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On the Money: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Coin Portraits

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During America’s infancy, the government didn’t want to put President George Washington or any of the Founding Fathers on U.S. currency. Since government-issued coins had first appeared in the world, it was common for the faces of kings, queens and emperors to appear on them. The Founders had just gotten a constitutional republic up and running, and didn’t want the nasty habits of the old monarchies slipping in. Instead, the Mint adorned coins with an image that made a clear statement about the difference between the government the American colonists had rebelled against and the one they hoped to build: a portrait of the female personification of Liberty (and an American Eagle usually on the reverse).

Lincoln and Washington

It wasn't until 1909, the 133rd birthday of the nation and the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, that a president’s face would be featured on a coin. President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to reinvigorate the design of American coins with elements of classically influenced sculpture and art. He was particularly taken with a 1907 portrait plaque of Lincoln sculpted by Victor David Brenner. Lincoln’s birthday was well-timed, and the portrait was placed on what was planned to be a commemorative coin produced for only that year. That summer, 22 million new Lincoln cents were minted in Philadelphia and circulated. They were so popular with the public that the mint kept turning them out, even after the Lincoln centennial.

Twenty-three years later, George Washington finally got his day. In preparation for the bicentennial of Washington’s birth in 1932, the Treasury Department and the George Washington Bicentennial Commission were toying with the idea of a releasing a commemorative coin and medal featuring Washington’s likeness. They asked the public to submit design ideas. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon liked the work of New York sculptor John Flanagan, and his profile of the president was placed on the Washington quarter. Like the Lincoln penny, the quarter continued to be produced long after its intended run.

TJ, FDR, JFK and Ike

In 1938, the Treasury Department announced another public competition to solicit designs for a new coin. They wanted a new look for the five-cent coin, featuring a portrait of Thomas Jefferson on one side, and Monticello, Jefferson’s historic Virginia home, on the reverse. Three hundred and ninety designs were submitted, and the Treasury awarded the prize to German-American sculptor Felix Schlag, whose portrait was based on a bust by sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The coin featuring Schlag’s work was released later that year.

Shortly after the end of World War II and the death of Franklin Roosevelt, the Treasury received numerous requests to honor the late president by putting his portrait on a coin. Roosevelt’s role in the formation of the March of Dimes made the question of which coin to place him on an easy one. On January 30, 1946, what would have been his 64th birthday, the dime bearing his portrait was released to the public.

Following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, the Treasury wasted no time; they honored the fallen president by swapping his image for the one of Benjamin Franklin on the half-dollar. President Lyndon Johnson issued an Executive Order directing the U.S. Mint to make the change. The new coins, bearing a portrait by Gilroy Roberts, began being minted in 1964.

In 1971, the Treasury made another presidential addition to circulating coins when they put Dwight Eisenhower on the first new one-dollar coin issued since the Coinage Act of 1965 ordered a five-year moratorium.

In 2007, it was announced that the rest of the presidents would get their turn on a coin when the mint began issuing $1 circulating coins—four per year—featuring the images of the presidents in the order that they served in office.

Why Is Lincoln Facing the Opposite Direction?

As noted above, Teddy Roosevelt chose Victor David Brenner’s portrait of Lincoln for the penny. That portrait is based on a bronze relief portrait plaque of Lincoln that Brenner had previously made. The plaque, in turn, was based on a photograph of Lincoln taken in February 1864 by Anthony Berger. Lincoln faced right in the photo, so he faces right on the plaque and also on the penny.

Why Are Only Dead Presidents on Coins?

The reason for putting only deceased presidents on circulating coins goes back to the earliest days of the nation, and follows the reasons those leaders had for not putting the president on coinage at all. While some factions in the young American government were especially enamored of George Washington and wanted his picture on money, the president declined when his portrait was requested for placement on the first U.S. Dollar. The precedent Washington set continued as a long, unwritten tradition until it was written into federal law that no living person can appear on U.S. coinage. Presidents must be dead for at least two years before they are eligible for inclusion in the Presidential Dollar series.

The prohibition on living persons only applies to circulating coins, though. Several people have had their images featured on U.S. commemorative coins during their lifetime. The list includes Alabama governor T.E. Kilby, who became the first living person to appear on a coin in 1921, when a commemorative half-dollar released for the Alabama Centennial.

President Calvin Coolidge became the first and only president to appear on a coin struck during his lifetime in 1926, when he appeared on the Sesquicentennial of American Independence half-dollar.

Senators Carter Glass and Joseph Robinson appeared, respectively, on the Lynchburg, Virginia, Sesquicentennial coin and the Robinson-Arkansas Centennial coin, both released in 1936. (Glass, who had served as Woodrow Wilson's Treasury Secretary, believed no living individual should appear even on non-circulating U.S. currency, and protested his appearance right up until his coin was released).

So ... All Dudes?

The female personification of Liberty was featured prominently on coins until presidential portraits began appearing in the 20th century. But women appear on modern circulating coins, too: the Sacagawea dollar coin has been minted since 2000, the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin was minted from 1979 to 1981 and again in 1999, and Helen Keller appeared on the Alabama state quarter minted in 2003. Queen Isabella of Spain, Eunice Kennedy Shriver (in her lifetime), and Virginia Dare (the first child born in the Americas to English parents) have also been featured on commemorative coins.

