No one can say with any certainty when money first began to talk, but it hasn’t shut up since. But the people behind the actual printing of money? They’re not the chatty type. It turns out, as I learned on a recent tour of the Bureau of Engraving & Printing, or B.E.P., that insuring the safety and authenticity of the United States’ money supply is very serious business indeed.
I first got an inkling of this when I visited the B.E.P.’s website. In order to take a public tour of the facility, you need same-day tickets issued for a specific time, and must present a valid, government-issued photo I.D. at the ticket kiosk outside the BEP. Even though that process starts at 8 a.m., tickets are snapped up quickly, so the BEP recommends coming early.
Heeding this advice, I arrived outside the B.E.P. at 7:50, fully expecting to be one of the first in line. Wrong. There had to be at least thirty people already patiently waiting there. The teenage boy in front of me was making his second attempt to take the tour, having shown up too late (midmorning) the previous day to secure a ticket.
An armed and preternaturally stern looking Treasury Department Police Officer (yes, they have their own police force) began working his way down the line, looking each visitor in the eye before asking for his or her I.D. He scrutinized each I.D. and visitor individually before reciting a list of the many things which are NOT allowed inside the BEP. Before entering the BEP security screening area, our I.D’s were rechecked, all handbags were thoroughly searched and each visitor was individually "wanded." Then, finally, before the tour commenced, a brief video informed us of the things we shouldn’t do while inside the building, like touch the ceiling (which contains alarms) or take photos.
With that final set of instructions, our group of some thirty people was ushered through a set of heavy double doors into a long, narrow, glass-enclosed corridor looking out over the printing presses. Essentially, the tour winds through the building, following the sequence of machinery that ultimately produces one dollar bills. It’s quite an amazing technical feat, really. Our guide recited the official tour speech that she’d clearly memorized verbatim (though she repeatedly mispronounced the name of the printing method, "intaglio"), giving us the bare facts of the almost hopelessly complex printing process. The high-speed, sheet-fed rotary presses print over 8,000 sheets per hour, running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The BEP produces an almost incomprehensible amount of money daily, some 37 million notes, worth roughly $696 million.
Watching the money literally fly through the presses, a woman beside me murmured, "So close but so far away." My sentiments exactly. The tour only lasted about 40 minutes, but made quite an impression on me. What I remember best, though, is the steely look in that Treasury police officer’s eyes.