Wire drawing

It is highly probable that in early periods metals were beat with a hammer to thin plates or leaves, which were afterwards divided into small slips by means of a pair of scissors, or some other instrument; and that these slips were by a hammer and file then rounded, so as to form threads or wire. This conjecture seems to be confirmed by the oldest information respecting work of this kind. When the sacerdotal dress of Aaron was prepared, the gold was beaten and cut to threads, so that it could be interwoven in cloth 1243. We are told also that Vulcan, desirous to expose Mars and Venus, while engaged in their illicit amour, repaired to his forge, and formed on his anvil, with hammers and files, a net so fine that it could be perceived by no one, not even by the gods themselves, for it was as delicate as a spider's web 1244. These fine threads therefore were at that time first beat upon the anvil, and afterwards rounded by a file, but were not drawn out like our wire. I do not remember to have found a single passage in ancient authors where mention is made of metal prepared by being wire-drawn. The æs ductile  of Pliny was so called because it was malleable, and could be beat into thin leaves; and he says “tenuatur in laminas 1245.” In my opinion, works made with threads of metal occur too seldom in the writings of the ancients, to allow us to suppose that they were acquainted with that easy and cheap method of forming these threads by wire-drawing. Wire-work is rarely mentioned, and wherever it is spoken of, it appears to have been prepared on the anvil.

Such threads of the dearest and most malleable metal, gold, seem to have been early employed for ornamenting different articles of dress, but certainly not in so ingenious and beautiful a manner as in modern times. It is probable that slips of gold were sewed upon clothes, and particularly on the seams, as is still practised with lace; and perhaps gold stars and other figures cut from thin plates of gold were applied to dresses in the same manner, as is the case at present with spangles, and perhaps they were only affixed to them with paste. People however soon began to weave or knit dresses entirely of gold threads, without the addition of any other materials; at least such seems to be the account given by Pliny 1246. Of this kind was the mantle taken from the statue of Jupiter by the tyrant Dionysius 1247 , and the tunic of Heliogabalus mentioned by Lampridius 1248. These consisted of real drap d'or, but the moderns give that name to cloth, the threads of which are silk wound round with silver wire flattened and gilded.

The invention of interweaving such massy gold threads in cloth is by Pliny ascribed to king Attalus; but I consider it to be much older, though I have found no certain proofs to support this opinion. I conjecture that the cloth of Attalus, so much extolled on account of its magnificence, was embroidered with the needle; for in the passage where embroidery is mentioned by Pliny for the first time, he speaks of its being invented by the Phrygians; he then mentions the cloth of Attalus; and immediately after the Babylonian, which, as is proved by several expressions in ancient authors, was certainly embroidered with the needle 1249. If I am not mistaken, Attalus first caused woollen cloth to be embroidered (not interwoven) with threads of gold; and the doubt that Pliny assigns too late a period to the interweaving cloth with threads of gold is entirely removed. It appears that in the third century gold was interwoven with linen, that linen was embroidered with gold threads, or that gold threads were sewed upon linen, which the emperor Alexander Severus considered as folly; because by these means the linen was rendered stiff, cumbersome and inconvenient 1250.

It was not till a much later period that silver began to be formed into threads by a like process, and to be interwoven in cloth. Salmasius and Goguet have already remarked that no mention of silver stuffs is to be found in the works of the ancients; for the passages which might be quoted from Homer speak only, without doubt, of white garments 1251. Pliny certainly would not have omitted this manner of preparing silver, had it been usual in his time; especially as he treats so expressly of that metal, and its being employed for ornaments, and speaks of gold threads and embroidering with gold. Vopiscus, however, seems to afford us an indubitable proof that silver thread was not known in the time of the emperor Aurelian 1252. This author informs us that the emperor was desirous of entirely abolishing the use of gold for gilding and weaving, because, though there was more gold than silver, the former had become scarcer, as a great deal of it was lost by being applied to the above purposes, whereas every thing that was silver continued so 1253 ; but it has been fully proved by Salmasius that silver threads were interwoven in cloth in the time of the last Greek emperors 1254.

