New Benjamin Franklin Invention Identified — What Does It Do?

Benjamin Franklin, one of the United States’ most famous founding fathers, is known for his incredible inventions that changed the course of history. From the bifocals to the lightning rod, Benjamin Franklin’s name has become synonymous with innovation. Now we can add one more device to the long list of products Franklin created: a printing block used to stop counterfeit money.

According to Fine Books Magazine, a set of rare 18th-century metal slabs have been attributed to Benjamin Franklin by the Library Company of Philadelphia — which Franklin founded. The printing blocks were used to print currency during colonial times, and feature detailed images of leaves. Franklin’s textured images would pick up ink and imprint patterns onto money, making it virtually impossible for counterfeiters to perfectly imitate the original design.

The printing blocks were most likely created by Franklin and his colleagues between 1737 and 1785. The metal printers were probably created by taking leaves or other objects and pressing them into plaster to create a mold, which could then be filled with metal to make the blocks. Historians can’t be completely sure of Benjamin Franklin’s process because, like all anti-counterfeit tactics, the system was a closely guarded secret.

For years, it was believed none of the printing blocks had survived the tides of time, especially since the worn out slabs were melted down to be re-used. But a single printing block featuring Ben Franklin’s signature sage leaves was discovered in the collection of the Delaware County Institute of Science (DCIS) in Media in Pennsylvania. Along with Franklin’s printing block, two metal ornament blocks and some paper money were also found.

According to the New York Times, the head librarian of the Library Company of Philadelphia, James N. Green, had wondered for decades if any of Benjamin Franklin’s leaf-printing blocks or printed money had survived till the modern day. He claimed in an interview that if one was ever found, it would be “a really sensational discovery.” That sensational day has finally come.

While the blocks have been archived for a long time, they have only recently been fully understood and associated with Benjamin Franklin. Experts believe the artifacts are Benjamin Franklin’s only major innovation within the realm of printing, but they would go on to greatly influence the practice of anti-counterfeit measures. Type-metal blocks used to print pictures of this nature are extremely rare; and it is especially exciting to know Benjamin Franklin — one of the world’s most famous inventors — was responsible.

The leaf blocks can be confidently attributed to Benjamin Franklin due to the match of images between the three sage leaves on the blocks and Benjamin Franklin’s shilling notes from the 1760s for Delaware’s government. Benjamin Franklin must have taken counterfeiting very seriously, because along with the anti-counterfeit inventions, Franklin’s Delware bills read, “To Counterfeit is DEATH.”

For more on Benjamin Franklin, check out this report on a history teacher getting suspended for posting a quote from Benjamin Franklin in his classroom.