On February 14, 1966, Australians awoke to a whole new world. On that date, the cumbersome £sd system Australians inherited from their colonial founders gave way to the modern and hip dollar and cent.
Australia was not the first nation in modern times to decimalise her currency. That distinction went to South Africa when it introduced the rand as its unit of currency in 1961. New Zealand followed her neighbour in 1967 along with Samoa and Tonga. Fiji switched in 1969. The UK and Ireland finally fell in line in 1971, the last major countries to do so.
The £sd system took its name from the Latin names for the units of currency — Libra (pound), solidi (shilling) and denarii (pence). The system originated in the Roman Empire and was re-introduced to Europe by the Emperor Charlemagne. The pound was divided into twenty shillings of twelve pence each making 240 pence to the pound. The numerical notation of the currency was divided by strokes or dashes — 2/16/8 or 2-16-8 which were read as two pounds, sixteen and eight.
The main reason for conversion was convenience. Aside from tradition, the only real merit to a system based on twelve is that it is equally divisible by 2, 3, 4 and 6. But this was outweighed by the complexity of the system compared to one based on ten.
Decimalisation in Australia was first raised in 1902 when a committee of the first Federal Parliament recommended it. It received further Parliamentary support in 1904 but the government was reluctant to make such a change without a similar move in the UK.
The first official action on decimalization was taken in Australia in 1959 with the appointment of the Decimal Currency Committee. It was charged with investigating the positives and negatives of converting to a decimal currency system. The Committee reported favourably in 1960 and recommended a unit based on ten shillings divided into one hundred smaller units.
It was estimated that the conversion would cost approximately £30,000,000. It was also estimated that £11,000,000 was lost because of the complexity of the £sd system. The Committee concluded that conversion would pay for itself.
The single largest expenditure for the conversion was the construction of a new mint. Approximately one billion new coins were minted for the conversion. Subsidies were provided to merchants, financial institutions and others that needed to convert equipment to the new system.
It was not until 1963 that the Currency Act was approved to implement decimalisation. It accepted the earlier recommendation of a new unit based on ten shillings or the equivalent of a half pound. It also established February 14, 1966 as the conversion date. The Decimal Currency Board was charged with overseeing the conversion. It was headed by Sir Walter Scott.
The Currency Act of 1963 did not name the new unit of currency. The government took suggestions from the public. Over a thousand different names were proposed. The government initially chose the “royal”. Public support was underwhelming. After further consideration, the dollar was adopted.
New coins and banknotes would be required. The new coinage kept the monarch on the obverse and featured different animals unique to Australia on the reverse. The existing 10 shilling, £1, £5 and £10 notes were replaced by notes of $1.00, $2.00, $10.00 and $20.00 with new designs but maintaining the same colour scheme.
Consistency was necessary because the old and the new were to circulate side by side for two years after conversion. £sd coins and notes could be accepted in commerce but change was to be given only in dollars and cents.
The government launched a public relations campaign that played on television and radio daily for the two years prior to C-Day. An animated character named Dollar Bill was created as the face of the conversion campaign. The poem that led off this article was written as a way to remember how to convert small amounts.
While large amounts could be converted easily, amounts less than a shilling would not. Since there were 120 pence in 10 shillings but only 100 cents to a dollar, each cent was equal to 1.2 pence. The poem expressed how these small amounts were converted. One and two pence were equivalent to one and two cents. Three pence through nine pence drop one number so three pence was also converted as two cents, four pence as three cents, etc. Ten pence converted as eight cents and eleven pence as nine cents.
During the two year run up to C-day training materials were provided to the public. The Decimal Currency Board created pamphlets and brochures explaining the conversion. Private industry created play money and games to help people get familiar with the new notes and coins and converting prices from the old system tot he new.
C-day went off smoothly. Banks closed February 10, 1966 to revamp their processes and equipment. Long lines were anticipated at banks but the crowds were not much larger than the holiday rush according to one banker. The ease with which such a large logistical exercise was carried out is a testament to the years of planning and forethought that went into the conversion.