The period when attempts were first made to draw into threads metal cut or beat into small slips, by forcing them through holes in a steel plate placed perpendicularly on a table, I cannot determine. In the time of Charlemagne this process was not known in Italy; for however unintelligible may be the directions given in Muratori 1255 , “de fila aurea facere, de petalis auri et argenti,” we learn from them that these articles were formed only by the hammer. It is extremely probable that the first experiments in wire-drawing were made upon the most ductile metals, and that the drawing of brass and iron to wire is of later date. It is likewise certain that the metal was at first drawn by the hand of the workman; in the same manner as wire is drawn by our pin-makers when they are desirous of rendering it finer. They wind it off from one cylinder upon another, by which means it is forced through the holes of the drawing-iron; and this process agrees perfectly with the description of Vanuccio 1256  and Garzoni 1257 , as well as with the figures in the German translation of the latter.

As long as the work was performed by the hammer, the artists at Nuremberg were called wire-smiths; but after the invention of the drawing-iron they were called wire-drawers and wire-millers. Both these appellations occur in the history of Augsburg so early as the year 1351; and in that of Nuremberg in 1360 1258 ; so that, according to the best information I have been able to obtain, I must class the invention of the drawing-iron, or proper wire-drawing, among those of the fourteenth century.

At first threads exceedingly massy were employed for weaving and embroidering. Among the ruins of Herculaneum were found massy gold tassels, the threads of which were wound neither round silk nor any other materials 1259. It would be of some importance if one could determine the period when flatted metal wire began to be spun round linen or silk thread, by which improvement various articles of dress and ornament are rendered more beautiful as well as cheaper. The spinning-mill, by which this labour is performed at present, is so ingeniously contrived that the name of the inventor deserves to be made immortal 1260.

It appears that the wire first spun about thread was round; and the invention of previously making the wire flat is, in my opinion, a new epoch in the history of this art. Three times as much silk can be covered by flatted as by round wire; so that tassels and other articles become cheap in proportion. Besides, the brightness of the metal is heightened in an uncommon degree; and the article becomes much more beautiful 1261. The wire is flatted at present by means of a flatting-mill, which consists of two steel cylinders, put in motion by a handle, and as the wire passes through between them it is compressed and rendered flat. These cylinders were at first procured from the Milanese, and afterwards from Schwarzenbruck in Saxony; but since the death of the artists in those parts who were acquainted with the secret of making them, they have generally been ordered from Neufchatel. A pair of them cost two hundred dollars. The whole art, however, seems to consist in giving a proper hardness to the steel and in polishing them. In the earliest ages wire was flatted with a hammer on the anvil; and the broad slips were cut into small threads by women with a pair of scissors. The process is thus described by Vannuccio and Garzoni, without mentioning the flatting-mill which is now used for brass work, coining money, and various other purposes.

Before I proceed to the newest inventions I shall add the following observations. Of the wire-work of the ancients we have very few remains, and these are to be found upon cast statues, on which one cannot expect any fine wire spun or entwisted round other substances, even supposing that they had such. In the museum at Portici, which contains a variety of articles discovered at Herculaneum, there are three metal heads, with locks in imitation of hair. One of them has fifty locks made of wire as thick as a quill, bent into the form of a curl. On the other the locks are flat like small slips of paper which have been rolled together with the fingers, and afterwards disentangled 1262. A Venus, a span in height, has on the arms and legs golden bracelets 1263  (armillæ et periscelides ), which are formed of wire twisted round them. Grignon found in the ruins of a Roman city in Champagne a piece of gold thread which was a line in thickness 1264. Among the insignia of the German empire is the sword of St. Maurice, the handle of which is wood bound round with strong silver wire 1265. The ancients, however, must have been acquainted at an early period with the art of making gold-wire of considerable fineness, as they used it in weaving and for embroidery. When surgeons were desirous to fasten a loose tooth or to implant one of ivory in the room of one that had dropped out, they bound it to the next one by a piece of fine gold wire 1266.

