Part 1 – Historical Background
BEFORE any coin or medal can be struck, two dies are required (even if the piece is uniface and the back side is blank). The image to be struck in metal must first be cut into steel. The image is in relief; if the image is pictorial this must be in modulated relief. To obtain a positive image in the struck piece, a negative image must be in the die.
These basic concepts of creating a struck image were understood by ancient man as the first struck coins were made, by the Lydians in 640 bc. Ancient man had an understanding, a comprehension, of iron (for dies), of engraving (a hard iron tool cutting into soft iron), of heat treating (hardening and softening iron at will), of striking (from a hammer blow), of precious metals – gold and silver – and the use of bronze (the later since the Bronze Age, 4000 years previous). Amazingly, these concepts have not changed in 2600 years since! They are basic tenets, the basic physics – the laws of nature and technology – applied to die striking.
Die making technology developed early and rapidly. Punches were first used when lettering first appeared on coins (again Lydia, 580 bc). Hubbing was employed for transferring the design from one iron block to another (in Italy, 530 bc). High relief images could be employed without breaking the dies in striking with the improvement of heat treating and hardening the dies (Greece, 480 bc).
Art intersects with technology when the aesthetics of the image are rendered by the engraver in the finished coin die. Over the next 950 years (until the Fall of Rome, 476 ad) Greek and Roman coin engravers developed the artistic images of struck pieces. The coins of this period are some of the most beautiful glyptic images ever created!
In the beginning of the Middle Age, engravers discarded their burins (the tool for cutting modulated relief into dies). Instead they used only punches, creating designs – dots and dashes and arcs – to punch a design into the die, even the monarch’s head was created with punches only. Such crude, cartoon-like die designs prevented any beauty from a modulated relief to exist. Yet these are the only portrait images we have of many of these rulers, a testament to the fact of the longevity of these glyptic objects.
Gradually, in a century of slow development, the burin returned to the hands of later, new engravers. Dies were again hand engraved creating relief images, but nowhere near the artistic expression of the ancient coins. Technology also improved for using those dies.
Famed Florentine artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) envisioned coining dies, blanking and striking presses and recorded the earliest theory of blanking and coining presses in his notebooks. No documentation exists of da Vinci actually making or using these innovations. However, he created some highly thoughtful solutions to coin technology problems. Later a model of his blanking press was built from his drawings (financed by IBM in the 1950s) and is now on view at the Smithsonian Institution. It shows two blanking heads back-to-back that could accomplish dual blanking on the same strip.
The screw press was developed for striking coins, beginning in Italy in 1506 by Donato Bramante (1444-1514), later in Germany by machinist and engineer Max Schwab (active 1550) who developed and built drawing and rolling presses for making thin strips, and better screw presses for blanking those strips into planchets, and, using the same press, for striking those blanks into desired pieces.
The collar and ejection system was developed by an Italian engineer, Francesco Comelli, in 1786. The three-dimensional die engraving pantograph was developed in several countries at about the same time. A Belgian (last name Hulot, first name unknown, in 1766) was perhaps the first. And a German, Diedrich Uhlhorm (1767-1834) in 1819 invents the knuckle-joint press for striking which was a giant improvement over the screw press.
With these developments in the industrialized world for manufacturing the struck pieces, die making was likewise modernized. The world owes the greatest debt of gratitude, however, to one man – Matthew Boulton – for this modernization of coin and medal making. He built a mint, the Soho in Birmingham England, where he brought the most talented craftsmen and equipment together in one place for the sole purpose of minting coins and striking medals.
Boulton and his partner, James Watt, inventor of the steam engine, applied their creative use of steam power to the coining press providing great power – and ultimately at greater speed – for striking coins and medals. They applied industrial revolution concepts to producing these objects. Their contributions to the field should never be forgotten in the annals of numismatics and medallic art.
Casting medals first occurred in 1439 when Pisanello (Antonio Pisano,1397?-1455?, Italian sculptor, painter) prepared a cast medal of Paleologos. This caught on among European royalty who had portraits of their family members made for distribution to other royalty, much like we send out family photographs today. Cast medals are usually made in the workshops of the artists, but can also be made by professional casters.
The casting of objects similar to medals from Roman times is the same technology, but of less interest to numismatists (they just do not fit the definition of a coin or medal). This art form did not extend beyond central Europe at first. But both casting and striking technology was adapted by European goldsmiths who created jewelry, often similar to coins and medals. These goldsmiths improved somewhat on the casting methods used by Renaissance medalists, in addition to the die making, blanking, striking, trimming techniques adapted from methods employed by coin makers.
The Germans embraced the craft of hand engraving for more than four centuries. They also developed the machinery for striking, as Uhlhorn’s striking press. It was the French practitioners, however, who experimented with modeling oversize models and patterns to be pantographically reduced in three dimensions to the size die required. Also the French applied artistic patinas to their cast or struck medals.
As the Germans retained their interest in hand engraving their dies and the French achieved more realistic images, particularly in medallic portraits with oversize models, it was the Italians who raised glyptic art to its greatest beauty. Undoubtedly influenced by their ancient predecessors, Italian artists created coins and medals of great beauty.
We can credit the British for creating the private mint at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. Matthew Boulton brought all these forces together for the benefit of mints and medal makers throughout the world. Creating these small glyptic objects became an industry where large quantities could be crafted from artists’ models.
What was left for the Americans to invent in this field? Americans became the catalogers of numismatics. Americans authored the articles, created the literature, published the books. Americans wrote about these items, in addition, perhaps, to leading the world in collecting coins and medals.
Americans, in their increasing curiosity strove to learn more about these objects – in every aspect of creating and collecting – ultimately to record this information on the printed page. Americans invented the coin catalog with the tabular listing of coins by varieties and condition and prices to aid the collector if not the connoisseur. Americans popularized numismatics.
This American numismatic collecting popularity gave rise to the U.S. Mint issuing commemorative coins for collectors and the public, often for raising funds for a notable institution. Also, American medalists created The Society of Medallists for medal collectors and glyptic art enthusiasts for these miniature bas-reliefs.
With this overview of the technology and its national developments we can look to the development of die engraving from those earliest coins in Lydia to present day coins and medals. What we will learn is that hand engraving dominated all the centuries up to the 19th century and the hand engraver created all coin and medal dies. Beginning in 1900, the die-engraving pantograph dominated coin and medal die creation with sculptors producing oversize models as their creators.
The present 21st century will be the century of computer-generated die creation. It will be the artist-technician who will create three-dimensional images on the computer which will, in turn, control the cutting of dies for striking coins and medals. It will be interesting to trace these developments and learn of the people involved who accomplished these achievements and have brought us coins and medals over the years.