The planned issue of the Bank of England’s next generation £50 polymer banknote was announced by Governor Mark Carney during a special event which revealed that computer scientist Alan Turing would be the featured personality on the back.
The process to unveil the design and personality to be featured on the UK’s next £50 banknote all began when the Bank of England asked the country in November 2018 who should be portrayed on the back. After a voting process that lasted nearly six weeks, and, for the most part, was carried out online, the bank received a total of 227,299 nominations. The process of streamlining this list down to a more manageable number of personalities fell to the Bank of England’s Banknote Character Advisory Committee (BCAC). The seven-member committee initially ended up with a still sizable list of 989 eligible names that met the criteria of people who were real, deceased, and who have contributed to their field of expertise in science within the United Kingdom. Ultimately the list was fine-tuned to 12 final choices, and, with the assistance of the Advisory Committee, Governor Mark Carney made the ultimate decision.
Finally, on the 15th July, the Bank of England hosted a launch event which was held at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester. The museum itself has an interesting background of its own, as the main building was a disused railway goods warehouse, as were most of the buildings which comprise the museum today. The building itself sits on the site of the world’s first intercity railway and was a goods depot right up until the 1970s, so each of the buildings relates to the railway in some form.
As Governor Carney took to the podium to make the official announcement, it was for many in the invited audience no surprise, as many had accurately guessed and were proven correct. When the governor confirmed that the public and the BCAC had overwhelmingly chosen British Computer Scientist Alan Turing (1912-1954) for this honour, there was a satisfied applause from the audience. Now regarded as the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence as we understand it today, it is perhaps one of Turing’s most sensational accomplishments, the invention of the machine and process which deciphered the German “Enigma” code machine, which historians believe shortened the war by perhaps as much as two years and saved the lives of 14 million civilians and military personnel. In 1946, he was appointed an officer of the Order of the British Empire by King George VI for his wartime services. Much of his work remained secret for many years due to the Official Secrets Act, and, as such, he received little recognition for his work during his lifetime.
Also on hand for the launch was the Bank of England’s Chief Cashier and Director of Notes, Sarah John, who is herself also a member of the BCAC. Having succeeded Victoria Cleland on the 1st June 2018, one of her primary responsibilities is overseeing both the level of banknote circulation and usage. The next polymer banknote to be issued will be the polymer £20 notes featuring eminent painter J.M.W. Turner, which she will oversee when it is scheduled for release in October 2020.
Michael Alexander: How did the committee come to the decision of this inclusion — what was it about the accomplishments of Alan Turing that especially stood out in terms of their contribution to the field of Science to those who had an input?
Sarah John: Alan Turing was an absolutely amazing mathematician and widely recognised as the father of computer science. He’s probably better known by the public for his code-breaking at Bletchley Park during the war. Breaking the Enigma cypher is widely recognised as having shortened the war by a number of years and potentially saved millions of lives, and that is a huge achievement in and of itself, but Turing’s legacy goes way beyond that. He really was considered the father of computing and he had the concept, the initial concept of a device, a machine that could be used to solve any calculable problem and it’s down to that idea that we have the full range of technology we have available today from the computers that we use at home, that we use at work, and frankly, that we all carry around in our pockets. I think that is an absolutely amazing legacy to be celebrated on our banknotes; he’s made such an amazing difference to the world around us.
MA: He really was an obvious candidate. . .
SJ: He really was. He was just one of the greats that we felt really did need to be recognised.
MA: With the issue of this new £50 polymer note in due course, is the Bank of England committed to the long-term use of this denomination giving that the £50 note has been re-designed and will be issued in polymer? There has been comment about £50 notes being discontinued over concern they might be used to aid or facilitate the movement of illicit monies from point A to B.
SJ: The bank is committed to cash as a means of payment, and actually, the issue of whether to continue with the £50 note was something that the treasury consulted on as recently as last year; they had a call for evidence and they asked for the public to submit their views on whether the £50 denomination should be continued. The result of that consultation was the conclusion that he £50 note should be and I would say the note is used actually for a whole range of different reasons; it’s very popular denomination with tourists. Euro-zone countries often demand £50 notes because tourists want those notes when they come over here and spend them. It’s used domestically for high-value transactions, so there’s a whole different range of reasons why the £50 note is used, and I think will continue to actually be more used in the future.
MA: It seems we can’t avoid the increased use of electronic methods of payment nowadays. Does the Bank of England ever envisage a scenario that banknotes might actually be removed from circulation? How can your department encourage the public to use physical money, is there presently any kind of public awareness or education programme or being planned?
