The United States one-cent coin is officially named cent, but commonly known as a penny. The colloquial term penny derives from the British coin of the same name. Since 1909 the reverse has honored President Abraham Lincoln in varying designs, and one century later a new, permanent reverse – the Union Shield – was introduced in 2010. The coin is 0.75 inches (19.05 mm) in diameter and 0.0598 inches (1.52 mm) in thickness.
If your coin has a date before 1982, it is made of 95% copper. If dated 1983 or later, it is made of 97.5% zinc and plated with a thin 2.5% copper coating. At one point, from 1793 to 1837, the penny coin was pure copper. After that, the cent was made of bronze (95% copper, and 5% tin and zinc), but then 88% copper and 12% nickel, giving the coin a whitish appearance, and back again to bronze until its current composition of copper-plated zinc.
The fluctuation of copper in the coin composition was due to a number of reasons. The war effort in 1943 increased the demand for copper. However, a limited number of copper pennies were still minted that year. Other times, the price of copper rose to a point where the cent contained almost one cent’s worth of copper. This led the Mint to test alternative metals, including aluminum and bronze-clad steel. Aluminum was chosen, and over 1.5 million of these pennies were struck and ready for public release before ultimately being rejected. The proposed aluminum pennies were rejected for two reasons: vending machine owners complained the coins would cause mechanical problems; and pediatricians and pediatric radiologists pointed out that the radiodensity of the metal inside the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts was close to that of soft tissue, and the coins would therefore be difficult to detect in X-ray imaging. One aluminum cent was donated to the Smithsonian Institution.
As of 2013, based onthe US Mint Annual Report released in 2014, it costs the U.S. Mint 1.83 cents (down from 2.41 cents in 2011) to make one cent because of the cost of materials, production, and distribution. This figure includes the Mint’s fixed components for distribution and fabrication, as well as Mint overhead allocated to the penny. Fixed costs and overhead would have to be absorbed by other circulating coins without the penny. The loss in profitability due to producing the one cent coin in the United States for the year of 2013 was $55,000,000. This was a slight decrease from 2012, the year before, which had a production loss of $58,000,000.
If you wonder whether your penny is made of copper or zinc, the safest and best way to tell their composition is to weigh them. Copper pennies weigh 3.11 grams, whereas the zinc pennies weigh only 2.5 grams. However, an alternative and easiest way is the “drop” test. When you drop the coin on the table, zinc pennies have sort of a flat “clunk”, whereas copper pennies have a higher-pitched, more melodious “ring” sound. Obviously, this test isn’t as reliable as weighing them, but it should help you sort most of copper and zinc pennies.
Do the test and let us know!
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Source: usmint.gov, coins.about.com, parkpennies.com, Wikipedia, sarahsuesphotography.blogspot.com, flickr.com
Camilla G.//SMC Editor
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