Capital Ideas

Trip Start Feb 15, 2010
Trip End Feb 14, 2011

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Flag of United States  , District of Columbia
Monday, March 29, 2010

This morning I woke up extra early so that I could drive back into Washington, find a place to park, and jump in line for a ticket to go through the Bureau of Printing and Engraving tour.  The Bureau's website says that on busy mornings, all of their tickets for the day will be gone before 10a.m. and the line is usually very long.  When I arrived the line was certainly very long, but I managed to get a ticket.  There was also a steady rain coming down that made it all that much more fun.  I requested a ticket for 5:00 so I could make it my last stop before leaving town.

The rain wouldn't really be so bad if it weren't for the fact that my right shoe has the unique ability to actually suck water up off the sidewalk and into the shoe.  So, I squooshed my way over to the National Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, but it turned out they don't open until 10:00am, so I had an hour to kill because all of the museums opened at the same time.

The museum was very interesting.  It was not quite what I expected because they broadened the museum to include Central and South America.  The result of that being that they had less room to focus on each tribe.  The exhibits were still informative and described the belief system and basic lifestyle of each tribe.  On the other floors the museum concentrated on what the arrival of Europeans did to change the ways of the native tribes.  They also had exhibits that took a closer look at native groups that are attempting to live according to their traditional beliefs and customs.

My next stop was to the U.S. Botanical Garden.  I have visited Washington a number of times at this point, and the Botanical Gardens was one of the only sites around the National Mall that I had yet to see.  I've certainly been to much larger and more diverse botanical gardens before, but it was a nice change of scenery from the rain outside.  I noticed a few specimens that I recognized from Japan and Africa, but they also had a number of very unique plants that I hadn't encountered before.

I worked my way back to the other end of the mall to visit the Smithsonian Museum of American History.  The last time I was in D.C. they had only opened a small portion of the museum because many of the exhibits are still being finished.  On my last visit I only made it to the main floor, and during this visit I covered the lower level.  The museum is quite large, but definitely not very spectacular on the exterior.  I visited one exhibit covering American inventions, mostly focusing on the work of Edison.  Then I went through a section covering the history and development of ground transportation.  Exhibits included everything from carriages, steam power, trains, modern cars, and the creation of the interstate system.  There was also another section on the lower level dedicated to Julia Child, but I passed over that one because I was out of time for the museum.

My next stop took me back to the Bureau of Printing and Engraving where they print and package the money we use every day.  For security reasons, photography was not permitted inside of the facility, so I don't have much to show you from this particular portion of the trip.  It was a very informative tour and we were shown each step of the process.  To begin with, they receive the paper which is a blend of cotton and linen.  Depending on the intended bill, the paper will already have the watermarked portraits and security ribbons in it.  The next step is to run the paper through a color printer that applies all of the new colored patterns to the bills.  After drying, the sheets are sent through the blank ink press.  This will apply the outer patterns and faces to the backs and fronts of the bills using nickel plates that are pressed against the paper with somewhere between 10-15 tons of pressure!  I later learned that the master copies of the plates are still engraved by hand.  The Bureau has eight master engravers, as well as one apprentice engraver, who perform the delicate and precise artwork into special steel plates.  Those master plates are used to create the many plates that are used in the printing presses.  I was told that each printing plate will last for approximately one and a half months before needing to be replaced.  After the black ink has dried, the sheets are next sent through the green ink printer that will apply the serial numbers and seals to the bills before they are dried once more and sent through high speed scanners.  The scanners are used to ensure quality control, and if any sheet has the slightest flaw it will be pulled.  If a sheet has to be discarded the same serial numbers will be printed except the last digit will be an asterisk.  So, if you've ever seen a bill with a star in the serial number, you have a do-over bill.  After the sheets have been scanned, they are set on a vibrating table where a worker will separate and page through the stack to make sure the sheets don't get stuck during the next portion.  The next portion is where the sheets are cut.  Each sheet contains 32 bills which will be cut into two portions of 16, then two portions of 8, and so on until the bills are all individual.  They are then routed through a machine that will put them into stacks and wrap them up for shipment to the federal banks.  They do not become legal tender until they have been put into their final sealed package, recorded into the Bureau's system, and locked into their vault to await shipment.  Between the facility in Washington, D.C. and the secondary facility in Ft. Worth, TX over a billion dollars in assorted bills are printed each day.  After the tour was over we were led into the...wait for it....GIFT SHOP!  They had various items including prints made from the various engraving plates, shredded money, uncut sheets of bills, and other various souvenir items.  I went ahead and purchased an uncut sheet of 16 one dollar bills.

I spent the rest of my time in D.C. wandering over to say hello to Abe and walking along the Potomac River taking some photos of the Jefferson Memorial through the cherry blossoms. 

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