Gerald Tebben

Five Facts

Gerald Tebben

Gerald Tebben, a Coin World columnist for more than 30 years, also contributes to Coin World’s Coin Values and edits the Central States Numismatic Society’s journal, The Centinel. He collects coins that tell stories.

Coin World’s bloggers are not edited by Coin World’s editorial staff and blog posts reflect the views of the individual author.

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Odd uses for coins: A penny a day...

Coins are good for spending, of course, if that’s all you can think of to do with them. But the possibilities for other uses are endless.

Coins have weight, mass and dimension. They can be used to regulate time, measure distance, restore bad wine and even serve in the dark arts of spycraft.

For the next five weeks, I’m going to look at alternate uses for one of mankind’s most useful inventions.

A penny a day keeps the time right.

Keepers of London’s Big Ben have used pennies and pounds to regulate the timepiece since it was set ticking more than 150 years ago.

Adding an old English penny (9.4 grams from 1860 to 1970) or a modern £5 pound crown (28.3 grams since 1990) to the clock’s massive pendulum causes the clock to gain time.

Before 2009, when crowns were added to the mix as part of the countdown to the nation’s 2012 Olympics, timekeepers kept 10 old pennies beside the mechanism, using the coins to keep the clock accurate.

Adding or taking away coins affects the pendulum’s center of mass and the rate at which it swings, Mike McCann, the clock’s keeper told Reuters news service at the time.

In 2015, news photos showed a pile of coins on the pendulum as timekeepers tried to regulate a clock that was suddenly six seconds off.

CBS news reported, “The guys who maintain it, like Ian Westworth, have been struggling to keep it on time — even using pennies as weights.

“By putting on or taking off a penny on the pendulum, you speed up or slow down the clock by two-fifths of a second in 24 hours,” Westworth said.

Adding a penny to the top of the pendulum effectively shortens the length of the pendulum, causing the pendulum to run slightly faster. 

In 2009, a commemorative crown was added to the pile of well-worn Victorian pennies. The crown takes the place of three pennies when placed on the pendulum. The countdown crown, fittingly, has a stopwatch as part of the design. The central element was a large numeral 3 (three years to the Games) superimposed over two swimmers.

“There is a long and historic relationship between Big Ben and the UK’s coins,” McCann said. “Few people realize the technical role the old pennies have played inside the clock.”

The clock will fall silent for a while next year when it undergoes a $42 million restoration. The New York Times said, “Maintenance teams have identified problems with the clock’s hands, mechanism and pendulum that threaten its ability to function properly.”

Next: A numismatic ruler


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