It wasn’t long ago that Phillip Torrone and Limor Fried heard the news that the United States Treasury was considering putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. It seemed like a big moment, a beacon of progress. But when it became clear that it wouldn’t happen any time soon—the Treasury said it would wait until 2020 just to unveil the design, let alone start printing and circulating the new bills—they decided to take the switch into their own hands.
Torrone and Fried are both perpetual makers: Fried, an engineer and electronics hobbyist, founded the open-source hardware company Adafruit Industries; Torrone founded Hackaday, and has been described by this publication as a “hardware-hacking evangelist.” (Fried also appeared on the cover of WIRED in 2011, under the headline “How to Make Stuff.”) The two have been at the forefront of the Maker Movement, and regularly offer tutorials for DIY technology projects. So if the government wasn’t going to make those Harriet Tubman $20s, they figured they could do it themselves.
Using a 3-D printer and a handful of materials, they made stamps of Tubman’s face, dipped them in ink, and then stamped them onto $20 bills. And just like that, Andrew Jackson became Harriet Tubman.
“We have this technology,” says Fried. “We know how to 3-D print stamps. Instead of just making birthday card stamps, I thought it would be neat to make something a little more countercultural—something that would help people see, here’s what technology can do.”
Last week, Torrone and Fried put together a tutorial showing how to create a DIY stamp mold yourself. The process works with any image, which is then run through a lithophane generator to create the basic mold. Then, using a laser cutter, they cut away the parts they want to appear in the stamp. The stamp itself is made from two types of putty placed into the mold, then attached a handle and dipped into ink. “If you have a maker space or a hacker space, it’s a good project that lets you learn all of these technologies,” says Fried.
In their tutorial, Torrone and Fried show stamps in the likeness of Harriet Tubman and Steve Jobs. But you can imagine the possibilities of an entirely new set of figureheads on currency, representing more than just the garden variety founding fathers. Maybe people start stamping Sally Ride on the $10, Grace Hopper on the $50, Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the $100. Maybe each note represents excellence in a particular field—$5s for political heroes, $20s for cultural icons, and $100s for America’s great scientists—with a whole range of faces replacing the old white men on each bill.
“If you see these faces every day, they gain power. They’re on the most powerful currency in the world,” says Fried. “It’s hard to tell some girl, ‘Hey, you can grow up to be a founding father.’ No, you can’t. But you can learn about Sally Ride or Harriet Tubman and be like, ‘This person had strength in adversity and was able to do something amazing.’”
The stamps follow in a long line of similar projects. Efforts to politicize currency date at least as far back as the 1900s, when English Suffragettes stamped pennies with the message “votes for women.” More than 100 years later, after the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, a group called Society of Stampers started selling rubber stamps with politicized messages, encouraging people to “stamp big money out of politics” by pressing the messages onto every bill they touched.
While these projects are all politically charged, defacing US currency isn’t, on its face, illegal. Federal law only prohibits altering money “with intent to render such bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt unfit to be reissued”—that is, to take it out of circulation. Torrone and Fried’s project has exactly the opposite intent. They want their stamped bills to change hands as much as possible, so that people see them and think, Wait, is that Harriet Tubman? and then consider who they might want to represent them on their money.
“A lot of people feel helpless about the government, but this is something everyone can do in their own little way,” says Torrone. All it takes is some putty, a 3-D printer, and a vision for the future.