The Empire State Building And The Penny Experiment
9 mins read

The Empire State Building And The Penny Experiment

It’s a classic urban legend: drop a penny from the Empire State Building, and it becomes a lethal projectile. But is there any truth to this tale?

The Empire State Building stands tall at around 1,250 feet. If you were to drop a penny from this height, it would accelerate to a maximum velocity of approximately 190 miles per hour before reaching the ground. That’s undeniably fast, but is it enough to be deadly?

To put it simply, a penny falling from such a height won’t cause fatal injuries. In fact, it’s unlikely to hurt anyone significantly, even if it were dropped from an airplane at 35,000 feet. Here’s why:

  • In an environment with no air resistance, a penny would indeed reach a considerable speed. However, real-world conditions introduce air resistance, which slows down the penny’s descent. The terminal velocity of a falling penny in open air is modest, around 30 to 50 miles per hour—comparable to that of a ping-pong ball.
  • Despite its speed, a penny isn’t an aerodynamic projectile. Its flat shape and relatively large surface area compared to its mass make it prone to fluttering and decelerating when exposed to wind. This fluttering effect reduces its impact force.
  • To put things in perspective, consider that even a relatively weak bullet, like a .22 caliber, travels at about 600 miles per hour with a mass similar to a penny. Yet, a .22 caliber bullet can penetrate skin due to its smaller impact surface. Even Myth Busters demonstrated that a penny, traveling at over three times the speed of one falling from the Empire State Building, couldn’t penetrate a gel skull.

Real-Life Experiments

Intriguingly, someone once conducted an experiment by dropping pennies from a height of a couple of hundred feet and attempting to catch them at the bottom. While the pennies did land, they did so with minimal impact. In one case, a penny landed on someone’s chin, and it felt like a tiny insect bite—certainly not a life-threatening event.

While it might be tempting to test your throwing arm strength by tossing a dime at someone nearby (please don’t!), the point is clear: pennies and similar lightweight objects are not lethal when dropped from significant heights. Their aerodynamics, surface area, and real-world conditions mitigate their impact.

It’s essential to note that not all objects are as harmless as pennies. Objects with a combination of mass, design, and aerodynamic efficiency can indeed pose a threat. For instance, a metal fountain pen, with its weight and aerodynamic shape, could potentially cause harm when dropped from a great height.

Here are five key statistics shedding light on some of these strange deaths:

  • One of the most tragic aspects associated with the Empire State Building is the number of suicides that have occurred from its heights. On average, the building sees approximately one suicide every two to three years. This statistic reflects the somber reality of individuals seeking an unfortunate end at this iconic location.
  • In the year 1947, the Empire State Building experienced an extraordinary and bizarre event. Two separate incidents involving women falling from the building’s heights garnered significant attention. These incidents, which occurred within weeks of each other, raised questions about coincidence and mystery.
  • While many people associate falls from great heights with certain death, the Empire State Building has seen some remarkable cases of survival. Incredibly, a few individuals have survived their falls from the building. These cases challenge our understanding of the physics and possibilities of such harrowing events.
  • Strange deaths at the Empire State Building extend beyond suicides. Accidents involving maintenance workers and even daredevils attempting stunts have also occurred. These incidents highlight the various risks associated with the maintenance and exploration of such a towering structure.
  • In response to the recurring issue of suicides, the Empire State Building has taken measures to deter individuals from attempting such acts. The installation of safety barriers and netting on observation decks is one example of proactive steps taken to prevent tragic incidents.

Common Debates Around The Science

  • Is the concept of terminal velocity misunderstood in assessing the lethality of a falling penny from the Empire State Building?

Terminal velocity, the speed at which an object in freefall ceases to accelerate, plays a crucial role in this debate. Proponents argue that a penny’s terminal velocity is insufficient to cause harm, emphasizing that it reaches a manageable speed before impact. Conversely, skeptics question whether terminal velocity alone provides a comprehensive understanding of potential harm, suggesting that other factors could come into play.

  • To what extent does wind resistance impact the trajectory and potential harm caused by a falling penny?

Wind resistance can alter the path of falling objects, raising questions about its role in penny lethality debates. Advocates of the wind resistance argument assert that atmospheric conditions can significantly affect a penny’s descent, potentially making it more dangerous. Opponents, however, highlight the penny’s relatively flat shape and lightweight nature as factors that minimize wind-related effects.

  • Could the material composition of a coin, such as a penny, impact its lethality when dropped from great heights?

The material composition of coins introduces a novel aspect to the debate. While pennies are commonly considered harmless due to their lightweight and relatively soft nature, some argue that other coin types, like denser silver coins, may possess characteristics that could make them more dangerous when falling from a significant height. This debate delves into the properties of various coinage materials.

  • Does the angle at which a penny falls from a height impact its potential for harm?

The angle at which an object descends from a height raises questions about its potential to cause harm. Advocates of this argument contend that the angle of descent can determine whether an object poses a risk, emphasizing that a penny’s flat shape limits its harm potential. Skeptics, however, suggest that the angle could still play a role in unpredictable ways.

  • Are real-world experiments the only way to settle the debate on penny lethality from great heights?

The question of whether real-world experiments are essential for conclusively addressing penny lethality divides experts. Proponents argue that practical tests provide definitive answers, settling the debate once and for all. On the other hand, opponents raise ethical and practical concerns, questioning the necessity of conducting experiments that could potentially harm individuals.

Facts On The Empire State Building

  1. The Empire State Building was constructed at an astonishing speed, considering its size. From the start of construction to its completion, it took just 410 days. This remarkable feat of engineering was made possible by efficient planning and teamwork during the Great Depression.
  2. Originally designed with the intent of docking airships (like zeppelins) at its pinnacle, the Empire State Building featured a dirigible mooring mast. However, this idea was short-lived, as it proved impractical due to high winds and the building’s height.
  3. The building’s pinnacle, which is often illuminated in various colors to celebrate different occasions, is adorned with an aluminum capstone. This capstone was once intended to serve as a docking point for airships and was installed as a symbol of the building’s original purpose.
  4. The Empire State Building has been featured in numerous films, but it’s not just its exterior that’s famous. The lobby was used as a filming location for scenes in the classic movie “King Kong” (1933), where the giant ape climbs the building.
  5. In recent years, the Empire State Building has undergone extensive sustainability upgrades. These include energy-efficient windows, LED lighting, and a comprehensive recycling program. It has received LEED Gold certification for its environmental efforts.
  6. The building’s lobby and observatories feature stunning Art Deco designs. The lobby’s ceiling mural, depicting the zodiac, is a breathtaking example of this iconic style.
  7. The Empire State Building is frequently struck by lightning due to its height and location. In fact, it gets struck by lightning about 20-25 times per year, which can result in spectacular light shows.
  8. During World War II, the building’s exterior lights were dimmed and turned off at night to comply with wartime blackout regulations. This dimming continued until the end of the war in 1945.
  9. While the building has 102 floors that are accessible to the public, there is also a “secret” 103rd floor. This floor is an enclosed glass observatory and is typically used by building staff and VIPs.
  10. In the 80th-floor lobby, there is a hidden mural that was painted by artist Roy Sparkia in 1963. It’s tucked away from public view and serves as an artistic treasure within the building.

The myth of a penny becoming a deadly weapon when dropped from the Empire State Building is just that—a myth. The physics, real-life experiments, and practical considerations all point to the same conclusion: pennies are not the perilous projectiles they are often believed to be. So, rest assured, and save your pennies for other purposes!