Decimalisation facts: technicians worked around the clock


11 February 2021
Tom Hockenhull, Curator: Medals and Modern Money, British Museum, provides an insight into 'D Day' and the UK's decimalisation project, explaining how technicians worked around the clock to convert cash registers.

On a grey, drizzly Monday, 15 February 1971, Britain went decimal. Ten years in the planning, 'D-Day' upended a currency system that had been unchanged for more than a millennium.

Celebrating the publication of a new book, Making Change: the decimalisation of Britain’s currency, here are a selection of little-known facts about how it happened.

Technicians worked around the clock to convert cash registers


Image: A Sweda model 46 stainless steel cash register, about 1960, converted to decimal. This model required the replacement of part of its keyboard for conversion.

The UK’s estimated 610,000 cash registers all had to be made decimal-ready. Planning had commenced years in advance and parts had been stockpiled in readiness.

The task fell to teams of technicians employed by the big manufacturers who worked fifty or even sixty-hour weeks from January to October 1971. The National Cash Register Company employed 1,600 technicians to complete the job. Most machines made after 1960 were decimal ready, meaning that they could be converted at the flick of a switch. Older models were more complicated and most mechanical models had to be taken to bits to have their innards modified or replaced altogether.

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The conversion of equipment came at a cost which had to be borne by the retailer. With new machines costing about £100, most elected to have their existing machines converted, at a cost of £30 to £40. 

Making Change: the decimalisation of Britain’s currency by Tom Hockenhull is available from Spink Books

Published by Spink Books, in association with the British Museum
Hardback, with illustrations throughout, 198 x 129mm, 64 pages
RRP: £15, ISBN: 978-1-912667-57-4

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