Coin tosses are often used as a way to settle disputes. Sometimes those disputes have long-term ramifications.
Maine historians still talk about the Portland Penny, which was used in 1845 to settle a disagreement between Francis Pettygrove, of Portland, and Asa Lovejoy, of Boston. Pettygrove reportedly won two out of three coin tosses for the rights to name a parcel of land that would eventually become one of Oregon’s largest cities. Had he lost the coin toss to Lovejoy, it would have been named Boston instead of Portland.
Coins are frequently used in sporting events. Perhaps the most momentous toss in sports history came in 1970, when the Pittsburgh Steelers won a coin toss in a New Orleans hotel room to secure the first draft pick against a team with an identical worst-in-the-league record of 1-13. They used the pick on Terry Bradshaw, who went on to lead them to four Superbowl wins in six years.
In 1903, in Kitty Hawk, N.C., Wilbur and Orville Wright flipped a coin to decide who would have the honor of making the first attempt at flying in the world’s first airplane. Wilbur won the toss, but his attempt was unsuccessful, clearing the way for Orville to earn the historic distinction of being the first to fly 120 feet in 12 seconds.
Sometimes, the outcome of a coin toss can be a matter of life and death.
The New York Times reported in 1876 that coins were used in sword duels to determine which combatant got to fight with the sun at his back.
In 1959, musician Richie Valens won a coin flip against another musician to secure a seat on a plane with Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson, the Big Bopper. The plane crashed enroute to a concert tour site, killing all three musicians.