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Honouring Ern



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Not So

The Rutherford Banknote

By John Campbell

(The earliest version of this first appeared in NZ Science Teacher 71 21-23 1992.
The banknote was updated in 2016, and then regularly, to include new security features so, for example, the spirograph pattern around the map of New Zealand, is no longer included.)

It is not everyday one gets the chance to make money.

On the morning news of June 6th 1991, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand announced that new banknotes were needed. Our existing ones were designed a quarter of a century earlier and many of their security features were about to be overtaken by colour copiers. At the same time the Bank floated the idea that the portrait of the Queen be replaced on some of the new banknotes by those of prominent New Zealanders.

A tremendous noise ensued as the Royalists collectively herniaed.

Before ducking for cover, the Bank sought suggestions for names of suitable people. I certainly had a suggestion.

Ernest Rutherford is the most famous of all New Zealanders and one of the most illustrious scientists of all time. His work ensures his immortality and his fame is clear by whatever measure one selects. His honours include a Nobel Prize and a Peerage and his ashes are interred in Westminster Abbey. He has some 50 books written about him and he has appeared on the stamps of ten countries; Canada, Russia, Sweden, Britain, Romania, Antigua and Burbuda, Guine Bissau, Congo, Djibouti, and New Zealand.

He radically altered our understanding of nature on three separate occasions. Through brilliantly conceived experiments, and with special insight, he explained the perplexing problem of naturally occuring radioactivity (atoms were not necessarily stable entities as had been assumed since ancient Greek times), he determined the nuclear structure of the atom and he was the world's first successful alchemist (he converted nitrogen into oxygen).

Furthermore he led an exemplary life while rising to world fame from the hard times of rural New Zealand in the late 19th century. He is very worthy of being used as a role model for the youth of our country.

Within hours of the bank's announcement I had written to tell them this. As I wrote to a few mates, "I see this as an issue involving the public perception of science. If we end up with bank notes adorned with Phar Lap and the Captain of the 1924 All Blacks, but none showing Rutherford, then the scientific community will have only itself to blame."

Besides, being interested in promoting science to the public, the opportunity of getting science and one of its heros, and a great role model for children, onto an everday item such as a banknote was too good to pass up.

Of our population of about 3,500,000, some 400 people responded to the Bank with a mixed bag of names, such as the wife of ageing rock star Rod Stewart and Dog of the Footrot Flats cartoon.

I liked the idea of Dog. New Zealand would have had a unique banknote. However, because of the steady devaluation of the past decade or two, it might have been more appropriate to use Mickey Mouse.

Within days the Bank could announce that Ernest Rutherford was first choice of the respondents.

It was clear that certain selection rules would be in operation. All candidates had to be dead and thus beyond the front pages of the tabloids. There had to be a Maori and there had to be a woman.

The Bank then commissioned designers to provide layouts and visual reference for new designs featuring the various contenders. At that stage I became involved with the research and possible design elements to be incorporated into a possible banknote featuring Rutherford.

On October 25 the bank released its choices. Cunningly, they gave the newsmedia photographic portraits which were quite different to the ones to be used. They weren't going to give the forgers a head start.

Ed Hillary would grace the $5 note. Though very much alive, his selection was no great surprise. He had polled a strong second and was a very popular candidate. The Bank were taking a risk but when he was approached he apparently turned to his wife with a gleam in his eye and said "Well, I suppose there's not much chance of getting into trouble at my age."

Kate Sheppard goes onto the $10 note early next year. She led the movement which ensured that in 1893 New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant women the vote. That was also the election in which Ernest Rutherford was first old enough to appear on the electoral roll. Moreover, his landlady and future mother-in-law, Mary Newton, was a stalwart of the successful movement.

The Queen was retained on the $20 note, the most popularly used of all our banknotes.

Apirana Ngata adorns the $50 note. He was the first Maori graduate of the University of New Zealand, a leader of his people and a cabinet Minister in Parliament. He was a fellow student of Ernest Rutherford at Canterbury College and they once played rugby together. He was quadralingual and a good dancer.

