November 30, 2010

Penny For Your Thoughts?


I think there's something to this penny on the train track thing that came up in my last post. And I'm asking for your help to sort this out.

Baydog mentioned he had placed pennies on a train track just to see them squish, in his youth, and I realized I'd done the same thing, not five miles away, on another branch of the same Philadelphia commuter railroad. And we both did this at the same age. Then, Pandabonium came forward, too. Coincidence? I think not.

In fact, after some Googling, it turns out this apparently strange practice is far more widespread than I suspected.

Here's a blog where 22 respondents admitted to 'penny squishing'. Most are male, some of whom are no longer adolescent - at least in most other respects. The women who confessed were usually dragged along by men - or so they claim. We always get blamed for things like this.

So what is it about squishing pennies that we, as a species, find so irresistible? Why are we drawn to this as moths to a flame? I think there's something very primal going on here. I'm surprised some sociologist hasn't already turned penny squishing into a doctoral thesis.

I've never seen a Schnauzer or Cocker Spaniel in the least bit curious about crushing milkbones or bits of kibble on a railroad track. Granted, rolling around on your back in the grass may seem just as inexplicable to humans, but I would never presume to be capable of understanding anything canine, having not been born into that culture.

It does seem clear, though, that there has been a marked and irreversible decline in the squishing of pennies in recent years. I wonder if diminishing penny squishing didn't coincide with the introduction of poppable bubble wrap in America? Popping bubble wrap in a controlled, clinical environment has been used to successfully wean hard core penny squishers away from their more dangerous and debilitating habit.

In the interest of science, I'm asking my readers to come forward and discuss any incidents of this potentially embarrassing activity that may be lurking in your past. You are, for the most part, amongst an understanding and sympathetic group of nurturing individuals, so there's really no reason not to be frank.

But if you really don't want to be frank, you can be Steve or Phil or Wendy, or whatever anonymous identity you prefer. Your privacy will be respected.

And remember that most psychologists consider isolated squishing events in adolescence to be perfectly normal and not a sign that you will necessarily become a habitual penny squisher in later life.

If you've never squished pennies on a railroad track, perhaps you have an explanation for why those of us who have are the way we are. Or maybe, you have uglier secrets that you'd like to get off your chest? Well, not too ugly - this is a family blog, after all.

I'm thanking you in advance for participating in my little experiment in reality blogging.



  1. Neolithic wheeled carts found in Europe had gauges varying from 4 ft 3 in to 5 ft 9 in. By the Bronze age, wheel gauges appeared to have stabilized between 4 ft 7 in to 4 ft 9 in.

    There is evidence that the Romans used a more or less consistent wheel gauge throughout Europe, and brought it to England with the Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43. After the Roman departure from Britain, this more-or-less standard gauge continued in use, so the wheel gauge of animal drawn vehicles in 19th century Britain was 4 ft 7 in to 4 ft 10 in. In 1814 George Stephenson copied the gauge of British coal wagons in his area, about 4 ft 8 in, for his new locomotive, and for technical reasons widened it slightly to achieve the modern railway standard gauge of 4 ft 8.5 in.

    And the rest is history.

  2. ....Brunel tried to change it and failed, alas.

    Where I was growing up the 3rd rail was power at a high voltage, so going anywhere near tracks was *strongly* advised against.

  3. Quite right JP.

    When Isambard Brunel was building the London to Bristol line in 1838 he decided to use what became known as the broad gauge (2.2 m) instead of the standard gauge (1.44m) on the line. Brunel argued that by using a wider track, he could provide larger and faster locomotives. It was also pointed out by Brunel that the broad gauge was safer and that locomotives would be less likely to leave the rails on sharp bends.

    By 1844 the Great Western Railway had opened a new line from Bristol to Exeter and from Bristol to Gloucester where it met the standard gauge of the Birmingham & Gloucester line. This created problems as passengers and goods had to be transferred from one train to another.

    In 1845 a Royal Commission looked into the subject of the railway gauge. After a long investigation that included committee members asking railway engineers over 6,500 questions, it was decided to recommend the use of the standard gauge. The Gauge Act passed by Parliament in 1846 made the standard gauge compulsory for all new railways. However, the Great Western Railway retained its broad gauge until 1892, when it was converted to the standard gauge.

    6500 questions? I wonder what they were?

