From ancient molds to modern presses, discover the story of how mints around the world developed throughout the centuries
For much of human civilization history, coins served as the primary form of currency, with paper money only coming into widespread use in the last two centuries. Throughout all of that time, the making of coins—known as “minting”—was a highly important process for the progress and development of societies around the globe.
Modern coin minting has come a long way since the days of the first coinage, progressing from a comparatively slow and imprecise process to one capable of churning out millions of identical coins using automated machinery.
The Birth of Coinage in the Ancient World
Though raw precious metals like gold and silver were a common means of exchange in the ancient world, it’s believed that coins (as we think of them today) first emerged in the 7th century BCE in the kingdom of Lydia, which is modern day Turkey.
From Lydia, the idea of coinage spread quickly throughout the Mediterranean region and west to Europe, eventually coming to be used widely in both Ancient Greece and Rome. Coinage also entered widespread use in Ancient China around the same time.
These early coins were often cast in molds, a technology that has long since become obsolete in modern minting. Casting allowed for the coins to be completely formed in a single process. By contrast, hammered coins employed a die of the pattern to be stamped into the coin, which was then hammered onto a blank round. Since hammered coins had to be individually imprinted, the hammering process required a considerable amount of time and labor. The force of the hammer stroke was also dispersed over the surface area of a round, so hammering was also difficult to execute with large coins because it required more striking force to adequately strike than smaller rounds.
Coinage became extremely important in the Roman Empire, which facilitated mass commerce along trade routes that spanned the entire length of the known world. Ancient Roman coins not only occupied many different denominations, but also were redesigned frequently to commemorate military victories and the accolades of Roman emperors and conquerors. This led the Romans to widely employ the casting method of coin-making, which was more suited to the large coins they often used for higher denominations and to allow the frequent implementation of new coinage designs.
Variations on the hammering and casting methods would remain more or less the norm throughout antiquity and well into the Middle Ages, though certain improvements were gradually made. In medieval times, for instance, rounds were quickly produced by means of hammering large quantities of metal into thin sheets, from which the rounds were then cut.
Continued refinement of the striking process that imparted the patterns of dies onto the reverse and obverse sides of coins also occurred, allowing for increasing uniformity.
Minting Advances Allow for Greater Coin Production
As the Middle Ages came to a close in Europe, a plethora of technological advances revolutionized many aspects of day-to-day life. Among these advances was the development of the screw press system for creating “milled coinage.”
Beginning in 1551 CE, the use of a press to strike coin rounds with dies rather than a hammer was gradually implemented across Europe. The screw provided a mechanical advantage, allowing considerable amounts of force and pressure to be applied. Since a screw press could evenly distribute pressure between the reverse and obverse of a round, it also allowed for the simultaneous striking of both sides of a coin for the first time in history.
It was also during this era that the first security measures were taken to prevent counterfeiting and the manipulation of coinage. The addition of text to the edge of a coin, in combination with the more precise striking allowed by the screw press, made it more difficult to produce passable fakes.
The practice of clipping material around the edges of coins to take small amounts of their metal content for resale was also first addressed during this period of numismatic history. Interestingly, the best solution to the problem was devised by the famed physicist Sir Isaac Newton during his tenure as Warden of the Royal Mint in the late 17th century. By adding milled ridges to the edges of coins, Newton ensured that coins that had been clipped were nearly instantly recognizable.
Though metal debasement isn’t a serious problem in most modern circulation coins, which no longer use silver or gold to carry their value, “ridging” can still be seen as a decorative addition to many modern pieces of coinage.
The Rise of Modern Minting
As steam-powered technology began to proliferate in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, steam presses replaced screw presses, once again increasing the output capacity of minting operations. Mints became more industrialized, with steam presses manufactured principally by the German engineer and industrialist Dietrich Uhlhorn being sold to facilities in many different countries. By this time, the evolution of the mint, which had started with primitive hammering and casting techniques 2,500 years before, was almost fully evolved into what we do today.
The most recent advancement of minting history came in the early 20th century, when electricity replaced steam power in industries of all kinds. Electric presses, combined with electrically-powered feeding belts that brought rounds up to the press, largely automated the minting process which had once been so labor-intensive. This system is still in use today and accounts for almost all of the world’s coinage production.
The history of minting is important both economically and technologically. In every age, from the time of simple castings to the integration of electric power, mints have reflected the highest technology available to the societies that constructed them. At the same time, the minting of coinage has been of utmost importance to the development of the economic and monetary environments that have allowed for modern enterprise.
Here at Provident Metals, we’re excited to see what the future has in store for minting technology. In the meantime, consider owning your own piece of history by purchasing popular gold coins and silver coins.