The greatest improvement ever made in this art was undoubtedly the invention of the large drawing-machine, which is driven by water, and in which the axle-tree, by means of a lever, moves a pair of pincers, that open as they fall against the drawing-plate; lay old of the wire, which is guided through a hole of the plate; shut as they are drawn back; and in that manner pull the wire along with them 1267. What a pity that neither the inventor nor the time when this machine was invented is known! It is, however, more than probable that it was first constructed at Nuremberg by a person named Rudolf, who kept it long a secret; and by these means acquired a considerable fortune. Conrade Celtes, who wrote about the year 1491, is the only author known at present who confirms this information; and he tells us that the son of the inventor, seduced by avaricious people, discovered to them the whole secret of the machinery; which so incensed the father that he would have put him to death, had he not saved himself by flight 1268. Von Murr, however, has not been able to find any proofs of this circumstance; and amongst the names of wire-drawers, which he met with in the records of Nuremberg, it appears that there must have been no Rudolf, else he would certainly have mentioned it. Doppelmayer 1269 , from mere conjecture, places Rudolf's invention in the year 1400; but Von Murr makes it older, because he found in the year 1360 the name Schockenzier, which signifies a person who works at wire-drawing.

This art, it appears, was brought to the greatest perfection at Nuremberg. Several improvements were from time to time found out by different persons, who turned them to their advantage, and who received exclusive patents for using them, sometimes from the emperor, and sometimes from the council, and which gave occasion to many tedious law-suits. We have, however, reason to believe that the finer kinds of work, particularly in gold and silver, were carried on with great success, above all, in France and Italy; and that many improvements were brought from these countries to Germany. I have not materials sufficient to enable me to give a complete account of the progress of the art of wire-drawing at Nuremberg; but it affords me pleasure that I can communicate some important information on this subject, which was published 1270  by Dr. F. C. G. Hirsching of Erlangen, taken from original papers, respecting the wire-drawing manufactory at Nuremberg 1271 , and which I shall here insert.

In the year 1570, a Frenchman named Anthony Fournier, first brought to Nuremberg the art of drawing wire exceedingly fine, and made considerable improvement in the apparatus used for that purpose. In 1592 Frederick Hagelsheimer, called also Held, a citizen of Nuremberg, began to prepare, with much benefit to himself, fine gold and silver wire, such as could be used for spinning round silk and for weaving, and which before that period had been manufactured only in Italy and France. Held removed his manufactory from France to Nuremberg, and received from the magistrates an exclusive patent, by which no other person was allowed to make or to imitate the fine works which he manufactured, for the term of fifteen years. On account of the large capital and great labour which was required to establish this manufactory, his patent was by the same magistrates continued in 1607 for fifteen years more.

As this patent comprehended only fine work, and the city of Nuremberg, and as works of copper gilt with silver or gold were of great importance, he obtained on the 19th of March, 1608, from the emperor Rodolphus II., an extension of his patent, in which these works were included, and by which power was granted to him to seize, in any part of the empire, as well as in Nuremberg, imitations of his manufactures made by others, or such of his workmen as might be enticed from his service. A prolongation of his patent for fifteen years was again granted to him at the same time.

After the death of the emperor Rodolphus, his patent was in everything renewed, on the 29th of September, 1612, by the emperor Matthias, and extended to the term of fifteen years more. On the 16th of June, 1621, the Nuremberg patent expired; and the same year the family of Held, with consent of the magistrates of that city, entered into an agreement, in regard to wages and other regulations, with the master wire-drawers and piece-workers 1272 , which was confirmed in another patent granted to Held on the 28th of September, 1621, by the emperor Ferdinand II., agreeably to the tenor of the two patents before-mentioned, and which was still continued for fifteen years longer. On the 26th of September, 1622, this patent, by advice of the imperial council, and without any opposition, was converted into a fief to the heirs male of the family of Held 1273 , renewable at the expiration of the term specified in the patent.

