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The Pen; Mightier than The Penny

October 20, 2010

A question printed in the column “Q+a” in the October 19th issue of The New York Times read as follows:

Q. I’ve heard that if a penny is dropped from the Empire State bulding it could kill someone. But what about hail? It’s often much larger and falls from much higher, so why do I never hear about any deaths caused by it?

Columnist C. Claiborne Ray went on to explain why a hail-related death is possible, it rarely occurs, but what I felt mysteriously lacking was a clarification on the urban legend of that villainous penny and the ever framed accomplice of the Empire State Building.

An image of a penny sitting atop a pile of coins.

Knowing the Truth

I was in eighth grade when I was informed that a penny, dropped from any height within the earths atmosphere, is not capable of causing a fatality from impact. Theoretically, an object that is dropped will maintain a constant acceleration, therefore continually increasing speed until halted by the ground. Yet on planet earth, we have this stuff called air.

“The penny… flutters as it comes down. It’s very unstable in the air.” ABC interviewed Louis Bloomfield, a physics professor at University of Virginia for their article titled “Can a Penny Dropped From a Building Kill a Pedestrian Below?” (No. It cannot.) Not only did Bloomfield volunteer his educated perspective, he demonstrated. He let loose a balloon that lifted a penny-spitting contraption hundreds of feed into the air, and tried to catch the pennies as they fell toward him. “Even though we didn’t go as high as the Empire State Building, it doesn’t matter. The penny will hit full speed after 50 feet or so, and it just coasts.” Interestingly, while a penny dropped from the Empire State Building can’t kill anybody, Bloomfield said, something like a ball point pen potentially could. (Aerodynamics.)

Telling the Truth

Now, Ray wasn’t presented with a question about pennies, but about hail. Strictly speaking, nothing the columnist penned was incorrect and the question posed was throughly answered. Still, it’s misinformation by omission – and it was actually quite relevant to explain the fact. Air resistance – the reason falling pennies aren’t lethal – play a role in the infrequency with which hail causes fatalities.

When in the role of authority on one subject or the next, it becomes one’s responsibility to provide full and comprehensive information. It shouldn’t be a role that is played while it is convenient for you, but for the convenience of those seeking your expertise.

At Gunwel, we endeavor to help you understand everything you need to as we guide you through what can often be a frustrating ordeal.  Stop by anytime or give us a call at 212-979-6830 to set up your free consultation, today! Visit our website at or find us on Facebook.


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