1902 Encyclopedia > Decimal Coinage

Decimal Coinage

DECIMAL COINAGE. It has often been proposed to substitute for our quarto-duodecimo-vicesimal system of reckoning money one entirely decimal, and therefore in harmony with the system, employed in all civilized countries, of reckoning numbers both integral and fractional. In the case of numbers, there is no difficulty in regard to the standard by which to reckon ; it is unity, and all integral numbers are either so many units, tens of units, hundreds of units, &c, or combinations of these, and all fractional numbers either so many tenths of a unit, hundredths of a unit, &c, or combinations of these. In the case of money, however, the selection of the standard of value, or the unit by which to reckon, constitutes the main, if not the sole, theoretical difficulty to be overcome, previous to the introduction of a decimal coinage. Practical difficulties would arise from the unwillingness of people to make the changes in thinking and speaking that would be necessitated by new coins, or the altered values of old ones.

Of all the schemes proposed in England, that which advocates the retention of the sovereign, or pound sterling, as the unit of value seems to have met with most favour. According to this scheme, the pound would be divided into 10 florins, the florin into 10 cents, and the cent into 10 mils. The name florin, as well as the coin, is in use already; the names cent and mil would mark the relation of the corres-ponding coins to the pound. The cent, being the y^Q-th part of the pound, would represent 2-|d., or nearly 2Jd. ; the mil, being the l6:l00th part, would be worth a little less than a farthing, which is the -g~in>th. The coins which it would be found necessary to issue would probably be—in copper, the mil^/vd., the 2-mil piece = i|d., rather less than a halfpenny, and the 5-mil piece = lid., rather less than a penny farthing ; in silver, the cent = 2|d., the 2-cent piece = 4-id., the 5-cent piece, or shilling, and the 10-cent piece, or florin; in gold, the half-sovereign, and the sovereign. In addition to the preceding, perhaps a double florin = 4s., in silver, and a crown = 5s., in gold, might be found convenient.

The chief disadvantage of this system is that it would abolish the copper farthing, halfpenny, and penny, and the silver coins representing 3d., 4d., 6d. Since 6d. = 25 mils is the lowest number of pence which could be paid exactly in mils, inconvenience would thus be caused to the poorer classes, whose unit of value may be said to be the penny; and difficulties would also arise in cases where fixed imposts of a penny and a halfpenny are levied, such as penny and halfpenny tolls, postages, &c.

A second scheme advocates the adoption of the farthing as the unit of value, and its coins of account would be the farthing, the cent or doit = 10 farthings, the florin = 10 cents or doits, the pound = 10 florins. The coins required for circulation would probably be—in copper, the farthing, the halfpenny, the penny; in silver, the cent or doit = 2|d., the 2-cent piece or groat = 5d., the shilling = 12|d., and the florin = 25d. ; in gold, the half-sovereign = 10s.~5d., and the sovereign = 20s. 1 Od. Here also a silver double florin = 4s. 2d., and a gold crown = 5s. 2|d., might be found convenient.

The chief disadvantages of this system would be the abolition of the present pound sterling, the unit of value in national finance, in banks, insurance and all great commercial offices, and the trouble that would thereby be caused in comparing values expressed in the old coinage with those of the new. Among its advantages may be reckoned the fact that, during the transition to the new state of things, the old coins would still be serviceable, for any sum of money expressed in the new coinage could be paid by means of them. The alterations on small imposts, requisite under the first scheme, would here be unnecessary; and inconvenience would be saved to those classes of the population who receive weekly wages, which are generally fixed at so many pence per hour. The reduction of sums expressed in the old coinage to their equivalents in the new would, however, be slightly more difficult than under the first system.

A third scheme proposes as the unit the half-sovereign, a coin almost as familiar as the sovereign, with the view of having only three instead of four coins of account. The half-sovereign would be divided into 10 shillings as at present, and the shilling into 10 pence, each of which would therefore be equivalent to lid., or 20 per cent, more than the present penny. As a penny is of more value than the metal of which it is made, the present copper coinage could be made to serve under the new system. This scheme, from its alteration of the value of the penny, is open to most of the objections that can be brought against the first; and, in comparing accounts expressed in the old and the new coinages, it would necessitate—a very slight inconvenience certainly—multiplication or division by 2.

A fourth scheme proposes that the penny be made the unit of value, and that all accounts should be kept in tenpences and pence. All the present coins, though only one of them would be a coin of account, could still remain in circulation ; and only two new coins would be required, the tenpence and its half, fivepence.

It has also been proposed that there should be only two coins of account, the higher equivalent to 100 of the lower, such as florins and cents, the cent in this scheme being the mil of the first. Centesimal coinage similar to this exists in several foreign countries, <fcc.; but it is probable that, should a change be made, the practice of other nations will be imitated only where it is found to conduce to national convenience.

The preceding are the most important of the schemes that have been suggested to replace the present system, and the adoption of the first of them has been recommended by a committee of the House of Commons. But since 1855 public opinion on the question does not appear to have advanced much. The arguments for and against a change are numerous, and to detail them would be to fill a moderate volume. The principal reason for making the change is that calculation would be enormously simplified, for reduction from one denomination of money into another could always be performed at sight; and the compound rules, as far as money is concerned, would be virtually abolished. The greatest objections to the change, apart from the difficulty of getting people to make it, which is doubtless much exaggerated, are that a decimal system does not admit to a sufficient extent of binary subdivision, and that it does not admit of ternary subdivision at all. The third part, for instance, of a pound, of a florin, of a cent, being 333J, 33J, 3^- mils respectively, could not be exactly paid in decimal currency, while there is no difficulty in paying the third part of a pound, or of a shilling by our present coinage. Again, the ^, \, \ of the pound, the \, \ of the florin, and the \ of the cent are the only binary subdivisions possible with the decimal coins of account ; the \, \, \, -JV, A of the pound, and the £, \, \ of the shilling are possible at present. Notwithstanding these drawbacks, the advantages of a decimal system seem considerably to preponderate, and the introduction of it to be merely a question of time.

The coinage of the United States, which was made decimal in 1786, consists of the eagle =10 dollar's, the dollar = 10 dimes, the dime = 10 cents, but of these de-nominations dollars and cents are the only ones commonly used. In France, shortly after the great Revolution, a decimal system not only of money, but also of weights and measures, was introduced. The standard of value is the franc =100 centimes ; but though the only coins are francs, centimes, and multiples of these, the word sou, a term belonging to the superseded coinage, is often used to denote the 20th part of the franc, or 5 centimes. The Belgian and the Swiss monetary systems were assimilated to that of France in 1833 and 1851; and in 1865 France, Italy, Belgium, and Switzerland, became parties to a treaty for the maintenance of a common system. Germany, within the last few years, has effected a reform of her currency, the mark, which corresponds closely to our shilling, being = 10 groschen=100 pfennige. A decimal coinage exists also in Russia, where the ruble =100 kopecks ; in Holland, where the guilder =10 dubbeltjes = 100 cents; and in Portugal, where the milrei= 1000 reis.

See Observations on the Expediency and Practicability of Simplifying and Improving the Measures, Weights, and Money, &c, by General Sir Charles Pasley, 8vo, 1834 ; the Report of the Select Committee on a Decimal System of Coinage, August 1853 ; and the publications of the "Decimal Association." (J. S. M.)

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