By John Campbell
(This first appeared in NZ Science
Teacher 71 21-23 1992)
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
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 40 books
written about him and he has appeared on the stamps
of four countries; Canada, Russia, Sweden 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 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
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. Another stalwart of the successful
movement was Mary Newton, Ernest Rutherford's landlady
and future mother-in-law.
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.
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 pastel portrait sketched at
McGill University when 34 year-old Ern had his Nobel
Prize work behind him, had started his rise to 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
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
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
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,
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.