August 8 is “National Dollar Day,” commemorating the establishment of the US monetary system on this day in 1786. But the first dollar bill wasn’t issued until 1862—and instead of George Washington, it featured a portrait of Salmon P. Chase, then Secretary of the Treasury under President Lincoln (and later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court).
There was a big inflationary spike in between those two dates, but an 1862 dollar was remarkably close to its value 76 years earlier:
Those early dollars were significantly larger than the ones we use today, almost 7.5 inches long and just over 3 inches wide. In 1929, all US currency was redesigned and shrunk to its present size. Unfortunately, the value of the dollar continued to shrink right along with it: one dollar in 1929 only had the purchasing power of 57 cents in 1862. And while the design of the dollar bill essentially settled in its current form in 1969, its purchasing power has continued to drop. A dollar today will only buy you as much as 16 cents would buy in ’69:
One big dollar number in the news lately is the approximately $2.5 billion cost of the Mars Science Laboratory mission. Measured in terms of cost per distance traveled, the entire journey works out to about $16 per mile. That might seem a little steep, given that even at current local gas prices, a car with decent gas mileage could travel the same distance for just under $20 million. But then again, it would take a few hundred years for the car to get there (assuming you had a road in the first place). And who knows what a dollar would buy by then?
The Mars Science Laboratory weighs in at a hefty 899 kilograms. If you take its weight in $1 coins, it only comes out to $111,000.
And at any rate, that $2.5 billion seems like a bargain if you consider that a line of dollars, laid end-to-end from Earth to Mars, would add up to $1.6 trillion.
Wolfram|Alpha can tell you all sorts of things about dollars, and about money in general. Why not celebrate National Dollar Day by coming up with your own crazy comparisons and calculations… and let us know what you discover?