It appears that in the fifteenth century, there were flatting-mills in several other places as well as at Nuremberg. In the town-books of Augsburg there occurs, under the year 1351, the name of a person called Chunr. Tratmuller de Tratmul, who certainly seems to have been a wire-drawer. In 1545, Andrew Schulz brought to that city the art of wire-drawing gold and silver, which he had learned in Italy. Before this period that art was little known in Germany; and Von Stetten mentions an imperial police ordinance of the year 1548, in which gold fringes are reckoned among those wares for which large sums were at that time sent out of the empire. Schulz obtained a patent from the council, but his attempt proved unsuccessful. The business, however, was undertaken afterwards in Augsburg by others, and in particular by an opulent mercantile family named Hopfer, who bestowed great pains to establish it on a permanent footing. For this purpose they invited from Venice, Gabriel Marteningi and his son Vincent, who were excellent workmen and had great experience in the art. George Geyer, who learned under them, was the first person who introduced the flatting of wire at Augsburg; and he and his son endeavoured for a long time to monopolize the employment of wire-drawing, and to prevent other people from engaging in it near them. In the year 1698, M. P. Ulstatt, John George Geyer, Joseph Matti and Moriz Zech obtained a new patent, and out of gratitude for this favour they caused a medal to be struck, which deserves to be reckoned among the most beautiful works of Philip Henry Muller, the artist who cut the die.

In the year 1447 there was a flatting-mill at Breslau 1274 ; and another, together with a burnishing-mill was constructed at Zwickau 1275  in 1506. All the wire in England was manufactured by the hand till 1565, when the art of drawing it with mills was introduced by foreigners 1276. Before that period the English wire was bad; and the greater part of the iron-wire used in the kingdom, as well as the instruments employed by the wool-combers, was brought from other countries. According to some accounts, however, this art was carried to England at a much later period; for we are told that the first wire-making was established at Esher by Jacob Momma and Daniel Demetrius 1277. Anderson himself says that a Dutchman constructed at Sheen, near Richmond, in 1663, the first flatting-mill ever seen in England.

Iron-wire in France is called fil d' Archal ; and the artists there have an idea, which is not improbable, that this appellation took its rise from one Richard Archal, who either invented or first established the art of drawing iron-wire in that country. The expression fil de Richard  is therefore used also among the French wire-drawers 1278. Of this Archal, however, we know as little as of the Nuremberg Rudolf; and Menage will not admit the above derivation. He is of opinion that fil d'Archal  is compounded of the Latin words filum  and aurichalcum 1279 .

To conclude this article, I shall add a few observations respecting filigrane works and spangles. The first name signifies a kind of work of which one can scarcely form a proper idea from a description. Fine gold and silver wire, often curled or twisted in a serpentine form, and sometimes plaited, are worked through each other and soldered together so as to form festoons, flowers and various ornaments; and in many places also they are frequently melted together by the blowpipe into little balls, by which means the threads are so entwisted as to have a most beautiful and pleasant effect. This work was employed formerly much more than at present in making small articles, which served rather for show than for use; such as needle-cases, caskets to hold jewels, small boxes, particularly shrines, decorations for the images of saints and other church furniture. Work of this kind is called filagramefiligrane,ouvrage de filigrane ; and it may be readily perceived that these words are compounded of filum  and granum. We are told in the Encyclopédie that the Latins called this work “opus filatim elaboratum,” but this is to be understood as alluding to the latest Latin writers; for filatim  occurs only once in Lucretius, who applies it to woollen thread.

