Australian Fifty Dollar Polymer Test Note circa 1977
Type: Mark 4a
Quality Grade: about EF
Serials: ZZZ 000000
This rare trial note was one of the very last printed by CSIRO staff during the development of Australia's polymer currency.
The evolution of the technology used to print Australia's polymer banknotes can be traced back to a series of counterfeit paper $10 notes discovered in 1966.
Once all of the counterfeit $10 notes had been tracked down and destroyed, once the perpetrators that had printed them had been put behind bars, the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, Dr Herbert (Nugget) Coombs, resolved to ensure those unseemly events were never repeated. Nugget was convinced that science should be able to put much more distance between what the forgers were apparently so easily able to simulate, and what the bank could produce.
A Think Tank to Discuss the Challenge
A think tank to discuss the challenge was called in 1968, made up of several scientists from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) as well as a number of universities. In total, Coombs enlisted seven top Australian scientists – five physicists and two chemists. The two chemists were Jerry Price (who went on to become chairman of CSIRO), and Sefton Hamann, chief of the CSIRO Division of Applied Chemistry.
One of the key points taken away from this first meeting, made by a representative from Kodak Australia, was that if the new banknotes could be photographed, they could also be printed and forged.
For this reason, the scientists in the think tank resolved to come up with a security device that couldn't be photographed (and thus couldn't be forged) - it is from this idea that the optically variable device (OVD) was born.
David Solomon was Senior Principal Research Scientist at CSIRO, he led the CSIRO team that developed the use of plastic films and OVDs. His industrial achievements are best exemplified by the Australian Bicentennial $10 banknote, where he was a principal inventor as well as the project leader from the inception through to the technology transfer stage of the project. Among Solomon's published recollections of the early days of the development of polymer banknote technology is the following statement:
"We produced these devices in large quantities to demonstrate the practical nature of the concept.
We built a production plant in secret and printed a design provided by the RBA – birds in flight – using our plastic film.
However, the number of ideas was beginning to confuse the Reserve Bank and a freeze was put on further designs. So we focused on Diffraction gratings (Holograms), Moire interference patterns, photochromic compounds and a label. The latter was detectable by a machine."
Solomon then proposed a massive innovation - to completely replace the paper traditionally used in the printing of notes with a plastic film. The presence of a clear area alone would force the forger to use plastic, and no commercially available film was available.
Solomon's group made their own polymer substrate, and it was unique. After it had been made opaque, the laminate developed by CSIRO could be printed on conventionally, after which security features were applied. The most notable features of the early test notes were described as being the see-through panel and the hologram.
Testing the First Polymer Notes
At one stage, Solomon's team included no less than 31 staff. In secret at a shed at the CSIRO's Port Melbourne site, they built a pilot production line and produced the equivalent of 50 million banknotes. and 1.25 million OVDs - this was to prove to the Reserve Bank that these revolutionary ideas were not only innovative but were also practical - they could be produced economically.
Testing of the substrate, laminate and security devices was a particular challenge: as any and all issues regarding printing need to be resolved before any notes enter circulation, it obviously isn't possible to trial a banknote "in the field", to issue them into circulation and fix the problems after that.
One piece of lab equipment the secret team at CSIRO used to measure the durability of their polymer test notes was called the "Turbula", a machine that simulated the rigours of circulation. The testing process involved placing weights in the corners of each of the test notes and then tumbling them in a kerosene drum containing controlled amounts of synthetic dirt (carbon black), abrasive materials (polypropylene beads) and even artificial sweat.
This process was apparently extremely accurate at predicting the field performance of the new notes and was also used in later stages of quality control.
Published anecdotes that describe this phase of testing indicate that it was conducted from the mid-1970's - all technical problems are known to have been largely solved in about 10 years, which would indicate that lab testing was complete perhaps by the mid-1980s. The world's first polymer banknotes were actually issued into circulation in our Bicentennial year, 1988.
The test note offered here is unequivocally the same type of note used by Solomon and his team in testing various substrates, printing laminates and security devices. Similar test notes can be seen in CSIRO's own images of the Turbula durability test, as well as in library images of David Solomon.
Rather than dismissing this test note based on its condition, I'd suggest collectors view the condition as being an authentic representation of the lengths to which the CSIRO went to ensure the integrity of our national currency.
It was actually handled by CSIRO staff during testing after all!
This test note has a texture unlike any Australian polymer note issued into circulation.
As you can see from the images posted here, the simultan print phase seems to have been the easiest print phase for CSIRO to master - although they're subdued, the background colours have survived largely intact.
The sharpness of the intaglio design - the "exaltation" of larks, as well as the written notations of the denomination etc, are of course printed more sharply on the notes we use today.
The biggest challenge for Solomon's secret CSIRO testing team is recognised as being the hologram - the texture to the Mark 4a note clearly indicates further improvement was necessary.
One of the Last Test Notes Printed
A well-referenced catalogue listing the different varieties of these test notes is yet to be published. In the meantime, our own schema is as good as any to get a clear idea of the characteristics each type has, and the relationship they have with each other.
This particular type has the ZZZ serial number; OV's at both the top and the bottom of the clear window, and a greenish tinge to the simultan phase. Informal advice from those involved with the production of the notes indicates these were among the very last of CSIRO's test notes.
This polymer test note will be of keen interest to anyone committed to building a collection that showcases the evolution of circulating currency in Australia. It is a rare, direct and tangible representation of Australia's worldwide reputation for innovation and integrity in this incredibly challenging field.
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