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Is this the most secure coin in the world?

Royal Mint

Is this the most secure coin in the world?

Royal Mint

Although people are becoming increasingly reliant on electronic forms of financial transaction, the introduction of a new coin still feels like an important occasion. The new £1 coin, which enters circulation on March 28, is described by the Royal Mint as “the most secure coin in the world”. It is likely to be controversial.

The coin it replaces, introduced in 1983, had become prone to counterfeiting, with about 3% of £1 coins estimated to be forgeries. To stymie the counterfeiters, the new coin incorporates a range of security measures, including micro-lettering, a bimetallic design, a hologram-like “latent image”, and a mysterious hidden feature intended to future-proof the coin against as yet unspecified threats.

It will also have 12 sides, and so harks back to one of the most fondly remembered coins of the 20th century, the dodecagonal threepenny bit. This threepenny coin was first introduced in March 1937 and was withdrawn after decimalisation in 1971.

The old threepenny coin. Slashme via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Yet for all the nostalgia associated with the reintroduction of a 12-sided coin, it should be remembered that the 1937 threepenny was not widely feted when initially introduced. It was the first non-circular coin to be struck in Britain, and was so unusual when it entered circulation that the Nottingham Evening Post wryly observed that “we shall know that the British public is past being surprised at anything” if “nobody jibs at receiving … a strange [polygonal] coin”.

The physical feeling of cash encourages us to develop emotional feelings about it. The new £1 coin is thinner, lighter and slightly broader than its predecessor, and it seems likely that the shock of the new will ensure that it generates debate. As was the case with the new five pound note introduced in September 2016, some will welcome it, others abhor it. Opinions will abound. But we shall have to see whether novelties in the British coinage are still capable of inspiring hostile verses, as they were in the 1930s when a disgruntled poet wrote to the Manchester Guardian to insist that:

I would not fritter breath
Upon that alien, new-fangled, thick
Intractable dodecagon.

Feelings run high because people do not think about cash money in purely economic terms – they judge and relate to coins and banknotes as elements of a material culture. Assessments are made based on individual taste. Personal relationships can also be formed with inanimate monetary tokens, and through them with the economic systems they embody and represent. And like all relationships, they take time to establish.

Give it time

People will, of course, get used to the new coin. It will quickly become an entirely unremarkable part of our daily routine, its specific dimensions and angular edges – at first touch so strange and unusual – will become familiar under people’s finger tips. Of course, they do not need to like a coin for it to remain useful to them, and the new pound will still be worth a pound, even if we hanker after the well-worn and comforting curves of its precursor.

The process of familiarisation takes time. But there are some coins that the public never warms to, or actively rebuffs: the 1887 double florin (worth four shillings) was withdrawn after just four years. And for a while, the 1937 threepenny was at risk of being added to the list of numismatic rejects. Being 12-sided, it was thought to look insufficiently British – polygonal coins were at the time associated with “foreign” currencies.

The 1887 double florin that was rejected after four years. Coinman62

Plus, the threepenny was an unusual colour – its nickel-brass composition lent it a distinctive yellow tinge. It also had no history and people didn’t know what to call it – newspapers ran competitions asking readers to suggest a suitable nickname, which would bring it into line with popular coins such as the tanner (sixpence) or bob (shilling). In Scotland, many harboured a preference for the smaller, lighter, rounder silver threepenny, which the Mint continued to produce until 1945. The two threepennies had to compete for the public’s affections.

Distrust lingered because of the time it took to produce enough dodecagonal threepennies for them to become commonplace. Of the first 30m struck, most quickly vanished from sight, hoarded in personal collections rather than circulating freely. The Mint eventually forced the new coins into wider circulation by asking government departments to include them in the pay packets of state employees. It was only during World War II, with bronze pennies in short supply, that the 12-sided threepenny came to enjoy any real popularity. Its unique shape also made it easy to distinguish by touch in the blackout.

The extensive promotional campaigns run by the Mint ahead of the new £1 coin’s introduction suggest that lessons have been learned from the past. A concerted effort has been made to prepare the public for the change. And as cash is less important these days, whether or not the public develops any sort of affection for the this coin that seeks to blend the old and the new might not, in the end, matter tuppence.