Redesigning bills is more complicated than it might seem. Technologies for U.S. currency serve multiple users, from the cash-using public to the machines that dispense fare cards, beverages or cash to the high-speed equipment at the Federal Reserve that processes and recirculates bills received from commercial banks.
The bills also need to weather many extremes, including vast ranges of temperature and humidity as they circulate in Alaska, South America and elsewhere around the globe.
The new $100 bill that Humphrey worked on has numerous features meant to trip up potential criminals, such as a 3D security ribbon to the left of Benjamin Franklin’s portrait visible only on the front of the bill. Holders moving the bill around should see blue Liberty Bells that change to the number 100. Depending on whether the bill is held and tilted vertically or horizontally, the images move back and forth or up and down.
Another new element is an enhancement of the color-shifting ink that also is found on the bottom right front corner of $5, $10 and $20 bills. On the $100 bill, a color-changing Liberty Bell sits inside a copper-colored inkwell. As the bell changes from copper to green and back to copper, the bell seems to appear and disappear.
Humphrey and other members of his six-person team often come up with new concepts or get suggestions from the public and the business community. Team members evaluate these ideas to determine if they are feasible and durable and will provide an extra layer of protection. Bank notes might get folded hundreds of times, go through accidental washing machine cycles and much more.
The challenge for any redesign is the “limited real estate” of the 6-inch by 2.5-inch paper it’s printed on. “It’s only so big and there’s only so much room to put things on it,” Humphrey said.
The team also needs to keep in mind that users all over the world must recognize bills as genuine, with that distinctly American look and feel. Those are just some of the challenges but, Humphrey said, “That’s what makes the job fun.”
U.S. currency doesn’t change often. In 1996, the bureau introduced bills with larger off-center portraits that allowed for the placement of a watermark. Many people took to calling them “big head” bills, he said.
The larger portraits had another purpose. “Human beings are very good at recognizing facial characteristics and are good at recognizing when it’s not right, so if it’s counterfeit you can see it,” Humphrey explained.
In 2004, more color was added to the new family of bills.
Humphrey excels at overcoming obstacles, said Judith Diaz Myers, associate director of product and technology development. “He’s really detail oriented and good at planning.”
He sees “the big picture,” said Dave Cornell, manager of the product design division. “He understands what the bureaucracy needs and our customer the Federal Reserve needs, and he has a very good understanding of the technologies we’re developing,” said Cornell.
In addition to creating new designs to prevent counterfeiting, Humphrey and his team are responding to a court mandate requiring “meaningful access” to U.S. currency for the blind and visually impaired. BEP’s three-fold approach involves a raised tactile feature, use of large, high-contrast numerals and background colors for each denomination, and the distribution of currency readers to eligible recipients.
Humphrey didn’t have any inkling when growing up that he would be working on the nation’s money, but he always enjoyed science. “I always liked to take things apart and build things,” he said, including watches, bicycles and cars, “although at a young age I wasn’t able to get them back together right.”
Although his team at the bureau is composed primarily of Ph.D. chemists and engineers, Humphrey is not one of them. He’s a CPA who got his bachelor’s in accounting and then studied chemical engineering for two years. He joined the BEP in accounting before moving into product development 13 years ago, learning the business from the ground up.
“It was a natural gravitation for me once I came here. I really got interested once I started learning what we do and how we do it.”
This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to www.servicetoamericamedals.org to nominate a federal employee for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal and http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.