Medieval methods... (was Re: Got a question....PDP? VAX?)

From: <(>
Date: Thu Mar 18 10:15:01 1999

Derek Peschel wrote:

> There were some transition problems. The coins said "new" on them for a
> while, as in "ONE NEW PENNY". People used old coins and units, whether they
> were equivalent (1 shilling = 1/20 pound = 5 (new) pence, so old shilling
> coins were useful for a while) or not (some low-value old coins were the
> same size as higher-value new ones). [from recent alt.folklore.computers
> posts]

Basically correct. The old sixpence was used as 2.5 new pence for a few years.
Shillings and florins (2 s. - see below) were used as 5p and 10p coins right up
until the early 1990s. The 5p and 10p coins introduced in 1968 (yes, three
years _before_ decimalisation) were the same weight as the shilling and florin
of the time, so this made sense. In the early '90s - I'd have to look up the
exact years - smaller 5p and 10p coins were introduced, and the shillings and
florins finally withdrawn. Unfortunately the new 10p is only slightly larger
than a shilling, which caused some confusion.

FWIW the 1p coin is the same size, weight and until recently composition as the
farthing, and the 2p coin the same as the (old) halfpenny. The new halfpenny
(which endured until the early 1980s) was very small.

> But those things aren't relevant to the average tourist or British citizen
> of today. It does take a microscopic amount of effort to get used to the
> differing terminology and a larger amount of effort to get used to the
> actual sizes of the coins.
> On the other hand, the coins are grouped in sets. Each set (of 2-3 coins)
> has a metal (i.e., copper, silverish, goldish, bi-metallic) and a shape
> (i.e., smooth edges, rough edges, seven-sided, letters on the edge). Within
> a set the coins start small and get big. The numerical value is printed on
> each coin. So everyone (including blind people) has it easy.
> Don't blame me if some of those qualities (bi-metallic, seven-sided) don't
> exist. I haven't been to England in a while. Besides, I get pound coins
> and franc coins mixed up.

Metals (slightly simplified). All the coins until recently were alloys of
copper and nickel. The colour was varied by changing the copper content, from
about 98% for "copper" coins to ?90% for "silver".

The copper coins - 1/2p, 1p, 2p have smooth edges. Originally made out of an
alloy mostly copper, recent ones are steel, copper plated.

The old silver coins (shilling, florin) had rough edges. The new 5p and 10p
have edges slightly less rough.

The 20p and 50p coins have seven sides and slightly more copper than the 5p and
10p (still silvery but the difference is just visible); the sides are smooth and
curved so that the coin has a constant diameter. In 1997 the original 50p went
the way of the shilling and florin, and a smaller (but otherwise identical) coin
replaced it.

The L1 and L2 coins are yellow in colour, twice as thick as the others and have
rough edges with a motto incised into it. Since 1997, when they were first
minted for general circulation, L2 coins have been bimetallic but they are the
same size as the comemorative L2 coins from before.

Comemorative L5 coins exist, which are confusingly the same size and silver
colour as the comemorative 25p coins of the 1970s (imitating the crown = 5
shilling piece).

> IIRC the sets don't match the "natural" breakdown of the coins' values
> (1p/2p/5p, 10p/20p/50p, L1/L2/L5) but the system is still very elegant. It
> should be a lesson to the US Mint on how to avoid making mistakes. The L1
> coin also makes a really nice "plnk" sound on a counter and has a motto on
> the edge.

True, since there are only 2 coins to each of what you call sets. But yes, it
is a lot easier than I found the US coinage, where nickels are bigger than dimes
but apparently the same metal. Having 1,2 and 5 in each decade helps, too...

> And before anyone argues, I know there's no L5 coin (maybe for special
> occasions) but it would fit into the scheme perfectly.

I said a few years ago that the L5 note is worth no more now than the 10
shilling note was when that was withdrawn (1969?). But no regular L5 coin is

> Now if only British postage stamps were equally exciting.

There used to be a system of sorts. But it seems to have been well messed up...
Stamps are not my field, I'm afraid, so I sha'n't comment.

> ObCC: PL/I had similar facilities to cope with pounds-sterling arithmetic.
> Also, the Felt & Tarrant Company (producers of the Comptometer calculator)
> made various models with odd "bases" (sterling, hours/minutes/seconds,
> feet/inches/8ths, etc.) Too bad they never made all-octal or all-hex
> machines.


Also ObCC (almost): as I mentioned the 20p and 50p are curves of constant
diameter. Our first multi-sided coin was a 3d piece, which took over slowly
from tiny silver ones in the 1930s and '40s. This had 12 sides, and was
therefore not of a constant width. This meant some negotiations with slot
machine (both vending and gambling) manufacturers. Some coins were minted a
year early for test purposes. Then the King was forced to abdicate (over a sex
scandal - plus ca change...) and a new king took the throne in the year before
that printed on the coins alongside the old king's name! The coins were
withdrawn and melted down, of course. A few 3d pieces bearing the name of
Edward VIII still exist, however. The last one to be auctioned fetched L60 000.
so I don't think that space in my collection will be filled at all soon.


Joe Rigdon wrote:

> No wonder Leo wanted to computerize their payroll and accounting! The
> math must have been a royal pain!

I think it was. I was only 3 when decimalisation happened, so I never had to
learn pre-decimal currency at school. I think in mediaeval times, when your
total income was a couple of pounds a year, and you did all the calculation in
your head, it wasn't too bad. But in the 20th century, with formal methods of
decimal calculation on paper widely known, at routine calculations in hundreds
of pounds, it was an anachronism.


M K Peirce wrote:

> Any thoughts on how they handled guineas and florins?

The guinea was still used as a unit for some transactions (=21 s.) but it had
ceased to exist as a coin 100 years and more earlier. My guess is that for the
sort of transactions that Lyons were interested in, the guinea was not used.

The florin was introduced in the mid 19th century as Britain's first decimal
coin - one tenth of a pound. But by the mid 20th century, florin coins all
actually bore the legend "two shillings" (you Americans wouldn't be at all
confused if your dimes said "ten cents", would you?), and "florin" was no more
than the name of the coin.

Received on Thu Mar 18 1999 - 10:15:01 GMT

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