I have been studying die engraving and engraving machines for forty years. While the first coins were struck from a die made with crude punches in 640 BC, the first “engraving machine” was the use of a rotating drill, the same as used to carve cameos by ancient artisans. It was hand powered by the engraver’s assistant using a bow with a string wrapped around the drill rod he moved back and forth. This caused the drill point to rotate in an alternate direction after each pass of the bow. But this cut into the surface of the die, however slightly, as the engraver forced the iron die against the rotating drill point.
My interest in die engraving machines was heightened in 1966 when I first worked for Medallic Art and spent spare moments standing in front of their three Janvier machines marveling at this amazing mechanism that cut dies automatically from an oversize pattern revolving in synchronous rotation with the diestock.
I was full of questions. But no one could tell me who or when this machine was invented. Everyone knew the name of the machine — Janvier. But who or what was Janvier? Thus I set off on a four-decade search for as much information as I could find on engraving machines.
What I learned was that the Janvier was not “invented.” It was “developed.” Seventeen individuals and groups had been involved with its prior evolvement. I did learn it was Victor Janvier (1851-1911) who was the person who had created the machine in front of me as I stood in the engraving room of Medallic Art’s New York City plant.
I was able to track the history of this technology back to the mid-18th century and follow its improvements through five stages of development among individuals and technicians working independently and in European mints.
Then exactly one year ago I came across an article on the internet that, in reporting about it, I said it blew my mind. I still hold to that statement today. It pushed back this development of machine engraving by 35 years. I had record of a 1756 event that, if correct, the earliest date should now be 1721. Here is what I wrote:
DID THE RUSSIANS INVENT THE DIE-ENGRAVING PANTOGRAPH?
While surfing the internet this week I found an article that blew my mind. It contained illustrations – both photo and drawing – of the Russian “medallion engraver” of 1721. The original machine, created by Andrey Kinstantinovich Nartov, was destroyed by fire in 1747 but drawings and the inventor’s manuscript were uncovered in Saint Petersburg’s National Library that lead a team of mechanics to recreate that original mechanical device 270 years later.
The metal parts of the reconstructed 1993 machine were so precise it worked as well as the original years before. The machine was called the “medallic lathe of Peter the Great,” named after its royal patron, who had established a “turnery” where it was first used. This was a studio where artists created small bas-relief objects carved in bone and other materials on a variety of turning lathes.
That original machine was described in detail by inventor Nartov in his 1755 manuscript, “Teatrum Machinrum,” which could also be another name for the machine. The article also calls the reconstruction a “medallic-copier lathe.” It has also been referred to in print as a “medallion engraver.” With all these names one might expect this contrivance was the earliest “holy grail” sought by hand engravers for centuries – a machine that eliminated the tedium of hand engraving.
Not so. Today we can best describe Nartov’s creation as an elaborate “cameo cutter.”
Cameos have been known since ancient times, originally carved by hand, much like dies were hand engraved. However dies were cut negative to strike positive images, cameos were carved positive, one at a time, without any means or necessity of replication. The first cameo cutting innovation was to power the drill bit with a bow. Imagine a Boy Scout using a bow to start a fire. The bow string wrapped around the drill rotated it as the bow was applied back and forth.
What Nartov may have invented was the foot power applied to his elaborate lathe (like a foot-powered sewing machine of the 19th century). Amazingly the foot power mechanism is missing from both photo or drawing, but the attached article mentions a mysterious “foot gear.” We observe the chuck where the discs to be carved were affixed and the spindle where the cutting point was placed. But we see no provisions for any pantographic reduction.
In Peter’s workshop “turnery” artists cut objects in bone, even from mammoth tusks, as they may have had on hand a considerable supply of these. A few were even cut in metal, as a portrait mold (obviously for casting) is shown in the article. There is no evidence, however, a die was cut in this workshop which could have been used for striking. (Such technology could have cut a die, however; it would be unusual for this to be overlooked.) But without this evidence we must class Nartov’s machine as a cameo cutter. Thus it cannot be classed as a die-engraving machine.
One of Nartov’s machines was in a Paris museum. I had reference to this in my notes (where I learned of this in the Oxford publication A History of Tecmhnology by Singer and others, vol 4). In a study of the die-engraving pantograph, I noted Nartov’s machine was a precursor, along with cameo cutters developed in other countries, notably Britain and France. The first truly engraving machine was the Belgium Hulot of 1766 (documented in Denis Cooper’s Art & Craft of Coinmaking, illustrated page 166). This machine had peddle power and was followed by minor improvements by Frenchmen Mercklein (1767) and Dupeyrat (ca 1788).
The second generation of engraving machines was powered by waterwheels and belting until Mathew Boulton and James Watt added steam power to their engraving machine at the Soho Mint in 1790. The fourth generation was dominated by Victor Janvier who started experimenting in 1892 with his improvements (twin cone drives of the cutting tool and the speed of the rotating pattern and diestock) and patented his miracle machine in 1899. I wrote more extensively on the die-engraving pantograph in The E-Sylum March 14, 2004.
To answer the question posed in the headline: No. Nartov’s machine was not a die engraver, but only a cameo cutter. The invention of the die-engraving pantograph clearly rests with Hulot of Belgium. I wish we knew his full name – he deserves the credit! (Alphée Dubois did an 1875 portrait medal of “M. Hulot;” is this our inventor? Forrer’s Biographical Dictionary, 1:631).
But of all these engraving machines the best was Janvier’s machine. Mints of the world beat a path to his Paris factory to obtain his die-engraving pantograph.
To read the complete article (it’s in English), see: Peter the Great’s ornamental turning lather.
To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see: THE JANVIER DIE-ENGRAVING PANTOGRAPH
This is the first of two posts on Machine Engraving with special attention to the Janvier pantograph. I alluded to the “second generation” of engraving machines in that article above. I will spell out in detail how each step in the development of this machine advanced over previous machines.
Once Victor Janvier patented his machine in 1899 every mint in the world beat a path to his door to acquire one of his marvelous machines. He had created a “money machine.” Literally, every mint in the world wanted his pantographic reducer to cut their dies to strike their coins.
And I will tell you why in the next installment. Stay tuned.