Minor British Institutions: The 50p coin

The elegant 50-pence piece, or "fifty pee" as we call it, inelegantly, is a wonderful example of the life-cycle of a minor British institution. At first it was resented, as it supplanted another much-loved minor institution – the 10-shilling note. In October 1969, when the 50p coin was introduced, the nation was soon to lose its ancient system of pounds, shillings and pence, and, unwillingly, embrace decimalisation.

The 10-bob note's successor was a shock – the numismatic equivalent of Concorde, which happened to make its maiden flight that same year. The design, by Christopher Ironside, was the world's first heptagonal coin – an "equilateral curve heptagon". It was revolutionary also because it could roll (equal diameters, you see), so it worked in vending machines (50p would buy a pack of cigarettes then). Clever.

Still the Anti-Heptagonists called it "an insult to our sovereign whose image it bears". But we got used to it, even the shrunken version minted from 1997. Now the Royal Mint says it is ditching Britannia, on the coinage since 1672, in favour of some wacky heraldry. The move has sparked minor outrage: it may take 40 years to get over this (small) change.

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