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Alfred Smee and the Bank of England

ON 22 December 1854, The London Gazette carried an announcement by the Bank of England: from 1 January, its notes would be of a new pattern. They were simple and stylish and, most important, every one would be identical. The bank had been trying to achieve “identity”, or sameness, since it first printed notes. The problem was that its printing plates were engraved by hand, so no two were ever exactly alike, a flaw that forgers exploited all too readily. The new notes were a triumph of technological innovation. They were also a vindication of the bank's investment in the ingenious Alfred Smee.

The Smee family moved into the bank in 1831, when Alfred's father William was appointed chief accountant and Alfred was 12. Behind the bank's windowless outer wall lay a labyrinth of corridors and courtyards. By day, the place bustled with people changing money, cashing cheques and collecting dividends. But after hours the doors were locked and bolted, and the bank's military guards took up their posts: arranging to go out in the evening was so complicated that the residents rarely bothered. Confined each evening, the Smees amused themselves with books and music - except Alfred, whose idea of entertainment was an experiment. Most nights he busied himself with bottles, retorts and chemicals, generating strange smells and occasional bangs. For an institution so afraid of fire that it had its own fire engine, the bank was oddly indulgent. It eventually gave him a room to use as a lab.

“Most nights he busied himself with bottles, retorts and chemicals”

Smee was particularly excited by electricity. The recent development of crude batteries and experiments in electrolysis had prompted huge interest in electroplating - using electric current to apply thin coatings of metal. Commercial exploitation of the process was hampered by the crankiness of early batteries, which couldn't yet provide a steady current. Smee was smitten and was soon spending his evenings testing various combinations of metals and acids.

In 1834, now 16, he left school to study medicine at nearby King's College. There he had the ideal chemistry teacher - electrochemist John Daniell. Over the next two years, Daniell developed a “constant battery” that provided the sought-after steady current. It was a vast improvement, but needed constant attention. Smee wanted something simpler for his home experiments and set about inventing a battery “that could be set in action at a moment's notice, and with comparatively little trouble”. By 1840, the boy from the bank had qualified as a surgeon and established himself as an expert in electrometallurgy. After meticulous investigation of every property of every metal used in batteries, he invented a better one. These batteries exploited a reaction on the surface of the metal plates that functioned as electrodes, and Smee found that if he increased the surface area by roughening the plates, a battery generated current for much longer.

The Smee cell was not immensely powerful, but it was reliable and easy to manage - exactly what was needed for electroplating. Its simplicity made it hugely popular in industry, and it sold in thousands. What Smee liked about it was that you could always tell what the battery was doing, “for when it is in action it… talks to its possessor. If the current is very feeble, a faint murmur is heard; if a little stronger, the battery whispers; if a moderate current is passing, it hisses; but if a violent one it roars. At this present moment I have nineteen batteries at work in the same room… and they are each telling me the work they are performing.”

Now, with Smee about to leave home to set up in private practice, the bank realised what a loss he might be. Astley Cooper, London's most distinguished surgeon, had spotted his talents and alerted the governor: “You don't know what a treasure you have got in that young man. He has shown signs of working things out for himself which will be sure to be useful some time or another.” The bank decided it needed a doctor: Alfred Smee.

Although the bank rarely called on his medical skills, beyond fixing the occasional squint and mixing bottles of cholera tonic, he was always busy. When not seeing patients, he was experimenting. What was the best way to treat syphilis? What role did electricity play in the body? What caused potato blight? He was a prolific inventor too. He designed a machine to reason like the human mind, although it was too big ever to build. More practical was his “fishtail” gas burner, which was universally adopted. The bank's first return on its investment was a new type of ink. Anxious about the longevity of its records, the bank had always wanted an ink that didn't fade. In 1842, Smee came up with “Bank Black”, which grew darker with age. It was still in use in the 1970s.

It was a decade later that the bank's faith in Smee really paid off. Traditionally, it printed notes by the intaglio process, using copper and steel plates with the design engraved on them. The plates were inked then wiped clean, leaving ink only in the grooves, and then pressed hard onto the paper. To print enough notes the bank needed many plates: no matter how skilled the engraver, they were bound to vary and also to deteriorate with use. Smee suggested the bank should make plates by “electrotyping”, using electrolysis to replicate a single master plate. In theory it was a simple process: create a master plate by cutting the design in relief, make a mould from the master and electroplate the mould with copper. Because only the replicas would be used for printing, the original would always remain perfect. Every electrotype, and so every note, would be identical.

At first the bank's printers were reluctant. Printing from relief plates required a switch to printing by the letterpress process, in which only the raised areas of the plate are inked and lightly pressed onto the paper. That was certainly quicker and cheaper than intaglio, but the quality of the resulting printing was not thought good enough for the Bank of England's notes. “Intaglio had always been the Rolls-Royce of printing. They argued that you couldn't get such fine detail with letterpress printing,” says John Keyworth, curator of the Bank of England Museum.

Still, the prospect of identity was tempting, and when the bank's head printer died in 1851 his successors agreed to give Smee's method a trial printing cheques. It was a success, and Smee and the printers began to experiment with banknotes. This time, they nearly fell at the first hurdle: it proved almost impossible to find an engraver willing to take on the excruciatingly difficult job of cutting a design in relief from a solid piece of metal. That was all to the good, though, as it meant few engravers outside the bank would be skilled enough to make fake plates.

Once the bank had settled on a design and found two engravers who were up to the job, work began. Security was vital and the electrotyping process very slow, so Smee set up the electroplating apparatus inside one of the bank's iron safes, connecting it to a Smee cell through holes in the wall. “Here, unseen and without labour or attention, the process goes on by night and by day, on Sundays and holidays,” he remarked.

The delicate casts were filled with molten solder to strengthen them and then mounted on brass blocks for printing. The quality of the notes dispelled any doubts the printers might still have had. Work began in earnest, and 18 months later the new notes were launched. Did they foil the forgers? It seems so. “In the second half of the 19th century the flow of forgeries was reduced to a trickle,” says Keyworth.

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