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Watt set for £50 note

By Matin Durrani

Quiz question: name a scientist who has appeared on a banknote.

Thanks to the powers of Google (other search engines exist) and this informative but possibly out-of-date webpage from University of Maryland physicist Edward Redish, I see that those who have graced various currencies include Bohr (Danish 500 kroner), Marie and Pierre Curie (French 500 franc), Einstein (Israeli five pound note), Kelvin (Scottish pound), Marconi (Italian 2000 lira), Rutherford (100 New Zealand dollar), Schrödinger (Austrian 1000 schilling), Tesla (er, 10 billion Yugoslav dinar) and Volta (Italian 10,000 lira).

Now, a decade after Michael Faraday was ditched in favour of Edward Elgar on the Bank of England’s £20 note, science makes a reappearance in England with James Watt set to appear alongside his Birmingham-based business partner Matthew Boulton on the bank’s new £50 note, which is to enter circulation on 2 November 2011 (see above).

Born in Scotland in 1736, you don’t need me to remind you that Watt made his name by designing a new kind of more efficient and powerful steam engine, which he commercialized with Boulton (1728–1809). Their invention pretty much kick-started the industrial revolution, offering as it did cheap quantities of power. Watt, of course, is also honoured through the SI “derived unit” of power.

Boulton and Watt were both fellows of the Royal Society, prompting current president Sir Paul Nurse to call it “wonderful” that they were being celebrated in this way. “Science and engineering have long driven improvements in our knowledge and in our day to day lives,” he added. “At a time when the UK is trying to rebalance its economy, Watt and Boulton are also a reminder of how science and engineering can be the basis of economic growth for the UK.”

Sadly I haven’t actually got one of the lovely new notes to describe in glowing detail what it looks like, so if anyone from the Bank of England would care to supply one, I’d be delighted.

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