The E-Sylum:  Volume 11, Number 14, April 6, 2008, Article 26


[Harry Waterson forwarded this article by David Owen in the
March 31, 2008 issue of The New Yorker.  Owen delves into
the problems with the nation's lowly cent coin and along the
way visits with personnel at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia.

Dick Johnson and Dave Kellogg of Syracuse, NY (who admitted
to being behind in reading The E-Sylum) also mentioned it.
Dave adds: "Why, you might well ask, have I had time to read
the New Yorker but not the E-Sylum?  The answer is 'March'.
That's maple syrup season, and I have been occupied in the
sugar shed boiling, boiling, boiling maple sap.  Magazines
are allowed; a computer is not."  Here are several excerpts
from Owen's wonderful article. -Editor]

Several years ago, Walter Luhrman, a metallurgist in
southern Ohio, discovered a copper deposit of tantalizing
richness. North America’s largest copper mine—a vast open-pit
complex in Arizona—usually has to process a ton of ore in
order to produce ten pounds of pure copper; Luhrman’s mine,
by contrast, yielded the same ten pounds from just thirty
or forty pounds of ore. Luhrman operated profitably until
mid-December, 2006, when the federal government shut him

The copper deposit that Luhrman worked wasn’t in the ground;
it was in the storage vaults of Federal Reserve banks, and,
indirectly, in the piggy banks, coffee cans, automobile
ashtrays, and living-room upholstery of ordinary Americans.
A penny minted before 1982 is ninety-five per cent copper—which,
at recent prices, is approximately two and a half cents’ worth.
Luhrman, who had previously owned a company that refined gold
and silver, devised a method of rapidly separating pre-1982
pennies from more recent ones, which are ninety-seven and a
half per cent zinc, a less valuable commodity. His new company,
Jackson Metals, bought truckloads of pennies from the Federal
Reserve, turned the copper ones into ingots, and returned the
zinc ones to circulation in cities where pennies were scarce.

Luhrman’s experience highlights a growing conundrum for the
Mint and for U.S. taxpayers. Primarily because zinc, too, has
soared in value, producing a penny now costs about 1.7 cents.
Since the Mint currently manufactures more than seven billion
pennies a year and “sells” them to the Federal Reserve at their
face value, the Treasury incurs an annual penny deficit of about
fifty million dollars—a condition known in the coin world as
“negative seigniorage.”

In January, I fulfilled a long abandoned schoolboy ambition by
taking a field trip to watch coins being manufactured, at the
Mint in Philadelphia. On arrival, I was required to empty my
pockets of change, to make it easier for the Mint’s police
force to determine later whether I had tried to smuggle anything
out. Then I met John M. Mercanti, a substantial, bearded
middle-aged man, who is the Mint’s supervisory design and
master tooling development specialist, and is identified by
a sign on his office door as the Big Cheese. “My wife laughs
at me, but I pick up pennies,” he said. “To me, a penny is a
work of art that a lot of time and effort have gone into, and
I’m not just going to let it lie on the sidewalk. It becomes
a personal thing.”

New coins begin in Congress, which sets the themes, the
metal content, and other details in consultation with the
Mint and various interested parties, including coin collectors
and historians. Next, the designs are created by Mercanti’s
staff of six in-house artists and a larger group of freelancers.
For about a century, the Mint’s sculptors have made eight-inch
prototypes from clay and other materials, after which a machine
called a Janvier transfer engraver has rendered those images
onto coin-size metal dies. Now the Mint is moving toward an
entirely digital system.

I met Joseph Menna, a young staff artist who earned a master’s
degree at the New York Academy Graduate School of Figurative Art,
and he let me try his virtual-engraving tool, which looked like
a dentist’s drill and gave realistic tactile feedback as I
slashed away, on a computer tablet, at the face of James Madison.
One of the biggest challenges of coin design is portraying
realistic-looking three-dimensional facial features on a metal
surface that is nearly flat. This difficulty explains why the
faces on coins are almost always shown in profile: doing so
keeps noses recognizable. The 2006 nickel, which features a
likeness of Jefferson and was sculpted by Menna’s former
colleague Donna Weaver, is the first circulating U.S. coin
to have a forward-facing portrait; it is considered by coin
aficionados to be an engraving tour de force.

To read the complete article, see:
Full Story

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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