For as long as mankind has created currency, the human figure has made their mark on it. The oldest yet discovered to date is the daricfrom around 520-48 BCE – a thick gold coin that depicts an unknown king shooting an arrow. Introduced by the third Persian Emperor, Darius I, each coin has a standard weight of 8.4 grams and had a purity of about 95.83%; establishing a reformed currency system that become the monetary standard for the Achaemenid Persian Empire.
From the collective effort of numismatists, arsonists, anarchists and conspiracists who hide their money under the mattress, it is difficult to accurately assess the total amount of cash in circulation. The Bank for International Settlements (BIS), an international financial institution owned by central banks that “fosters international monetary and financial cooperation and serves as a bank for central banks”, details statistics of the worth of banknotes and coins for 18 major currencies used by the member states of the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures (CPMI). They calculate the total banknotes and coin is $4,687 billion.
Meanwhile, advancing technologies such as cryptocurrency and digital wallets makes the nature of cash even more slippery. “The amount of money that exists changes depending on how we define it. The more abstract definition of money we use, the higher the number is,” says Jeff Desjardins, an edit of Visual Capitalist. For purists, physical money in the forms of banknotes and metal coins is worth around US$36.8 trillion.
Printing money is, in itself, big money. A report from Smithers, The Future of Banknotes, forecasts that the global banknote production market will grow from US$9.94 billion in 2018 year-on-year at 3.2% to produce a value of US$11.63 billion in 2023. They argue that Asia and Africa holds the highest growth potential, as printers in developed regions reaction to a more competitive demanding environment.
For the innumerable banknotes that change hands every second globally, in a cacophony of colors, design and security features, size and value—they share one thing in common. The figures that grace them made an unimaginable contribution and lasting impact on their nation; whether political, economic, social, agricultural, artistic, scientific or literary. Being featured on a national currency is a feat that only a few achieve, and usually beyond their lifetime. Below, we explore some of the biographies of those that feature on our banknotes.