Research in History

To Counterfeit is Death: Exploring Benjamin Franklin’s Methods

By Daniel W. Everton


Portrait of Dan Everton, historian and artist

My OUR project focused on Benjamin Franklin and the methods he helped develop in the creation of anti-counterfeit measures as he and his colleagues were commissioned for printing paper money. In 2012, the Delaware County Institute of Science discovered in its collections a set of metal blocks that appeared to be used for printing currency. They approached Jessica Linker, who was working on her dissertation at the time and a long-time fellow at the Library Company of Philadelphia, who has been studying them since. Upon seeing the blocks, I immediately thought of 3D printing a copy. While I was initially going to venture off by myself to attempt to 3D print the blocks, I was approached by Jessica Linker and readily pulled into her team of undergrads to work on their Digital Scholarship Summer Fellows project from Bryn Mawr College. The Fellows are Umma Tanjuma Haque, Shuang Li, Linda Zhu, and Eleftheria Anagnostou. My focus was to learn photogrammetry from the students, assist in the project, as well as document the process through photography and film.


Figure 1 – Photo of the sage leaf block, Photo by Daniel W. Everton



What is photogrammetry? Specifically, it is the ability to take measurements from series of photographs. These measurements allow one to measure a surface. A non-profit named Cultural Heritage Imaging (CHI) trained individuals at Bryn Mawr College, in which they trained the Digital Scholarship undergraduate students how to do the process. The sage leaf block, pictured above, has a very shallow or “low” relief. The image on top of the leaves is hard to see. This proved to be the hardest thing to photogrammetry since the photographs could not provide the software enough surface points. It wasn’t until Matthew Jameson, PhD candidate in Classical Archaeology, suggested putting the leaf block at a tilted angle with the assistance of an ingenious piece of Styrofoam. After that, our team was able to successfully capture the surface points. While there were two other blocks with the sage leaf block, the sage leaf block is fundamentally the one I am most interested in as it relates to my argument which I will explain later.

Figure 2 – The sage leaf block positioned on a Styrofoam wedge, within a lightbox. Photo by Daniel W. Everton


The software we used to compile all our images and put them on the XYZ planes is Agisoft. Within Agisoft and the work between all the students, we were able to capture up over 120,000 points within 184 pictures. Pictured below shows how the pictures are “situated” in space and reflected onto the anchor which is the ball. The Fellows taught me how to use Agisoft, take the circuits of photos, and how to follow the workflow.


Figure 3 – Screenshot of Agisoft with Leaf Block photos, totaling 184 photos and 126,586 points. Screenshot taken by Digital Scholarship Students and Jessica Linker


The result of all these, leads into a stunning 3D rendering of the blocks with a successful mesh that shows the details of the sage leaves on the block.

Figure 4 – Mesh showing the detail captured through the rendering. Screenshot taken by Digital Scholarship Fellows and Jessica Linker.


Figure 5 – Final 3D render of the sage leaf block. Screenshot taken by Digital Scholarship Fellows and Jessica Linker.



As part of Bryn Mawr College Digital Scholarship Fellowship, Jessica Linker developed a project with the Library Company of Philadelphia where they would create a digital exhibit about the blocks. Using the Unity software, the rendering made in Agisoft can be put into a digital “landscape” where individuals can visit the website and explore the blocks. The mesh for the blocks will eventually be open sourced, and a 3D print of it will be attempted later.


My Argument/Thesis

While I am a Historian, I am also an artist. I fell into printmaking and printing, which are understood currently as two separate disciplines but seem to have been very enmeshed during the time of colonial printing. I argue that Benjamin Franklin and his team used printmaking methods and other very innovative technologies that I feel should classify Benjamin Franklin as an artist. I think his prints should be taken into consideration amongst fine artists, and his subsequent bills printed by himself and those within his printing company to be examples of art. To make his bills anti-counterfeit, Franklin had to innovate on current technologies and create new ones.  The colonial bills I encountered at the Library Company have utilized monotype printing, intaglio plate processes, and of course, the nature-leaf print blocks that were custom made. I hope to explore the process further in the fall, where I try to recreate the theorized methods of how the leaf blocks were made to make my own print editions.

My documentation of the project will be within a “vlogumentary”, utilizing a YouTube and traditional documentary style methodology to discuss what I learned, some history about colonial printing, and the process of photogrammetry. I hope to release it in late Summer.


Figure 4 – Two Dollar Bill for Massachusetts-Bay, March 1780, Printed by Hall and Sellers for a “Peter Boyer”. The bill uses intaglio, monotype printmaking, unique registration, and a nature/leaf print block.



A special thanks to Bryn Mawr College and their Digital Scholarship team on campus, Jessica Linker, Umma Tanjuma Haque, Shuang Li, Linda Zhu, Eleftheria Anagnostou, Matthew Jameson, Anne McShane and Jim Green and other staff at the Library Company of Philadelphia, Dr. Amy Shapiro of UMass Dartmouth, Professor Len Travers of UMass Dartmouth and Dr. Paula Rioux for igniting my love of public history again, Professor Elena Peteva for answering all my weird questions about printmaking and teaching me printmaking, and to UMass Dartmouth’s OUR Grant program and the review committee for the opportunity and their work and allowing me to do this.

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