Isaac Newton is one the most famous scientists in the world. He is best known for discovering how gravity works, but he worked on so many different topics that he completely changed how we understand the world.

In 2006 the price of copper was very high, making an old style penny worth 1.5p and a 2p worth 3p.  There was a fear that people would collect up these coins and melt them down! 

Magnetic coins
You will need...

Eight 1p or 2p coins
A small magnet

How long will it take?

This activity will take about half an hour for the students to do.  Testing the coins is reasonably short but they can then make wax rubbings of the side of each coin with a date to keep a record.

What to do...

  1. It is important that they don't look at the date on the coin or they will know the answer before they have tested the coins.
  2. Follow the instructions on the students' sheet.
  3. The old coins and new coins are not completely identical.  New coins are slightly thicker.  Can you think of another way of checking you have separated your coins correctly?

When the students have separated the 'old' and 'new' coins you can make a pile of each and see if you can tell which are mainly made of copper and which are mainly made of steel.  The difference is visible with a pile of ten, but much more obvious with a pile of twenty.


 Curriculum Links 


Working Scientifically


Lower key stage 2 Year 3
Forces and magnets


To improve their mastery of art and design techniques


Scottish Curriculum



SCN 2-08a

Forces, electricity and waves - Forces

Collaborating in investigations to compare magnetic, electrostatic and gravitational forces and exploring their practical applications.


MNU 2-20a

Information handling - Data and analysis

Discussing the variety of ways and range of media used to present data. Interpreting and drawing conclusions from the information displayed, recognising that the presentation may be misleading


MNU 2-20b

Information handling - Data and analysis.

Carrying out investigations and surveys, devising and using a variety of methods to gather information and working with others to collate, organise and communicate the results in an appropriate way.

Social Studies:


SOC 2-01a


People, past events and societies

Using primary and secondary sources selectively to research events in the past.


SOC 2-06a

People, past events and societies

Discussing why people and events from a particular time in the past were important, placing them within a historical sequence


SOC 2-04a

People, past events and societies

Comparing and contrasting a society in the past with my own and contributing to a discussion of the similarities and differences.


TCH 2-01b

Technological developments in society


Imagine you've just got some pocket money - brilliant! But how much is it actually worth?  You would be surprised to know that money, such as 1 penny, is only worth what we all agree it is worth.  If we melted 1 pence down it wouldn't be worth very much at all.  But this wasn't always the case.

William III Maundy money


Isaac Newton became Warden of the Royal Mint in 1696, when William III was king.  The Royal Mint is where coins are made. English coins had William III's portrait on them and were really made of precious metals: gold coins were made of gold and silver coins were made of silver.  They were worth the same as coins or melted down into a shapeless lump of metal.  At least, they were supposed to be worth the same…

However, some people would 'clip' the coins.  They cut bits off the edge, reducing the coin's weight, and giving them a tiny bit of the precious metal that the coin was made from.  The coin would still have been used and the clippings sold.  To stop this, coins had printing on their rims.  Have a look at some of our coins.  Why would it be difficult - and pointless - to clip them today?



Newton also faced the challenge of counterfeiters.  These people would use alloys of silver - silver mixed with cheaper metals - to make fake coins.  He was very successful at catching some of the worst criminals.

Why aren't coins made of precious metals today?  Precious metals are worth too much.  Even copper is quite expensive, and a 1p coin made of pure copper could be worth more if it were melted than as an actual coin!

Up until September 1992, copper coins were nearly pure copper: 97%.  After that, the Royal Mint starting making 'copper' coins that were made of steel with a copper coating.  They look virtually the same but are worth much less if melted down.


See if you can be a coin detective with this copper coin investigation.


coinsMagnetic coins
How can you tell the age of a coin?
How can you tell the difference between copper and steel?

You will need...

Eight 1p or 2p coins
A small magnet

Download and print out the worksheet here.


What to do...

  1. Pick up one of your coins and have a look at the date on it.  Make sure you know how to find the date.  DO NOT LOOK AT THE DATE ON THE REST OF YOUR COINS! 
  2. Look at the worksheet and fill in the columns for each coin as you work through the activity.
  3. Have a look at each coin (NOT THE DATE).  Does it look old or new?
  4. Hold up each your coins to your magnet in turn and see if it is attracted to the magnet.   
  5. Still without looking at the date on the coin separate the pile of coins into two piles, old coins and new coins.
  6. Now check the dates to see if you got it right.

The old coins and new coins are not completely identical.  New coins are slightly thicker.  Can you think of another way of checking you have separated your coins correctly?

Finally have a look for a coin made in 1971.  This was the first year that these copper coins were produced.  Imagine how many people have handled this coin.  Although the coin may look dirty, copper acts as an antibiotic: bacteria cannot live on copper coins. Scientists are now looking at ways of using copper on door handles and push plates in hospitals to help stop the spread of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.