Decimal Day

Happy Decimal Day everyone!

On February 15th 1971, the United Kingdom introduced decimal currency and said goodbye to pounds, shillings and pence.

This video shows some of the challenges and confusion associated with making the change. Millions of cash registers and telephone boxes had to be converted, “sales girls” up and down the country were taught to handle the new coins:

All the old coins will be burned or melted…

It had been a long process. Sir John Wrottesley had proposed decimalisation in 1824, but his suggestion was rejected by Parliament. There were a number of subsequent attempts to introduce decimalisation but it wasn’t until tthe 1960s that there was any real progress. In 1961, the Committee of the Inquiry on Decimal Currency was established and published their recommendations in 1963.

The new coins themselves had been introduced before D-Day as people learned to adjust to the new system. Some were unhappy with this change to their loose change. Some were opposed not just the idea of decimalisation, but to the very nature of the coins themselves – particularly the seven-sided 50p coin. Retired army colonel Essex Moorcroft founded the “Anti-Heptagonists” in protest. “I have founded the society because I believe our Queen is insulted by this heptagonal monstrosity,” he explained. “It is an insult to our sovereign, whose image it bears.”

Moorcroft’s campaign failed and the 50p (and 20p which was introduced in 1982) are now considered design classics. Easily distinguished by touch from other coins, they are both shapes of constant width meaning they roll smoothly when inserted into vending machines, just as a circular coin would. These kinds of shapes, Reuleaux polygons, can only be produced if the shape has an odd number of sides:

The new £1 coin, announced in 2014 and due to be introduced shortly, has twelve sides and so will not roll smoothly like a 20p or 50p and so some have raised concerns that it may get stuck in coin-operated machines. In order to avoid problems, the coin will have “radial chords” and rounded corners. The decision to give the coin twelve sides was inspired by the old threepence piece. False appeals to nostalgia and emotion trump rationality and logic. The new £1 coin is truly a symbol of our times.