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Dishing The Dirt On Dosh

Aug 18, 2007
Handing over a couple of pounds for a drink or a bite to eat is all too easy, maybe even pay with plastic if you are feeling that way inclined. Ten thousand years ago, however, you couldn't stick it on the credit card, you were more likely to be paying in cows - money has come a long way.

Shells and ivory jewellery may have been made as early as 75,000 ago and evidence of such pieces have been found in the Blombos Caves in South Africa; cowrie shells in particular have been often quoted as among the first money-like items and were still used into the 18th century! In 1770, the price of a single slave was roughly 150,000 cowries. Whether these early trinkets were traded or not is hard to say, but they may well have been used as some sort of bartering tool. They were not, however, money in our sense of the word and could not really be used in everyday transactions.

The early Chinese, about 10,000 years ago also used to exchange items, with tools, axes and knives among the favourites. In early Egypt and Mesopotamia in about 3000BC, gold bars were individually marked and weighed to show their value. Gold rings and ornaments, which could also be worn - keeping them safe from thieving hands, became another early form of portable currency. To avoid the huge problem of theft, most gold and silver at the time was kept in temples and constantly watched. In Babylon in 1800BC, gold could even be loaned out to people in the trading community or in government - the earliest form of banking.

The earliest coins were made form silver and copper and were probably from Ephesus (now Turkey) dating back to about 650BC. The metal used at the time was called electrum, which is a natural alloy of gold and silver that is found in the country. An early state mint in the country made sure A silver Roman denarius, first struck in 211 BC and replaced in 300 AD.that the mix was always 55% gold to 45% silver, and each was bean shaped and stamped with a distinguishing symbol for authenticity. One hundred years after these first coins, King Croesus of Lydia, near Turkey, produced the first pure gold and silver coins. From there, metal currency spread rapidly with trade routes as people found them easy to use and were common in Persia, Turkey and Greece by the 6th century BC. Strangely, at the same time as coins became commonly made in Asia Minor, the Chinese were also making coins by pouring liquid bronze into small moulds. These coins were flatter and almost rectangular in shape - it was not until 300BC that they were made round and had a square hole in the centre.

Unusually, Rome was lagging behind and was using lumps of bronze for its coins at the same time. The Roman word for money, pecunia, comes from pecus, meaning cattle.

By the time the calendar becomes AD, banking had developed further, with moneylenders authorising payment in one part of the country and taking it on credit from another - thus avoiding the need customers to transport large numbers of metal coins. These early bank managers were made up of temple and public officials with some local entrepreneurs, and debt could be cancelled by paying the right money to a bank or public establishment.

One of the problems with most of these valuable copper and silver coins was that people used to trim the sides of the coils to get thin strips of the precious metal that could be melted together into a larger block. To prevent this, milled edges were introduced in Europe in the 17th century and still appear on many coins around the world. All over medieval Europe was a monetary system of 1:12:20 (penny, shilling, pound) which remained almost unchanged until the French Revolution in Europe. Us Brits, with our stiff upper lips, refused to change it until 1971. Elsewhere, the first dollar arrived in 1517 in Bohemia, and is now the main currency in many countries worldwide. In 1999, eleven countries adopted the Euro as their currency, which has changed the face of modern money and trade.

Paper money was first established in China in the 9th century, but only made it to Europe in the 1500s - Sweden being the first to have a bank note. Johan Palmstruch, the man who established the first Stockholm bank, was charged with fraud in 1667 for not having enough silver in his bank to pay for the bank notes he had produced. Paper notes were a written promise or IOU for a bank to redeem it for a given amount of gold or silver coins - today, all our UK banknotes still have written on them "I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of...".

The credit cards, which we all use to buy now and pay later, were first used in the 1920s in the USA, mainly to sell petrol to the growing number of car owners - in the '30s, companies started accepting each other's cards as trade grew. Using a plastic card in shops first occurred in the '50s and it was the Diners Club that produced the first charge card, followed by American Express. It's big business for them, last year the credit card industry took in 25 billion pounds in card fees.
About the Author
Andy worked for four years studying ducks (no stop laughing, he really did). He went into his PhD thinking he was going to save the world (albeit from ducks) and now spends him time lovingly preening Null Hypothesis, the Journal of Unlikely Science!
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