Geometrical lathe

Object Number: 
Brass, steel, ivory
Overall: 9 1/4 x 14 3/4 x 6 3/4 in. (23.5 x 37.5 x 17.1 cm)
Geometrical lathe, a mechanical device used to engrave metal plates for printing the borders and backgrounds of bank notes with complex ornamental patterns; device consists of a series of brass rings of diminishing size joined by bolts and screws; with one ivory knob, a lever with ivory ring handle, and an ivory ring with minute calibrations near top. The chuck is the main part of the geometrical lathe, which was driven by belts powered by a foot treadle.
Gallery Label: 
As the sons of a watchmaker, the Durand brothers Cyrus (1787-1868) and Asher (1796-1886) were raised in an environment that valued aptitude in the mechanical arts. While both became accomplished engravers, Cyrus also had a career as a machinist creating mechanical devices for textile and other industries that flourished in northern New Jersey in the first decades of the nineteenth century. By 1824 the brothers had each established livelihoods as commercial engravers, and joined that year as partners in the firm of A.B. & C. Durand & Company. Bank note and certificate work was their specialty, with Asher providing the figurative, allegorical, and pictorial images, and Cyrus the complex ornamental patterns for borders and backgrounds. The counterfeiting of bank notes was a concern from their earliest issue; Benjamin Franklin challenged forgers by printing colonial currency with plates incorporating impressions of tree leaves, each denomination featuring a naturally unique design. As engraved bank notes gained prominence, printers learned that the most effective way of guaranteeing commissions was through insuring the consistency and exactness of line and pattern on their notes. A Connecticut watchmaker and engraver, Asa Spencer (1805-1847), invented a machine that could mechanically guide a sharp tool in cutting fine patterns of intersecting lines in a metal plate. His "geometrical lathe" employed a series of variously sized rings which, when turned in unison, could result in mathematical designs of precise, unbroken lines of unerring thickness, a feat that could not be achieved though hand engraving. Spencer's machine was first used in 1816 by the Philadelphia firm of Murray, Draper, Fairman & Company to print notes for the second Bank of the United States. Cyrus Durand, being a machinist and an engraver, made improvements to Spencer's design, and presented his device to the Historical Society in 1863. Measuring nearly fifteen inches in length, the machine could create the distinctive latticework ornament known as guilloché which decorated not only currency, but passports, stamps, bonds, stock certificates, and other official financial instruments created by the security printing industry.
Credit Line: 
Gift of Cyrus Durand
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group