Friday, July 12, 2013

Another thing Ayn Rand gets wrong in Atlas Shrugged

Ayn Rand adored the dollar sign. She wore broaches in the shape of the dollar sign and at her memorial service had a floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign. And the dollar sign is all over Atlas Shrugged, including the final gesture of the book. The dollar sign is to objectivists what the cross is to Christians.

But unlike Christians, Rand didn't actually know where the symbol came from. In the painfully long tenth chapter of Part 2 of Atlas Shrugged, "The Sign of the Dollar" she has Owen Kellogg (some guy who's long since gone Galt and just happens to show up when the crew of her train gets raptured go Galt) explains, as they are sharing a smoke of John Galt's personal cigarette blend - the brand with the gold dollar sign stamped on each cigarette:
"Incidentally, do you know where the sign comes from? It comes from the initials of the United States."
Now since I've seen Rand's bone-headed mistakes concerning Prometheus, the East River and iceberg similes, I was suspicious of this explanation - it has too much of the Randian wish-fulfillment that infuses Atlas Shrugged. So I checked out both Wikipedia and The Straight Dope and they both agree that this is not the most likely explanation. The Straight Dope debunks:
The dollar sign was originally the letters U and S superimposed. The idea here is that the original dollar sign had two vertical lines, not one. Popular though this idea is, there is zero documentary evidence for it. Furthermore, Robert Morris, the Revolutionary War financier and the first U.S. official to use the dollar sign, made it with a single vertical stroke.
And then proceeds:
Professor Florian Cajori contends that the dollar sign is an abbreviation for "pesos." Bear in mind that the Spanish dollar, also known as the peso de 8 reales, was the principal coin in circulation in the U.S. up until 1794, when we began minting our own dollars. In handwriting, "pesos" was usually abbreviated lowercase "ps," with S above and to the right of the P and with the hook on the latter written with one or two deep strokes. As time went on, the P and the S tended to get mashed together and the result was $. 
The dollar sign and the PS abbreviation were used interchangeably from around 1775 until the end of the century, after which the latter faded from view. Professor Cajori backs up his argument with examples from manuscript, and I'm prepared to declare the matter settled.
I don't know if Rand was aware of the alternative theories but even if she was I'm sure she would prefer not to use the peso version - in Atlas Shrugged she takes great care to tell us that Francisco d'Anconia looks Latin only in the sense of ancient Rome, not in the sense of a Latino.

And Mexico is a bad guy in Atlas Shrugged full of looters who nationalized everything in sight.