The word penny comes from the British ‘pence’ and its original design was suggested by none other than Ben Franklin. At first, the penny had a 95% copper composition, 4% tin, and about 1% zinc. It was because of this combination that the penny has a shiny copper color which most people associate with the one cent piece to this day. Less than 20 years after the first penny was made, however, the composition of all minted pennies changed to 95.5% copper, 3% tin, and 1.5% zinc.
When the first penny was minted in 1958, it had a similarity to many British, American, and Spanish coins. These original pennies, however, were not adopted by the general public until towards the end of the 19th century. Also, at some point during the 1920s, the price of copper increased considerably, prompting the US Treasury to issue smaller pennies. It wasn’t until 1942 that the amount of copper in a penny changed to 98% copper, with just 0.5% tin and 1.5% zinc.
2Pennies throughout history
Throughout the years, pennies have mostly been made of copper, tin, and zinc. In 1973, however, when the price of copper rose worldwide, the US produced 1,579,325 pennies out of Aluminum, pennies that were eventually rejected for mainstream production for various reasons. One of the reasons was that if the Aluminum penny was to be swallowed by accident, it wouldn’t appear on X-ray machines. While these pennies were never released to the general public, a few of them can still be seen exhibited at the Smithsonian.
Although most pennies have a composition of more than 90% copper, they also include zinc and tin to some degree. Like we already established, the first batch of pennies ever minted had a 95% copper composition and 4% tin, whereas the pennies minted during the early 1900′ had a composition of more than 98% copper.
Over the years, the copper concentration used when making pennies varied according to the price of copper at the time each batch of pennies was minted. You see, the US government spent around .93$ making each individual penny, which is why the overall price of all the metals used when making it should not have been bigger than one dollar.
In modern times, copper has been a lot more expensive than it was at the beginning of last century, which is why the copper concentration was reduced dramatically. For instance, all of the pennies that were minted after 1997 have had a composition of 98.4% zinc and a meager 1.6% copper, excluding the 2000 batch which had a 94% concentration of steel, 1.5% nickel, and 4.5% copper. This being said, most modern pennies have a copper-plated steel composition or a copper-plated zinc one.