SJ: The bank is absolutely committed to supporting cash as a means of payment for those who need to use it, and in the UK today, there are close to two million people who rely predominantly on cash-only as a means of payment. That’s a lot of people who are still primarily using cash, so even though we are seeing more and more people switch to an electronic means of payment, there are a lot of people who use cash or indeed choose to use cash for everyday transactions. While I think we can’t ignore the fact that use of cash for transaction purposes will decline over time, I think that cash will still play an important role in the payment landscape for quite some time to come. What we are doing at the bank is ensuring that the system which distributes cash around the country is fit for purpose even in a world of declining banknote usage, and when I talk about the system, I mean the wholesale system that gets the notes out to businesses and ATMs. We’re working with other authorities to work out how we can make sure that people continue to access cash and deposit cash if they want to continue to use it in future years.
MA: Speaking about the use of banknotes, there have been quite a few publicised instances of Scots trying to use Scottish banknotes south of the border. How do you think this situation can be better handled since banknotes issued through Scottish commercial banks do not have a “legal tender” status in Scotland and only Bank of England notes have this exclusivity in the UK? Do you think there is a way of clarifying this where Scots aren’t upset, and retailers south of the border aren’t put in the predicament of refusing them?
SJ: One of the elements of my job is that we’re responsible for note-holder protection for Scottish and Northern Irish banknotes. That protection means every Scottish and Northern Irish banknote issued by a commercial bank is backed with assets of the Bank of England and that should give note-holders confidence that they can use that currency — banknotes which are fully backed by the Bank of England. I think that the issue of those notes being used in the UK largely comes down to one of recognition, whether shop-holders can be confident that the note they’re being given is genuine. One of the things that I think will help with this is the move of Scottish and Northern Irish notes to polymer, which they’re taking forward over the next few years following the Bank of England’s lead here, and I think that will make a big difference.
MA: Overall, with two polymer denominations now in use, and a third being released next year, has the use of polymer banknotes fulfilled the expectations of your department in terms of their longevity and circulation quality? Have there been some problems not anticipated and if so, what were they?
SJ: The polymer banknote is cleaner, safer, and stronger than its paper equivalent. It’s cleaner in the sense that they are more environmentally friendly. The £5 note has a 16% lower carbon footprint than the paper £5 note, so absolutely on that front, it has definitely delivered. Safer in terms of reduced counterfeiting, and certainly the initial evidence so far is that we’ve seen very, very few counterfeits produced on polymer — just a handful. It’s been a very big drop off, but I think it’s still too early to call time on that one; we’re very hopeful from the initial evidence that it has made a difference there. I think we’ll have to see how things develop over the next few years.
MA: Essentially, “watch this space. . .”
SJ: Yes, exactly, and in terms of whether they’re stronger, the initial evidence is yes. We had forecast that they’d last at least two-and-a-half times as long than the paper equivalent. Actually, the £5 were only issued in 2016, so they’ve only been out there three years, which means we’ve yet to reach that two-and-a-half times mark, but the initial evidence is very positive on that.
MA: Lastly, I’d like to ask you again about the process of choosing a prominent personality to depict on a banknote. Can you tell me if there was a second choice in the running for the £50 note and, if so, who might that have been?
SJ: We genuinely did not have a second. There was a final shortlist of 12 candidates, which the BCAC put all 12 choices to the governor and he chose Turing.
MA: Sarah John, Chief Cashier and Director of Notes, thank you very much for your time today.
SJ: Thank you very much.
The first banknotes carrying the signature of Sarah John are scheduled for issue with the release of the £20 Turner series “G” banknotes in October 2020. The £50 Series “G” polymer banknote is scheduled for issue towards the end of 2021. The note’s back will include an image of Alan Turing based on a photograph taken by the Elliott & Fry photographic studio in 1951. Also featured will be a table of formulae from Turing’s 1936 work On Computable Numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem. An image of the Automatic Computing Engine Pilot machine, technical drawings of the British bombe machine, which were used to break the “Enigma” code during World War II, will also be included. The quote, “This is only a foretaste of what is to come, and only the shadow of what is going to be,” was made during an interview Turing gave to The Times on the 11th June 1949. A ticker-tape showing Turing’s date of birth in binary code will also be featured in the overall design and a copy of Turing’s signature from the visitor’s book at Bletchley Park, 1947, will complete the design.
For additional information about the current banknote series and forthcoming £20 and £50 releases, please visit the website of the Bank of England.