Bitcoin, cryptocurrency and their 17th century counterpart I Curator’s Nook season Four episode 2

published on July 3, 2020

Hi my name's Ben Alsop

Welcome to my corner

So today I want to talk to you about collecting the unofficial

So, we are here in the Department of Coins and Medals

but that name is something of a misnomer

because we have over three-quarters of a million objects in this department

but they're not all just coins and medals

A few years go we decided to collect more broadly

so we collect things to do with money

and if you go to the Money Gallery you'll see some of the things we have

But what's interesting about this 4,000 years of history is that whilst currency

which is of course a representation of money

Money is an idea

it's a human construct

These representations of money are normally given by an authority

be it a king, a queen, an emperor, a central bank

or suchlike

But there are incidents in history where money's been created outside of these bounds of an authority

outside what you would expect to be the usual issuers of money

Here in my hand I have a piece of paper

Now this is a proclamation from 1670 to by Charles II

it's not the original proclamation

this is in Times New Roman

and he was more of a Comic Sans kind of guy

This proclamation begins:

'Where as of late years several persons and corporations

upon pretence that there wanted small
monies to be current

have presumed to cause certain pieces of brass, copper and other base metals

to be stamped with their private stamps

and then impose these pieces upon our poor

Whereby our subjects have been greatly defrauded

and our royal authority and the laws of our kingdom violated'

Now what is he talking about?

He's talking about these small brown and round tokens

These tokens were created in the middle of the 17th century from about the 1640s to the 1670s

Now, they don't look much

You could easily walk past them when you see them in the gallery

But they're fascinating insights into the 17th century

and they speak of a society that has a need for small change So what does it do?

It creates its own

It doesn't worry about central authorities

It doesn't worry about diktats and proclamations

Local shopkeepers actually issue their own money

For instance on this image we have the rather fine image of a monkey smoking a pipe

but on the back it tells us where this
image was created

and it was created in Southwark in London by a man called John Ewing

and what it is is a small token issued by a tradesman

issued by, in this case, a tobacconist

We know this because of the token he created

Now tobacco, as James I described it as 'that precious stink',

was a very important commodity in 17th century England

So this gives us an insight into what maybe a 17th century high street looked like

In London there are over three and a half thousand separate issuers from about 1640 – 1670s

and they get issued throughout the country

and they can be pubs, inns, ale houses, stationers

oil men: so people gave you light

Cordwainers: people who made shoes

or all these things

These are not the stories of kings and queens and emperors who normally adorn our currencies

they are the names and professions of ordinary people

You and I

Shopkeepers throughout the land

and their unofficial

and so that leads in 1670 with Charles II to trying to crush these practices

he says they have been imposed upon the poor

they haven't been imposed upon the poor

they are a necessity, people needed them

and eventually this becomes a problem throughout the history of precious-metal coinages

how do we supply enough?

and what do we do if there isn't enough?

and in the case of society in the UK in the
17th century people made their own

So now I want to bring us into the contemporary world

and to try and make a link

now I'm not saying the link is definite

these objects these 17th

century tokens they try to fit in with
an existing system they try to fit in

with the currency of the day but when we
look at alternative unofficial

currencies today people will think of
cryptocurrencies Now I'm no expert on

cryptocurrencies, to be honest they
scare me slightly, they're very

complicated in some respects but then
what they're trying to do is quite

simple what they're trying to do is
remove the central authority from money

so they're trying to be what there's
known as a peer-to-peer cache where they

are actually not requiring any longer
the central authority of a central bank

or a central banking institution and people can trade and

spend money themselves between one
another without that element of

centralization now cryptocurrencies were
first proposed in 2009 in a white paper

by the mystical mythical sects a Satoshi Nakamoto bitcoin's the most famous of

which but there are hundreds of these
cryptocurrencies around

You have peercoin litecoin etherium
famously the doggie coin or dogecoin for

a while and there are many hundreds of
these things but then how do you collect

cryptocurrency what do you do to collect
these objects which have at their very

heart are not meant to be represented in
a physical form that is not their point

Well we collect ephemera and things
around it I suppose that's the best way

to do it really so here I have a bit of
hardware which is an Ant Miner this is

used obviously to complete the complex
computing problems that are required to

then obtain Bitcoin now this is a very
small example you'd need many hundreds

of these doubtless a much better
computing power than here this is a kind

of an entry level a trainer wheeler
a Fisher Price bubble lawnmower if you

will of the Ant Miner world but it's
important we collect something that at least

represents the hardware involved and
then you have things like this which is

actually more of a commemorative thing
for the commemorative market which is a

Bitcoin token created by a man called
Mike Caldwell in 2011

Now what's being done here is to create
a an actual object but to be honest

Bitcoin never needs to be represented
isn't the whole point of it is it

doesn't take physical form in the same
way of our currency doesn't today but

then that gets the heart of money money
is an idea it is a human construct and

the things that we have on display in
the money gallery are just

representations of money to
a large extent In this digital world in

which live this financially digital
world where in the modern UK society 97

percent of money is
created in the form of loans from

commercial banks doesn't take physical
form what should we as a department be

collecting? This is where I need your
help this is where the Museum needs your

help so make some suggestions So in
three hundred years time someone can sit

here and say 'welcome to my corner' let's
look at the financial world in the early 2000s

Let us know what you think we as a
department should be collecting to best

represent money today

Thanks ever so much for watching my curators corner I hope

you enjoyed it there's a whole bunch of
other great videos available on the

British Museum YouTube channel
subscribe here for more great content

HA! Don't use that you b*****ds!

Also, where I'm from which is a small
village on the Bedfordshire Hertfordshire

border called Shillington previously
known as Shitlington they have tokens

issued oh sorry that is true as well

but I didn't I just thought of throw it in

Proud of it I'm a proud Shitter I'm not going to say that

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