Numismatists Of Wisconsin

U.S. Innovation Dollars: Our Most Under-Collected Coin?

[By Mark Benvenuto #2089]

The United States Innovation Dollars program is a few years old right now, and yet, it would be a long-odds bet to see if we can find more than a few folks who collect them and who keep track of when the next ones are going to be coming out. We can argue that it is tough to get excited about a coin series that has an entire string of designs and dates that have essentially no chance of being seen or used in public. The Sacagawea Dollars are occasionally found in some everyday transactions, as are some of the Presidential Dollars. But the Innovation Dollars are simply a tough one when it comes to coming across even a single example.

The first of the Innovation Dollars has a fascinating theme to it – the first patent issued in a young United States signed by none other than a man named George Washington. Curiously, the patent issued on 31 July 1790 to Mr. Samuel Hopkins, was for a novel means of making both potash and pearl ash. The more technical term is potassium carbonate, and this chemical is used in everything from fertilizers to glass production and even some things people eat at Christmas.

This first Innovation Dollar was produced at all three of the mints, meaning Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco. Those that came out of the facility in the city by the bay were made as proofs and quite a few were made as reverse proofs as well. To give some idea of the size of this first year’s production, there are 502,150 of the 2018-P as well as 582,285 of the 2018-D, and 243,567 of the proof 2018-S, plus a further 74,720 reverse proofs that have an s on them as well.

All tallied up that comes to 1,405,262 dollars. Since each weigh in at 8.1 grams, that’s 11,382.62 kilograms or 25,041.77 pounds of metal that went into just the first year. Overall, that’s a lot of dollar coins that most of us will never get to see.

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But it was 2019 that saw the first quartet of Innovation Dollars produced. It was Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Georgia that became the first four in this new and growing series. If those states in that order look familiar, it is because the order is the same as for the 50 States Quarters program which started back in 1999 – the order in which states ratified the Constitution. But the images are produced based on a process that includes the Secretary of the Treasury and the state governor, which means each state (or territory) will have input into its own dollar. One of these first four which might be familiar to many of us is New Jersey and the light bulb. It was no less an inventor than Thomas Edison who worked at his now-famous Menlo Park facility in New Jersey when he came up with the first working bulb. Certainly, an innovation for the world. As well, we can all claim he probably deserves the honor, since he and his team worked for an amazingly long time to get to this success. Indeed, one of his famous quotes is: “I didn’t fail. I just found 2,000 ways not to make a lightbulb.”

The parade of designs has continued every year after that, with some of them relating to innovations or inventions we would all consider famous, while others are decidedly less so. For example, in 2021 New York was one of the four to have some innovation honored and commemorated. The Erie Canal made it as the design, an engineering feat that truly stunned the young nation when it was first opened on Oct. 26, 1825. In fact, that very impressive feat kick-started canal building throughout the nation, although most of them were nowhere near as successful. On the other side of things, it’s possible that not many of us associate Vermont with snowboarding as a sport. But in 2022, that’s what slid onto the reverse of the Vermont Innovation Dollar – even though some historians of sport claim that the first snowboards originated out of Michigan back in the 1960s.

While each of these dollars will have a side dedicated to an innovation of one particular state or territory, there is a lot we can claim is in common among them.

The obverse side sports a novel and attractive design of the Statue of Liberty, with only “In God we trust” and “$1” as lettering. This leaves a significant amount of empty space, which in turn draws our eye to the Statue of Liberty design. The reverse must have the name of the state or territory as well as “United States of America” on it. The date, the mintmark, and the well-established motto “E pluribus unum” all end up occupying the third side of the coin, by which we mean the edge. All of these are incuse features on the edge – those recessed into the coin, as opposed to sticking up from a flat field. This work is something of a throwback to the earliest days of United States coinage when the edge saw similar types of use. But some collectors find it a pain when looking for the mint marks.

If the mint mark on these American Innovation Dollars seems tiny, the collector base for them might prove to be more so. Back when the first Presidential Dollar coins were released, the mint spent tens of millions of dollars on ads showing dear George Washington’s face on the first of these coins, all in an effort to get us all to spend just a single one. When it comes to the American Innovation Dollars, the only ads we seem to be able to find are those kept somewhere in the depths of the Mint’s website (although here’s hoping there are some in more prominent places that this author has missed). Whatever the level of advertising though, we now have an established coin program that is barely used or seen by the public and may be the most under-collected ever. Strangely, this just might be a great chance to expand our own collecting horizons while learning about past progress.

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