This art, however, is of great antiquity, and appears to have been brought to Europe from the East. Grignon informs us that he found some remains of such work in the ruins of the Roman city before-mentioned 1280. Among church furniture we meet with filigrane works of the middle ages. There was lately preserved in an abbey at Paris, a cross ornamented with filigrane work, which was made by St. Eloy, who died in 665; and the greater part of the works of that saint are decorated in the like manner 1281. In the collection of relics at Hanover is still to be seen a cross embellished with this kind of work, which is said to be as old as the eleventh or twelfth century 1282. The Turks, Armenians and Indians make at present master-pieces of this sort, and with tools exceedingly coarse and imperfect. Marsden extols the ingenuity of the Malays on the same account 1283 ; and articles of the like nature, manufactured at Deccan, are, we are told, remarkably pretty, and cost ten times the price of the metal employed in forming them 1284. This art is now neglected in Europe, and little esteemed. Augsburg, however, a few years ago had a female artist, Maria Euphros. Reinhard, celebrated for works of this kind, who died in 1779. In 1765 she ornamented with filigrane work some silver basons, which were sent to Russia for the use of the church, and which gained her great honour 1285.

Spangles, paillettes, are small, thin, round leaves of metal, pierced in the middle, which are sewed on as ornaments; and though they are well-known, it might be difficult for those who never saw them manufactured, or read an account of the manner in which they are prepared, to conceive how they are made. The wire is first twisted round a rod into the form of a screw; it is then cut into single spiral rings, like those used by pin-makers in forming heads to their pins; and these rings being placed upon a smooth anvil are flattened by a smart stroke of the hammer, so that a small hole remains in the middle, and the ends of the wire which lie over each other are closely united. I remember to have seen on old saddle-cloths and horse-furniture large plates of this kind; but the small spangles seem to be of later invention. According to Lejisugo 1286 , whose real name I do not know, they were first made in the French gold and silver manufactories, and imitated in Germany, for the first time, in the beginning of the seventeenth century. The method of preparing them was long kept a secret.


1243  Exodus, chap. xxxix. ver. 3.—Braun, De Vestitu Sacerdotum Hebræorum, p. 173.

1244  Homer, Odyss. lib. viii. 273, 278.—Ovid. Metamorph. lib. iv. 174.

1245  Lib. xxxiv. cap. 8.

1246  Lib. xxxiii. cap. 4.—Aldrovandus relates, in his Museum Metallicum, that the grave of the wife of the emperor Honorius was discovered at Rome about the year 1544, and that thirty-six pounds of gold were procured from the mouldered dress which contained the body.

1247  Cicero de Nat. Deor. iii. 34, 83.—Valer. Max. i. 1. exter. § 3.

1248  Lamprid. Vita Heliogab. cap. 23.

1249  Plin. lib. viii. cap. 48. That the cloth of Attalus was embroidered with the needle is proved by a passage of Silius Italicus, lib. xiv. 661. We find by Martial, lib. xiii. ep. 28, that the Babylonian cloth was also ornamented with embroidery; and the same author, lib. xiv. ep. 50, extols the weaving of Alexandria, as being not inferior to the Babylonian embroidery with the needle. In opposition to which might be quoted a passage of Tertullian De Habitu Mulierum, where he makes use of the word insuere  to the Phrygian work, and of intexere  to the Babylonian. By these expressions it would appear that he wished to define accurately the difference of the Phrygian and Babylonian cloth, and to show that the former was embroidered and the latter wove. But Tertullian often plays with words. Intexere  is the same as insuere. In Pliny, book xxxv. ch. 9, a name embroidered with gold threads is called “aureis litteris in palleis intextum nomen.”

1250  Lamprid. Vita Alexand. Severi, c. 40.

1251  Odyss. lib. v. 230; x. 23, 24.

1252  Vita Aureliani, cap. 46.

1253  A doubt however arises respecting this proof. It is possible that the author here speaks of gilt silver; for, as the ancients were not acquainted with the art of separating these metals, their gold was entirely lost when they melted the silver. I remember no passage in ancient authors where mention is made of weaving or embroidering with threads of silver gilt.

1254  Salmas. ad Vopisc. p. 394; et ad Tertull. de Pallio, p. 208. Such cloth at those periods was called συρματινὸν,συρματηρὸν, drap d'argent.

