published in July 2015…

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We love Columbus, Ohio.

We spent some time there in the early 2000s, and even though neither of us has been back in a while, we still marvel at the culture one can find tucked away in various corners of the city:

Hermon Atkins MacNeil’s bronze statue of President McKinley in front of the Statehouse. The Columbus Metropolitan Library, replete with an amazing collection, eccentric librarians and Aminah Robinson’s staircase mural (R.I.P. Ms. Robinson). Topiary Park. Drexel cinemas. The Blue Nile. Thurber House. The Wexner Center. The Ohio Theater. Any number of clubs up and down High Street where high-profile acts perform every year even when they don’t have a new record to promote.

And a hundred other tiny and personal places and things.

But what we especially enjoyed about Columbus was the architecture. We won’t argue that it’s the best, the most interesting or the most avant garde, but it is eclectic–and unexpected. Before either one of us had ever visited the city, we knew Columbus was supposed to be “boring”.

Yet it’s home to not one but two “postmodern” Peter Eisenman buildings: the Wexner Center for the Arts and the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

Why is that? Why aren’t those buildings somewhere more “important” than Columbus, Ohio?

We think there’s an answer to these questions. It’s not terribly complicated, but we’ll save it until the end because similar factors are at play when it comes to monetary innovation in the 21st century.

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On November 11, 2014, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) revealed the world’s first “digital” banknote, a commemorative 100-naira note honoring the centennial of the unification of Nigeria as a British Colony and Protectorate. The note was presented to the Federal Executive Council by CBN Governor Godwin Emefiele, along with a structured plan of release that culminated in the banknote’s December 19 issue.

100nairaLike many contemporary paper currency designs, the new bills employ multiple security features. These include images that only show up in a certain light (like the “shadow” portrait of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who also appears as the main decorative feature on the front of the bill), microprinting and SPARK ink technology. In the case of the 100-naira banknote, the color-changing SPARK feature is a manilla–a type of open bronze or copper bracelet used as a form of money in West Africa and considered historically as the first money used in Nigeria. When tilted, the manilla on the commemorative bill appears to roll.

This kind of state-of-the-art anti-counterfeiting technology is becoming more and more common among the world’s paper and polymer currency notes.

The note also has a raised line on the front to assist the visually-impaired in identifying the denomination, and a layer of insulation on each side to ensure increased durability and climate-control. Another portrait of Chief Awolowo appears in the interglow insulation level.

Together with dancing figures representative of Nigeria’s cultural heritage and a pleasant pastel color scheme, it’s an attractive banknote.

But it’s what’s on the back that really caught our attention. On the back of the new N100 note is a Quick Response (QR) barcode. Scan it with your smartphone or tablet, and the barcode takes you to a website celebrating the history of Nigeria. Presumably this means that all of the codes are identical, and the novelty will work for only as long as the website is maintained (though we can imagine scenarios that involve DNS spoofing or manipulation of the notes themselves that might lead to unintended consequences).

And of course, if a Presidential $1 coin series can be derided as a waste of taxpayer’s money, the quaint new interactive banknote can have its detractors as well. Some Nigerians criticize the bill’s smartphone-enabled capacity as elitist in a nation where only the wealthy have smartphones and internet access is limited to less than half the population in the first place.

Regardless, in the words of Professor Thomas Odozi, Chairman of the new bill’s design committee, the 100-naira 2015 commemorative banknote is still the “first digital banknote in the world”.

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So what does this have to do with architecture in Columbus, Ohio?

One reason such experimental buildings happened to be built in Columbus is cheaper real estate. As long as real estate and construction costs in New York City, for example, are prohibitive to all but the deepest pockets, then building projects are going to skew towards conservative design.

We believe the metaphor can be extended to the world’s money.

In the first place, political and economic instability naturally encourage or require monetary changes. America is no stranger to such forced innovation: think Greenbacks and the Civil War, or Vietnam and the “Nixon Shock”. But because power has changed hands peacefully in the United States for about 150 years and our economy has been predominant on the world stage for at least the last 60, the primary impetus for changes to American money has been threats to its stability and credibility, such as counterfeiting. Add a pinch of American skepticism and a dash of puritanical heritage to the mix, and United States coins and paper notes tend to be very conservative.

Plus, the signifiers of wealth, stability and power have a powerful psychological effect, reinforcing that power in their presence and undermining it in their absence.

In other words, changing the tangible symbols of that power is too risky. It costs too much.

This is why architectural innovation can happen in places like Columbus, Ohio and monetary innovation occurs in places like Nigeria.

This is one reason why Canada can drop the cent and use dollar coins while we continue to waste money on both fronts.

This is why truly digital currencies like Bitcoin are taking off in other parts of the world while they remain a confusing if not intimidating toy in the U.S.

Is one way right and the other wrong? Not necessarily. But today’s novelty has a way of becoming tomorrow’s institution. Remember that the next time you scoff at the latest “modern” coin or banknote.

Or some “boring” midwestern city.

Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker
Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker
Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker have been contributing authors on CoinWeek since 2012. They also wrote the monthly "Market Whimsy" column and various feature articles for The Numismatist and the book 100 Greatest Modern World Coins (2020) for Whitman Publishing.

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