My informant first heard this “fun fact” when she was about seven-years-old. It was a common piece of information that was spread across the playground. It is such a common urban legend that most of my other informants and I, too, have heard the same declaration. From when she was younger, her general understanding is that when dropped from the top balcony of the Empire State Building, the penny will gradually increase in velocity. As it gets closer to the ground, it will reach the speed of a bullet. If by chance the penny strikes a person in the head, the penny will go straight through and kill the person.
She also says that there are variations of the legend: it will put a hole in the cement sidewalk, the coin will break to pieces, and even, that it has been used to purposefully kill someone. She laughed when she said the last variant saying: “I have no idea how or why someone would strategically plan to kill someone with a penny… on the top of the Empire State Building. You wouldn’t even be able to identify the right person from that high up! [laughs] …I don’t know, it was just something I heard from grade school.”
My informant told me that she remembered this “fact” so well that when she actually went to New York when she was in high school, she asked one of the tour guides if it had ever happened: “The guide told me that he got that one a lot, but he reassured me that it wasn’t even possible. Supposedly, since the building is so tall, the updraft will slow the penny’s speed as it falls and won’t cause any damage. He also said, though, that people have thrown pennies off the side in the past, but they end up landing on other terraces on the lower floors.”
After hearing this, I was curious and did a little more research. After checking a few different sources, it turns out the urban legend is in fact completely false. According to the book Empire State Building, a penny tossed from the top of the Empire State Building will never even hit the ground. The updraft effect pushes falling objects against the building and end up falling only a few stories below. The coins that are dropped from the 86th floor simply land on the 80th floor and are collected by electricians when they change the lights on the outer side of the building. Furthermore, according to an experiment that was performed for the ABC show “20/20,” even if the pennies dodge the 80th floor landing, the pennies are still harmless to pedestrians below. After sending a large weather balloon into the air with an attached penny dispenser, Louis Bloomberg – a University of Virginia physics professor – spit the pennies one by one through a remote control device. Several pennies hit Bloomberg but “it was like getting hit by a bug…it was noticeable, but nothing more…these things are just fluttering down.” Another experiment was performed on the show “Mythbusters” that tested the degree of impact at terminal velocity (the speed at which the penny would fall if no other factors such as friction acted upon the coin) on asphalt, cement, concrete and an anatomically correct human head replica. The experiment revealed that the penny would not penetrate any surfaces. As far as the human skull, a penny at terminal velocity may break the skin, but will not break through or fracture the skull. So as the crew of Mythbusters would say, this urban legend is “busted!”
Hyneman, Jamie, and Adam Savage. “Mythbusters: Penny Drop MiniMyth.” Mythbusters. Discovery Channel, 2 Feb. 2011. Web. 12 Apr. 2012. <http://dsc.discovery.com/videos/mythbusters-penny-drop-minimyth.html>.
Peterson, Sheryl. Empire State Building. Mankato, MN: Creative Education, 2007. Print.
Stossel, John, and Gena Binkley. “Can a Penny Dropped From a Building Kill a Pedestrian Below?” ABC News. ABC News Network, 03 May 2007. Web. 12 Apr. 2012. <http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=3131332>.