1255  Antiquitat. Ital. Medii Ævi, ii. p. 374.

1256  Pyrotechnia, lib. ix.

1257  La Piazza Universale, Ven. 1610, 4to.

1258  Von Murr, in Journal zur Kunstgeschichte, v. p. 78. To this author we are indebted for much important information respecting the present subject.

1259  Bjornstahls Briefe, i. p. 269.

1260  See a description of it in Sprengel's Handwerken und Künsten, iii. p. 64; or in the tenth volume of the plates belonging to the Encyclopédie, under the article Tireur et fileur d'or.

1261  Bericht von Gold- und Silber-dratziehen; von Lejisugo. Lubeck, 1744, 8vo, p. 199.

1262  Winkelmann, von den Herculan. Entdeckungen.

1263  Ibid. p. 38.

1264  Second Bulletin des Fouilles d'une Ville Romaine, par Grignon. Paris, 1775, 8vo, p. 111.

1265  Von Murr, Beschreibung von Nürnberg, 1778, 8vo, p. 229.

1266  Some explain the following words in the twelve tables of the Roman laws, “Cui auro dentes vincti sunt,” as alluding to this circumstance. Funccius however does not admit of this explanation, because he does not believe it possible to bind a tooth in that manner. It has, nevertheless, been sufficiently confirmed both by ancient and modern physicians. Celsus, de Medicina, lib. vii. cap. 12.

1267  A description of this excellent machine may be found in Sprengel's Handwerken, iv. p. 208; Cancrinus Beschreibung der vorzüglichsten Bergwerke, Frankf. 1767, 4to, p. 128; in the tenth volume of the plates to the Encyclopédie under the article Tireur et fileur d'or; and other works. Von Murr quotes a very ingenious description of it by the well-known poet Eobanus Hessus, who died in 1540.

1268  This account may be found vol. i. p. 197 of the Urbis Norimbergæ Descriptio, Hagenoæ, 1518, fol. cap. 5.

1269  Nachricht von Nürnbergischen Künstlern, p. 281.

1270  In the Journal des Freyherrn von Bibra.

1271  Journal von und für Teutschland, 1788, achtes Stück, p. 102.

1272  Piece-workers were such masters as were obliged to work privately by the piece; because, according to the imperial patent, no one except Held or those whom he permitted durst carry on this business. For this permission it was necessary to pay a certain sum of money.

1273  The family at this period consisted of Frederick Held and his three sons Bartholomew, Frederick, and Paul.

1274  Von Breslau, Documentirte Geschichte, ii. 2, p. 409.

1275  Chronica Cygnæa, durch Tob. Schmidten, Zwickau, 1656, ii. p. 254.

1276  Anderson's Hist. Commerce, iv. p. 101.

1277  Husbandry and Trade improved, by J. Houghton, 1727, 8vo, ii. p. 188.

1278  Dictionnaire de Commerce, par Savary, ii. p. 599.—Dictionnaire des Origines, par D'Origny, ii. p. 285.

1279  Dictionnaire Etymologique, i. p. 593. The author quotes the following passage from a French bible printed at Paris in 1544: “Ne ayes pas merveilles, si tu lis en aucuns lieux à la fois, que ces choses estoient d'airain, et à la fois arcal; car airain et arcal est un mesme metal.”

1280  Bulletin des Fouilles d'une Ville Romaine, i. p. 22.

1281  Menage, Dictionnaire Etymologique, i. p. 593.

1282  Jungii Disquisit. de Reliquiis, &c. Hanov. 1783, 4to.

1283  History of Sumatra. London, 1783, 4to, p. 145.

1284  Kindersley Briefe von der Insel Teneriffa und Ostindien. Leipzig, 1777, 8vo. The jesuit Thomans praises the negroes of Monomotapa on the same account. See his Reise und Lebensbeschreibung. Augsburg, 1788, 8vo.

1285  Von Stetten, Kunstgeschichte, i. p. 489, and ii. p. 287.

1286  Bericht von Dratziehen, p. 192.