Apple v. Samsung: Nickelgeddon and Number Illiteracy

In case you haven’t seen the news that’s been lighting up the tech sector these days, Apple recently sued Samsung for multiple patent violations concerning Samsung’s cell phones allegedly knocking off iPhone design and technology, and won, to the tune of $1 billion in fines.

There’s a rumor going around the Internet that Samsung is planning to pay the fine in nickels, shipping, or so it’s said, 30 trucks to Apple’s headquarters stuffed full of small change.

Now, that sounds wildly implausible to me, on a number of levels. First, it seems like getting one’s hands on a billion dollars’ worth of nickels would be an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. Second, it seems to me that a billion dollars’ worth of nickels would occupy one hell of a lot more than 30 trucks.

One of the things I often complain to zaiah about is something I call ‘number illiteracy’. As soon as anyone starts talking about numbers higher than a thousand or so, people’s eyes glaze over and that little drop of drool forms on the corners of their lips. A million, a hundred million, a billion…these all seem like synonyms for “really big” to a lot of folks. Hence folks complaining about the money spent on the Mars Curiosity rover without realizing that we Americans spend about the same amount on Halloween candy every October…but I digress.

Just for giggles, I did a rough, back-of-the-envelope estimate of what it would take to pay a billion dollar fine in nickels.

A billion dollars in nickels is 20 billion nickels, or roughly 64 nickels for every man, woman, and child in the entire United States. That is almost the entire number of nickels in circulation; the total number of nickels that exists is estimated by the Treasury Department to be around 25 billion or so.

A nickel weighs a sixth of an ounce, so 20 billion nickels weighs in at 208,333,333 pounds, or 104,167 tons, give or take a few hundred pounds. In the United States, a tractor trailer rig traveling on public roads is permitted to weigh no more than 80,000 pounds (gross) by law. A typical tractor trailer rig weighs in at roughly 20,000 pounds, leaving no more than 60,000 pounds for cargo. (From a quick Google search, it seems most commercial truckers won’t haul more than 50,000 pounds, but since I know fuck-all about shipping I’ll be generous and go with the 60,000 pound limit.)

At 60,000 pounds per truck, a billion dollars in nickels would require 3,473 trucks. Since a semi trailer is 53 feet long (not including the cab), the trailers, lined up end to end with no cabs, would make a row roughly 35 miles long.

I did a quick Web search to see what the shipping cost would be. From Samsung’s US headquarters to Cupertino, home of Apple, the cheapest rate I could find on my quick-and-dirty search was $503 per half ton, or $104,792,002 for the whole shebang. That’s about $105 million in shipping charges, though I bet a job this size might qualify for a bulk discount.

So now you know.

Edited to add: When zaiah and I first talked about the problem of sending a billion dollars in nickels, we were driving and didn’t have easy access to Google, so we made an even rougher back-of-the-envelope calculation, using guesswork, imagination, and the XKCD “if I can throw it, it weighs about a pound” rule. I can throw four rolls of nickels, so I guessed that four rolls would be about a pound.

The first approximation of an answer we came up with, which we figured might be within half an order of magnitude or so of the right answer, was 4,000 trucks. Later, with Google and a calculator and a lot of legwork, we came up with what you see above. So, go us!