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From 1794 to 1978, the United States $1 coin was over one-and-a-half inches in diameter.  It was very cumbersome.  Because of its large size and weight, usage of the $1 dollar coin had been in heavy decline since the 1940s.

In 1976, the Treasury Department commisioned a report to study expected coin usage requirements through 1990.  This report recommended that the $1 coin be replaced with a smaller one - 26.5 millimeters (about one inch) in diameter:

"A conveniently sized dollar coin would significantly broaden the capabilities of consumers for cash transactions, especially with machines.  Members of the automated merchandising industry have expressed a strong interest in a smaller dollar, indicating their willingness to adapt their machinery to its use."
The report also noted that the dollar coin is a financially sound idea - dollar bills last only 17 months before they have to be replaced, whereas dollar coins would last for decades.

Beginning in 1977, various designs, shapes, and alloys for the new dollar coin were considered.

The Susan B. Anthony design was finally decided upon and production of the new dollar coin began in 1979.

The coin never caught on, however, and in 1981 the U.S. Mint temporarily ceased production of the coin, arguing that they had enough in storage to meet any demand for the foreseeable future. 
By 1999, their supply was exhausted due to an increased demand that had been building since the early 1990s.  The coin's new-found popularity was a result of increased vending machine usage and various public transportation demands throughout the country.  The United States Mint was forced to resume production.

The new GOLDEN DOLLAR is the same size, shape, and weight as the Susan B. Anthony Dollar.  For this reason, both coins work in vending machines.

For more information, see
The Semi-Official

The Golden Dollar