Posted by Allison on 6 April 2009, 15:25
We've all heard of the process of minting coins, but what exactly is minting? Put simply minting is the act of transforming metal into the coins we use every single day, but the processes involved in minting have changed somewhat over the course of history.
In the early days of minting coins the process was undertaken by individuals who literally produced one coin at a time. Ancient coins weren't as precise as the coins of today, and although they were still of a roughly circular shape they obviously weren't perfect circles. The tools of the people who minted coins in those days were hammers and tongs - and heat as well, since they had to heat the metal to make it suitable for making into coins in the first place.
Once the metal was heated the design was imprinted onto the flat disc by way of hammering it smoothly into the soft metal. The flat disc was laid directly onto the design which would appear on the other side of the coin. If you look at ancient coins you will see that the design can sometimes appear a little off centre; this is because minting coins was then done completely by hand and while the design looked virtually the same on all the coins that were made of that type, it could also be a little blurred in places where the die hadn't sunk into the metal far enough. The edges of ancient coins are also sometimes split a little.
This painstaking procedure may have been sufficient in the early days of coins when there weren't too many of them in circulation, but as time went on and coins became more widespread it was clear that a different method had to be found that would be faster than simply relying on an individual to produce as many as they could in a day.
This led to the birth of milled coinage, which basically saw the introduction of various different forms of machine to make the process of minting much quicker and easier. But hammered coinage lasted a long time, seeing as it made its debut in the 7th century BC and only gave up the ghost in 1662.
Monkey presses and then more popularly screw presses came into being as people tried to find better ways of manufacturing lots of coins on a regular basis to keep up with demand. The screw press in particular was widely used, and the US Mint used this method of minting coins when they first got started.
Of course as time has passed there have been continual improvements to the techniques used for minting coins. Nowadays there is essentially a two pronged approach to minting – the first goal is to produce as many perfect coins as possible in the shortest amount of time, and the second is to produce coins that are ideally as difficult as possible for forgers to make fakes of. Unfortunately just as the technology for making it harder to do this has advanced, so have the skills of the forgers. It should be borne in mind that a mint is solely for the production of minting coins; banknotes are usually made elsewhere since they involve different types of technology altogether.
Modern coin mints are located in various countries, although they may not only make coins for the country that they reside in. A good example is the Royal Mint, which is responsible for churning out all the British coins in circulation (and indeed for giving us the brand new designs which are to appear on British coins in 2008). Apart from making coins for the pound sterling, it also makes various different types of coins for more than a hundred other countries around the world. Over the waves in America, the US Mint is a similarly large and respected organisation. It operates over four locations, but its main building is in Philadelphia.
Because there are several countries which have more than one mint making the country's coins (there is more than one location in the UK too, apart from the famous premises in London), there is the necessity to mark the coins so that you can tell which particular mint made them. This is known quite simply as a mint mark. This applies more commonly to coins which are of a certain age rather than those coins which have just left the mint, although it can vary between countries.
Many coin collectors pay a lot of attention to whether a coin has a mint mark on it or not, since it can provide clues as to the history of that particular coin and where it has come from. On some occasions a particular mint may have produced thousands of copies of a particular coin, whereas another mint in that same country may only have produced a handful for some reason. It is perhaps not surprising that the latter type of coin will be far more collectable – and thus far more expensive to buy – than the former type, of which there are more examples.
Some numismatists make a point of researching the various forms of minting which have been in use throughout the world over the centuries, and it is certainly a fascinating journey to explore. From those early days where a single person would labour for hours and days to produce one coin at a time, doing the best they could to turn out as many decent coins as possible, to modern times when thousands can be produced in a very short time span, minting has come a long way.
One wonders what those ancient people who relied on hammers, tongs and dies to mint coins would make of how we mint them today. The whole concept of minting and currency has changed a lot over the years, and there are no doubt a lot of changes still to come in the future.