  4. I believe you have to buy all 4 of the railroads before placing a penny on their tracks.

  5. A variation on the basic rules of Monopoly is to add the Traveling Railroads Rule.

    This says that whenever a player lands on a railroad, the player may choose to move his or her token to any other railroad owned by the same player.

    The player must pay rent even if he or she does not travel. A player may travel on his or her own railroads, for free of course. A player may not travel on unowned railroads. Travel is across the board, so a player does not get $200 for passing Go.

    The owner of the railroads may not prevent the player from traveling. A player may travel to or from a mortgaged railroad.

  6. Another juvenile thing to do was crush ants on the sidewalk with a ball peen hammer. A crude mortar could be made by grinding the ball peen into the cement, then using the peen as a pestle, ant paste could easily be made.

  7. Bob: "Dood! I totally Pwn Joo!"
    Dave: "No man I totally Pwnd Joo!!!"
    Sally: "Would you guys stop flexing your E-peens?!"

  8. Ah, so that's how you make antipasto.

    Thanks for the frank confession, Baydog, but I've promised my readers that no animals will be harmed in the making of this blog.

  9. I have to confess that one of my favorite Monopoly rule variations is to play with a Double Board. Two boards, such as a standard board and an English board, have either Free Parking or Go overlapping. Players go around both boards in a figure eight pattern. When a player lands on the overlapping space, he or she may choose which board to enter next. When a player is sent to jail, he or she is sent to the jail on the board that they were occupying before going to jail. A player advancing to a named property as per instructions on a card may pass Go twice, collecting $400. It's a useful variation for games with more than five players to allow for more possible monopolies.

  10. The things I learn from this blog.

    I never knew there was an English version of monopoly, but I guess it makes sense, as 'Marvin Gardens' probably wouldn't mean much to a Londoner.

    Thanks for sharing that with us, uh, 'Frank'.

    One of the cool things about growing up in Philadelphia (one of the few cool things, actually) was that you recognized all of the street names in Monopoly.

    I never did know anyone who looked like the little guy with the mustache on the get out of jail free card, though.

  11. Tillerman, JP, and Wendy, I wonder if this thing with pennies on the railroad track isn't part of a larger fascination with trains and railroads that was so common to young boys of my generation. I keep saying 'boys' because I don't remember girls or women being very rail curious.

    Or is this, culturally, so associated with males that women are shy about admitting to similar interests?

    When I was only about eight or nine, I remember a fascination with the story of Westinghouse and the development of the air brake. It was maybe the first thing that made me curious enough to seek out books on a specific subject. Was that when I started becoming a geek? Or was it the pennies on the track?

    The problem of standardization of gauge was possibly more serious in the US where railroads were so linked to the opening of our West. Narrow gauge rail was favored in the mountains because it could negotiate tighter curves. But the timber and ore carried on those trains had to be transferred to larger gauge lines to reach distant markets. But, oops, there's the geek in me showing again.

    And does this have anything to do with how many of us came to sailing? You've got to be something of a geek to be curious about what makes a sailboat go. Are sailors more likely to have been curious about trains as kids?

  12. I don't know. Trains were in my blood. I lived in a town that was a major stop on the main line running up the east side of the country and three of my grandparents worked for the railways at various times.

    One of my grandfathers was a guard, the other worked for a while as a laborer on track maintenance and after he was injured doing that he worked as a level crossing keeper. (Does that translate to Ameringlish?)

    When he died in that job my grandmother took over his job, getting up several times a night to open the gates and let the trains through.

    We train-spotted. We had model electric train layouts. Mallard (still the holder of the world speed record for steam locomotives) regularly hauled trains past my school playing field. We had a railway club at school. We went on trips to locomotive yards in London. My next door neighbor as a boy was a fireman on the railway. (Does that translate to Ameringlish?)

    When I was under 10 I wanted to grow up to be a engine driver. ( I think that's engineer in Ameringlish.)

    We played Monopoly too. One of the cool things about growing up in England (one of the few cool things, actually) was that you recognized all of the street names in Monopoly.

  13. Frankly 'O Docker' I confess I don't know why you refer to me as 'Frank'.

  14. I never did the penny thing with a train, but I did do SEPTA trolleys...

    Is this some kind of ploy to get people's dirty little secrets????

