The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 13, Number 48, November 28, 2010, Article 12


Dick Johnson submitted this great essay on an obscure but important element of numismatic history: anaglyptography. -Editor

The technology that Ken Bressett alluded to in his response on the use of electrotype process in last week's E-Sylum has a name. That name is anaglyptography. It is the use of a small glyptic object -- medals, seals and cameos made ideal patterns -- whose surface is copied by a device that transfers the object's modulated relief surface to line drawings of two dimensions that indicate the rise and fall of the design.

Most amazing of all, it was invented by -- hold on to your keyboard Dear Reader -- Christian Gobrecht, who later became Chief Engraver at the Philadelphia Mint. As a young man of 29 in 1817 Gobrecht took up watch engraving, creating the decorative lines engraved on watch cases. Eight years later, in 1825, he invented a primitive anaglyptographic device. It could draw lines, or engrave lines like his watch case engraving.

It was based on a ruling machine - it would draw a straight line, advance a preset distance and draw another straight line. Gobrecht's inventive mind realized that if he had a pattern that a tracer could control, the straight lines could be slightly curved according to the rise and fall of the relief on the pattern. He had to manually move the tracer a very small distance to start the next path across the pattern's surface. With his early device he advanced this distance only a couple dozen lines per inch.

But the end drawing was something close to an illustration of that object. It was somewhat like a tiny topographical map of that surface. Gobrecht had a fellow Philadelphian, machinist Joseph Saxton (who also would later be employed at the Philadelphia Mint as a builder of scales) build him an improved model of the device.

Saxton took a trip to London in 1829, taking one of Gobrecht's inventions with him. He improved on it there and sold one of these devices to a gentleman in London. Saxton returns to America. The gentleman dies and the machine is acquired by a technician in London, John Bate. Bate makes a slight improvement and obtains a British patent -- number 6254 -- claiming he was the inventor.

Completely independent of all this and without any knowledge of Gobrecht's invention, the same kind of device is invented in Paris by a French mechanic, Achille Collas. Collas builds a device so advanced it could draw 200 lines to the inch! French businessman Vincent Nolte learns of Collas device and foresees the commercial possibilities of such a device. It could illustrate books with these close-line drawings of small glyptic objects -- medals, seals and cameos. [Remember, this was before photography was invented and book illustrations had to be printed from hand engraved plates.]

Nolte bought the rights to the device and hired Collas to operate his machines. Nolte then approached a Paris publisher, Alexander de Lachevardiere, and enticed him into a venture of publishing books illustrated with anaglyptographic engravings. Nolte gathered medals, seals and cameos and Collas made patterns of these. The patterns were mounted in his device and set in motion. His device etches lines in an engraver's plate that can be used to print sheets for a book.

In 1834 the company, Lachevardiere & Cie, launches one of the most ambitious undertaking in numismatic publishing -- Tresor de Numismatique et de Glyptique. Nolte gathers medals, seals and cameos -- or their plaster casts -- from all over Europe. With Collas operating his engraving machines they created and published four folio pages and one page of text each week. An astounding enterprise, this process was to continue for 24 years, publishing 20 large folio volumes!

Two years later, in 1836, Nolte travels to London in search of more small glyptic objects. He goes to the British Museum searching for medals and is introduced to Edward Hawkins, an assistant curator. Prophetically, Hawkins has in hand, a manuscript on the medals of Great Britain. What an ideal publication, Nolte notes, to illustrate with Collas' engravings!

With Hawkins approval, Nolte sets out to find a British publisher. He does - Charles Tilt agrees to finance and publish the work. They set about making plaster copies of the British medals to send to Collas in Paris. John Bate learns of this project and brings suit to halt the work. He objects to a foreigner making the plates on a device for which he holds the British patent.

Since the book would be a British Museum publication it came under the jurisdiction of the British Parliament. Each side lined up their allies and experts to give testimony. Nolte enlisted the aid of prominent medalist William Wyon, even making drawings of several of Wyon's own medals to illustrate the mastery of Collas work. Wyon agrees to testify for Nolte against Bate.

At the trial however, Wyon switched his testimony in favor of Bate and Nolte lost. The upshot was that Hawkins manuscript was not published by either party. His manuscript was finally published in 1885, seventeen years after the author's death. And the illustrations? They weren't published until 1904-11, an astounding 68 years after Vincent Nolte wanted to publish the work with plates engraved by Achille Collas!

All because an illegitimate British patent holder didn't want a foreigner to engrave the printing plates!

But that is not the end of the story. Back in America banknote engraver Asa Spencer learned of Gobrecht's invention and obtained one of the machines built by Joseph Saxton. Other banknote engravers -- James W. Steel and Waterman Lilly Ormsby -- learned from Spencer about the Saxton's magical machine that engraves images. These banknote engravers made use of the machine for engraving small vignettes for use on American paper money.

Also -- and here is where Ken Bressett's mention enters the story -- in the early 1840s Joseph Saxton goes to work at the Philadelphia Mint. While Gobrecht is still alive (he didn't die until 1844) U.S. Mint Assayers Jacob B. Eckfeldt and William E. DuBois use one of the Saxton-built machines to engrave illustrations for their two books, published in 1842 and 1846.

I like to think Christian Gobrecht was looking over their shoulders while they were etching those illustrations. Perhaps he even set up the device himself. Saxton had introduced steam power to it to automatically advance a tiny distance after each row is traced and transcribed. It did not have to be manually advanced.

Plaster casts were first used for the machine's patterns. In January 1842 Franklin Peale brings to the Philadelphia Mint the technology of electrolysis. He made an electrogalvanic cast of the plaster model of the Anthony Wayne Stony Point Medal (Julian MI-31). This was used on the mint's Contamin reducing lathe (acquired 1835) to cut a portrait punch. Could they use the same technology to make electrotypes of coins and medals for use as patterns for their anaglyptograph?

Yes indeed! Further, a positive medal made a negative electrotype. And a negative electrotype made a better pattern for the tracing. Also, making an electrotype did not damage the original where a tracing stylus might. Thus DuBois had electrotypes made of U.S. Mint specimens and these were used as patterns for making anaglyptographic illustrations for their two books.

This printing process served well in mid-19th century. But it was overcome by the invention of photography and photoengraving. By 1880 it was no longer useful. But numismatic book collectors have in their libraries specimens of this kind of illustration process.

Wow - what a great story! I learn something new each week from The E-Sylum, and this single submission packs in more great information than I've seen anywhere on this topic. Thanks, Dick!

Wayne Homren, Editor

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