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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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5 Things You Didn't Know About Sally Ride
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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are five things you might not know about the astronaut, who passed away five years ago today—on July 23, 2012—at the age of 61.

1. SHE PROVED THERE IS SUCH THING AS A STUPID QUESTION.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. SHE MIGHT HAVE BEEN A TENNIS PRO.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. HOME ECONOMICS WAS NOT HER BEST SUBJECT.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. SHE HAD A STRONG TIE TO THE CHALLENGER.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. SHE DIDN'T SELL OUT.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

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Space
Remembering Comet Hale-Bopp's Unlikely Discovery
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Comet Hale-Bopp was a sensation in the mid-1990s. It was visible to the naked eye for 18 months, shattering a nine-month record previously set in 1811. It inspired a doomsday cult, wild late-night radio theories about extraterrestrials, and plenty of actual science. But a year before it became visible to normal observers, two men independently and simultaneously discovered it in a coincidence of astronomical proportions.

On the night of July 22-23, 1995, Alan Hale was engaged in his favorite hobby: looking at comets. It was the first clear night in his area for about 10 days, so he decided to haul out his telescope and see what he could see. In the driveway of his New Mexico home, he set up his Meade DS-16 telescope and located Periodic Comet Clark, a known comet. He planned to wait a few hours and observe another known comet (Periodic Comet d'Arrest) when it came into view. To kill time, he pointed his telescope at M70, a globular cluster in the Sagittarius system.

Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through a starry night sky.
Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through the sky over Merrit Island, Florida, south of Kennedy Space Center.
George Shelton // AFP // Getty Images

Hale was both an amateur astronomer and a professional. His interest in spotting comets was actually the amateur part, thought it would make his name famous. Hale's day jobs included stints at JPL in Pasadena and the Southwest Institute for Space Research in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. But that night, peering at M70, he wrote, "I immediately noticed a fuzzy object in the field that hadn't been there when I had looked at M70 two weeks earlier." He double-checked that he was looking in the right place, and then started to get excited.

In order to verify that the fuzzy object wasn't something astronomers already knew about, Hale consulted his deep-sky catalogues and also ran a computer search using the International Astronomical Union's computer at Harvard University. Convinced that he had found something new, Hale fired off an email very early on the morning of July 23 to the IAU's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, telling them what he had found, along with detailed instructions on how to verify it themselves. Hale also tracked the object as it moved, until it moved out of view. It was definitely a comet, and it was definitely new.

Meanwhile, Tom Bopp was in Arizona, also hunting for comets. At the time, Bopp was working at a construction materials company in Phoenix, but he was also an accomplished amateur astronomer, with decades of experience observing deep-sky objects. That night, Bopp vas visiting the remote Vekol Ranch, 90 miles south of Phoenix, known as a great location for dark-sky viewing. He was with a group of friends, which was important because Bopp didn't actually own a telescope.

The Bopp group looked through their various telescopes, observing all sorts of deep-sky objects late into the night. Bopp's friend Jim Stevens had set up his homemade 17.5-inch Dobsonian reflector telescope and made some observations. Stevens finished an observation, then left his telescope to consult a star atlas and figure out what to aim at next. While Stevens was occupied, Bopp peered into Stevens's telescope and saw a fuzzy object enter the field of view, near M70. He called his friends over to have a look.

The Bopp group proceeded to track the fuzzy object for several hours, just as Hale was doing over in New Mexico. By tracking its movement relative to background stars, they (like Hale) concluded that it was a comet. When the comet left his view, Bopp drove to a Western Union and sent a telegram to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. (For historical perspective, telegrams were extremely outdated in 1995, but technically they were still a thing.)

Brian Marsden at the Central Bureau received Bopp's telegram hours later, after getting a few followup emails from Hale with additional details. Comparing the times of discovery, Marsden realized that the two men had discovered the comet simultaneously. According to NASA, it was the farthest comet ever to be discovered by amateur astronomers—it was 7.15 Astronomical Units (AU) from our sun. That's 665 million miles. Not bad for a pair of amateurs, one using a homemade telescope!

The Central Bureau verified the findings and about 12 hours after the initial discovery, issued IAU Circular 6187, designating it C/1995 O1 Hale-Bopp. The circular read, in part: "All observers note the comet to be diffuse with some condensation and no tail, motion toward the west-northwest."

Four men smile, posing outdoors next to a large telescope at night.
Comet hunters (L to R): David Levy, Dr. Don Yeomans, Dr. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp pose next to a telescope during a public viewing of the Hale-Bopp and Wild-2 comets.
Mike Nelson // AFP // Getty Images

Less than a year later, Comet Hale-Bopp came into plain view, and the rest is history. It was a thousand times brighter than Halley's Comet, which had caused a major stir in its most recent appearance in the 1980s. Comet Hale-Bopp will return, much like Halley's Comet, but it won't be until the year 4385. (And incidentally, it was previously visible circa 2200 BCE.)

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