  15. Once again, Tillerman, your connections to New Jersey are vast and unignorable. Charles Darrow invented the board game "Monopoly", and based it on Atlantic City. Did you know that "Marvin Gardens" was misspelled and should have read "Marven Gardens", a hybrid of Margate city and Ventnor City?

    And who as a kid didn't like trains?

  16. And I DO remember the trollies downtown as well!

  17. Well, Zen, I was hoping for the big secrets, but I'll take what I can get.

    Did you know they've recently rebuilt some of the old trolleys and have returned them to service?

    What goes around, comes around - and turns around at 69th Street.

    My family used to vacation in Ventnor for a week every summer. The only thing I remember is renting a bicycle and riding down to Margate to visit Lucy the Elephant, who was, at that point in my life, one of the most remarkable things I'd ever seen.

    I think she may still be.

  18. Did YOU know some of the old trollies are running in S.F.? with a plaque that says from the Philly line, I forget the name before SEPTA

  19. PTC - Philadelphia Transportation Company - back when they used to name things for what they actually did.

    I think I did see one of the old PTC cars running down the embarcadero one day and thought I'd put too much Kahlua in my coffee.

  20. Yup that was one. It tripped me out also when I got on one and thought, OMG, major flashback or is this the Twightlight zone!!

  21. No trains in Hawaii or Mare Island, which were the places I was when I was around the proper age for penny squishing. So no.

    Anyone else wonder whether there is any particular relationship between tbe urge that drives people to pay good money to squish pennies in penny squishing machines and the urge that drives childrem to try to get trains to perform the same feat for free?

  22. well, I guess there was BART. But again, those tracks were just a little tricky to get to...

  23. Regarding your question on the train vs. the penny squishing machine, Bonnie, I think the real thrill of the former is witnessing up close (and sometimes too close) the massive force of a 200 ton locomotive crushing the little penny on the anvil of the track. The geared machine is rather inscrutable and mechanical; much less violent, but immediately gratifying for those seeking the product a quick and controlled transformation.

  24. I think it has as much to do with the train as the penny, and the chutzpah of being in a forbidden place.

    Besides being dangerous, most tracks are off limits - the perfect playground for the rebellious 10-year-old looking to widen his horizons.

    I wonder if this was more an east coast thing, or maybe an urban thing.

    Or maybe it was something that smart kids didn't do.

  25. I'm a few weeks behind on this post, but will contribute my penny squashing experience.

    I never really had a chance as a young kid, as I grew up out in the country/farmland. But, about 0 years ago or so, during one of my summer internships in college, I spent the summer as an assistant for a land surveying company. Towards the end of the summer, me and my survey crew leader were put on a job in Pontiac, Michigan as head surveyors for a series of railroad bridge replacements.

    We were in charge of establishing position for the various phases of building the bridge abutment piers (piles, foundations, abutment walls, etc) and then setting the anchor rod positions so that the railroad bridges could be lifted and set in place on top of the abutment walls.

    During the down time between surveying in these various positions, my boss (the chief surveyor) and I would set pennies on the active RR track line running alongside the construction site. He must have been a boy at heart still, as I think it was even his idea. Having never done it before, I jumped at the chance, and smashed a whole handful of pennies over the few weeks I worked on the job. I still have most of them in a jar at home.

    cheers & Merry Christmas!

  26. Thanks for this fascinating confession, my2fish.

    Your story supports my theory that this behavior is somehow woven into our DNA. The desire to squish pennies seems to cross all cultural lines, but is unique to our species.

    I think, from time to time, whoever makes our DNA makes some mistakes, too.

    Either that, or they like a good joke as well as any of us.

  27. I am a girl & used to put pennies on the track in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was not coaxed by any boy. My sister & I would put small rocks & watch them explode & shoot out from the track as small particles. Then we remembered one of those machines that we put a penny into along with 2 quarters to get an elongated penny with the imprint of the museum. We thought maybe the train would do the same. The train was usually going fast by the time it got to the underpass we walked over. We would put the pennies on the track & stand there to wave at the conductor. He would yell at us because he saw a few of the pennies shoot out....he knew what we were up to. When I tell people that we used to do this I get the strangest looks. At least we had imagination & knew how to keep ourselves amused without a lot of money or gadgets like kids nowadays.
    ~mic~ VA Beach, VA