Ernest Rutherford was destined for the $100 note, our highest value banknote. Probably this was an honour. After all, even I had earlier suggested to the bank that the top contender be on the note whose design is not expected to alter over the years. With immediate hindsight I thought it might have been wiser to opt for a lower denomination note because so few children are going to see a $100 note as part of their everyday life. What I failed to anticipate was that as the largest denomination banknote, it would adorn advertisments in newspapers and TV and also almost any TV news headline involving finance.

The design stage was interesting. In my original letter to the Bank I had pleaded "Please, O please, use a portrait of him as a vigorous, young man. Too often we portray him as an old fart, a portly 65-year old who wears a truss. New Zealand schoolchildren cannot identify with that image". I recommended the best image of Ernest Rutherford, a 1907 pastel portrait sketched at McGill University when 34 year-old Ern had his Nobel Prize work behind him, had started his rise to international fame and had confidence in his own abilities.

Someone in the system insisted that only photographs could be used so I showed the designers the low end of what I held. A 1914 photograph, taken when Ern was aged 42 and about to depart for the British Association meetings in Australia and New Zealand, was as low as the decision makers would go.

The background caused difficulties. There is no piece of scientific equipment associated with Ern which has instant public recognition. So I recommended his Nobel medal and three diagrams representing his great achievements.

His 1908 Nobel Medal for Chemistry is held by the University of Canterbury, as are the rest of his medals. On behalf of the bank, I sought and gained the permission of the Nobel Foundation for use of this image.

Because of security I had not been allowed to be shown the drafts so when the design was officially released it was a disappointment to find that only a sixth of the obverse side of the note had been available to science. His portrait and a watermark of the Queen took up two thirds.

Of the three diagrams I recommended, the designers selected the one showing the curves of the decay of radioactive elements and the resulting growth of daughter elements. This complemented the Nobel Medal.

The other elements of the background include a Maori weaving pattern (taken from the Whakatu marae in Nelson to recognise his birth in, and connection with, that province) and a spirograph pattern overlaying a map of New Zealand. Since Nelson is the geographic centre of New Zealand it fortuitously appears at the very centre of the pattern.

The reverse side of each note includes a native bird, tree, insect and scene. I had suggested flax as the native plant for the Rutherford note because his Dad was a flaxmiller. I never followed up why this was not used but maybe all exploitive industries were banned. After all, we keep telling people we are a clean, green country. The Rutherford note sports a yellowhead (Mohua) on the trunk of a beech tree. It appears to be lining up the lichen moth for his next meal. In the background is the misty Eglington Valley of Fiordland National Park.

So next time you have a quiet moment in science class take out your wallet, lever open the secret compartment reserved for beer money, take out a $100 note and, if you have nerves of steel, pass it around the class so they too can see a New Zealand scientist and failed schoolteacher who made good. (Poor Ern unsuccesfully tried for three jobs as a schoolteacher before he left New Zealand.)

Alternatively, borrow a $100 note from a pupil who receives liberal pocket money.

The notes are numbered starting AA then a six figure number. The AA series is kept for collectors. AA1 is retained by the bank. The next 1000 or so notes are held for collectors of the whole series. The next numbers are used in 200 sheets of 28 uncut notes which are sold to the serious collector at NZ$3200 per sheet. Numbers from about AA6600 to AA8600 are sold as 500 sheets of 4 uncut notes for NZ$465. The bank retains some low numbers of the AB series for sale to casuals and to collectors of particular popular numbers.

Prices for the sheets include GST as they are artifacts. Individual notes are sold at face value plus a NZ$10 handling fee. Sheets are available from your local branch of the Reserve Bank or from the Currency Department, Reserve Bank of New Zealand, PO Box 2498, Wellington.

Impoverished schoolteachers could approach their local bank in order to try to bludge the four page coloured pamphlet entitled "The New Fifty and Hundred Dollar Notes" or the poster entitled "New Design Banknotes". Each bank was issued with one poster which they will eventually take off display and possibly discard.

The Rutherford banknote went into circulation on Nov 3rd 1992. Two days later the first forgeries were reported. Well, not exactly forgeries. Someone cut the colour photos from the newspaper and used them in a dimly lit shop.


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