Today, let's read what's written on coins. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Coin collectors call their
work numismatics -- the science of coins.
That sounds a bit grand, but think for a minute
about coins. They're the most durable written
record. They reflect the myths and legends of a
people. They tell us what people honored -- what
they found beautiful.
American coins once showed us buffalo, Indians, and
Miss Liberty. They still show bald eagles. They've
always honored great presidents. We've recently
begun celebrating America with scenes from each of
And all our coins affirm a trust in God, variable
though that conviction may be.
Coinage is an odd technology, since coins are two
things at once -- a historical record and a claim
to goods and services. Since the metal in them has
value, that claim endures. Bronze coins minted by
the first-century Roman Emperor Domitian were still
being used in Spain as late as the seventeenth
century. Philip IV finally called them in and had
Here's a late second-century-BC Roman denarius with
Jupiter's picture on the front.
On the back is a Roman war chariot, called a
quadriga. The rim is chipped all the way
around. That's from the old way of making coins.
First you stamped a silver blank. Then you nipped
fragments out of the unstamped rim until the coin had
the right weight. That finicky little silver-saving
process also showed that the coin was solid, not just
silver-plated. That's where the expression
"penny-pinching" comes from.
A century later, the new gods, the Imperial
Caesars, replaced the old household deities on the
front of the denarius. The republic was now an
empire. Only the war chariot lingered. And
nineteenth-century poet Henry Dobson, looking at
these old coins, said:
All passes, Art alone
stays to us;
The Bust outlasts the throne, --
Here's a handful of contemporary Cayman Island
coins. What do Caymanians think about? Well, they
claim membership in the British Commonwealth, so we
see Queen Elizabeth on their coins. But on the
other side: boats, birds, shrimp, and the Caymanian
national symbol -- the turtle. A thousand years
from now, these coins will still be revealing the
islands as Caymanians see them today.
Money, after all, represents the works of our
hands. Our interest in money has a component far
more honorable than greed. Money represents what we
do. And what we do is what we are.
A curious Biblical remark says that our heart will
be where our treasure is. That sounds cynical at
first, but then we see money as a kind of condensed
representation of ourselves. Money represents our
goods, our services, our daily sweat and struggle.
In the end, it's not surprising that we reveal our
hearts in what well might be the most
personal of all our art.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Porteous, J. Coins. London: Octopus Books
This is a revised version of Episode 163.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.