Road Trip 2010: CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman gets a behind-the-scenes look at how U.S. coins are designed and produced.
PHILADELPHIA--One of the best parts of Road Trip 2010 is getting to go behind the scenes at terrific places, and often getting much closer to the action than is usually possible.
On Wednesday, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman completed a two-part set of visits to the production facilities for America's money. First it was the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing's next-generation $100 bill production process, in Washington, D.C. On Wednesday, it was the U.S. Mint here, to see how coins are made.
Pictured is a bin full of thousands of blank dollar coins. These blanks will go through several steps before being fed into a press and emerging as dollar coins.
The Mint presses 750 coins a minute, and these days is producing 20 million coins a day, though its full capacity is higher, as much as 50 million coins daily. That number is lower today, because of the state of the economy, and lower demand for new coins.
The production process is pretty much the same these days for all U.S. coins, although some designers still work mainly in clay, while others use software tools like Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop.
For the first step, a designer, in this case medallic artist Phebe Hemphill, works on the new coin's design in Photoshop. Here, she shows the design for a special commemorative medal--which the U.S. Mint also makes, in addition to coins that are put in circulation--honoring the Tuskegee Airmen.
With the software tools at their disposal, it is possible for the medallic artists to do very fine detail work, and to do so using haptic tools that allow them to actually feel the feedback of their work on the design, as if it was being done on clay or plaster. But it's all digital, and the software translates the feedback through the haptic tool.
Here, we see a medallic artist working on the design of a James Monroe commemorative medal.
Later in the process, this software allows for fine-tuning of the "cutter path" that will be used to actually cut the steel die used in the production presses. The cutter path is the series of lines that will be cut into the die, at distances of just thousands of an inch wide.
The orange ball on the screen is a pivot point that allows the transfer engraver to direct the specific cutter paths.
A dime blank that will go through two more steps. In the first, it is annealed, meaning it is run through a furnace to be softened. In the second, it is upset, meaning it is squeezed to give it an expanded edge, and to give it a good surface where the press can strike.
These are authentic dies for Thomas Jefferson medals, which were given to Native American chiefs in the 19th century in exchange for medals that the British had previously given them. The idea was that the chiefs could take their new medals and use them for a visit to Washington, D.C. But many chiefs simply wore the medals around their necks.
The Mint takes pride in the educational value of many of its commemorative coins. For example, this is a plaster cast of the Delaware quarter, the first in the 50-states quarters program. Many people were confused by the drawing of Caesar Rodney, which bore a striking resemblance to Paul Revere. People wondered why Revere was on the Delaware quarter. But by using the image of Rodney, the Mint was able to help educate people to the fact that Rodney, who was from Delaware, was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.