My original quest for the thoroughly explained origin of furniture springs set me upon a long and fascinating journey.
My original quest for the thoroughly explained origin of furniture springs set me upon a long and fascinating journey. A comprehensive history of man’s skills in metal mining and production and technical works—along with a panoramic view of the vastness of man’s creative genius for inventing “interesting items”—and a review of how history and connections brought about great events like The Industrial Revolution—led me to a perplexing, but fascinating answer. For sure, I doubt any scientific or historical study has the exact answer to the questions: when, where, who and how springs were invented—but the enormous amount of research and original artifacts can help us develop a theory. Could early civilizations have really invented flexible metal springs? They did as you will see.
In Gallery 170 inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York resides a curious artifact which may throw you for a loop—a Bronze Age decorative brooch with wire spirals, commonly referred to as a fibula. The museum describes it as “an elemental form of a copper alloy spiral that achieves an elegant monumentality”. The item was manufactured in Eastern Europe (1200 B.C.-800 B.C.) and establishes several important facts: (1) copper wire was produced on a large scale, (2) the items manufactured with bronze wire were significantly complex, (3) a prototype torsion spring—the fibulae1 as connection devices worked exactly as our modern “safety pin” does, and (4) nine spiral decorative coils demonstrate that a vertical coil helix was certainly possible if an ancient craftsman had experimented a little more. These facts point to a central thought: “nobody knows for sure when springs began to be used for comfort”; all we can do is document the modern era since The Industrial Revolution.
You may purchase a replica of this artifact from the the Met Store .
In April 1849, Walter Hunt of New York was granted a United States patent number 6281 for a device called a dress pin—but we, upon seeing it, would instantly refer to it as a safety pin. Obviously United States patent examiners were unaware that fibulae (aka. “safety pins”) were invented by an unknown artisan, an unknown time and unknown location many thousand of years before Hunt’s invention—not knowing that prior art existed in museums around the world (prior art is evidence that an invention is already known not just by publication but it is enough that someone sometime previously has shown to have described or made something that contains this technology).
In 2008, research teams exploring 10th Century B.C. Iron Age settlements in Lofkind, Albania discovered distinctive dual spring iron fibulae (resembling a “figure 8” or “hourglass”) and are unique to the location so far, designs never before discovered—as compared to the ubiquitous bronze fibulae found across the ancient world. These springs are described: “among many other objects, the two fibulae were found in situ with inhumed burials two large arched box spring to spring with a large lunar or crescent shaped flat hammered catch-plate with the lower edge upturned to accommodate the pin.” 2
Ancient spiral helical wire jewelry in the similar shapes of modern coil springs are another set of objects that abound in public museums and private collections. Three items to note, also in the Met in New York City—accession numbers: 184.108.40.206 which are a pair of 6th Century Etruscan gold spirals; 95.15.134 a 7th Century B.C. Etruscan silver spiral; and 74.51.3264 9th Century-4th Century pair of silver Cypriot spirals. These are spiral springs, they have elastic properties in two axes just like modern springs—yet they are thousands of years old.
A fair, unbiased pursuit of the truth comes across objects like these items I have cited which are hiding in plain sight. Given the vast numbers of these artifacts—we must acknowledge the unknown factors in this search, must develop our own timeline based on true prototypes from antiquity, and then we may assemble assumptions leading up to the modern era. The very fact, in my opinion, that helix springs existed either as jewelry or for some unknown reasons—they could extend and compress, and fibula were ubiquitous torsion springs.
History does seem to repeat itself—whether by rediscovery or by pure chance; original trademarks, for example, I learned were used by ancient Greek potters (2000 B.C.) as a means of distinguishing the high quality and desired design of the day. There are many books detailing these ancient trademarks—and just as later periods would highly prize a signed Da Vinci or a Rembrandt— the use of trademarks for consumer products just like the Greek potters had used went dormant for several thousand years until consumers once again valued items identified to a certain source (region, artisan, or manufacturer). Yes, history repeats or renews.
A true work of the history of an item must consider all the remnants and artifacts found around the world. As you have guessed—my own quest was pretty much turned upside down when I stood face to face gazing upon ancient springs in The Metropolitan Museum Of Art in New York—I was astounded!
I established a new course of study: (1) Examine books, photos, museums for all types of metal uses throughout antiquity and assemble an archive, (2) learn about the basic history or working with metals from crude furnaces and methods right up to the Bessemer Process in the 1850s, and (3) distinguish a pre-modern era (1500s-1850s) and a modern era (1850-current) as a way to establishing a truthful and accurate history.
The history of drawing wire from any type of metals—and ultimately to making wire furniture springs—I found to parallel the chronicle of civilization itself. Innovations that energized the Industrial Revolution and the factor of mass production served as the incubator of steel producing technology and products. Amazing museum exhibits demonstrate the ingenuity of the ancient people and they created wonderful things with the materials and processes they had come to master?
GIFT OF THE GODS: EXPLODING SUPERNOVA AND METEORS
Native Metal is the term for any metal that is found in it’s metallic form in the earth’s surface or crust. These metals include gold, silver, copper, and platinum which may occur in large deposits; but native metals that may occur in small deposits or as alloys aluminum, antimony, arsenic, bismuth, cadmium, chromium, selenium, nickel, mercury, lead, tin, titanium, tungsten, and electrum (which is an alloy of silver and gold.
Man’s early use of metals were only native metals . Native metals were quickly turned into daggers, swords, pins, and bracelets—mostly gold, silver, copper, and electrum; iron was generally of meteor deposits on the earth’s surface and many times men watched those blazing objects fall—pursuing the metal remnants they believed were “gifts from the gods” 3—which they were.4
Many early dated metal artifacts that have been discovered were found to be made of native metals. Archeological research projects around the world are providing revelations into the ancient world’s metal works and technologies.
Svend Hansen writes:
“Metal as a raw material has very practical advantages, which were quickly recognized and soon appreciated. Its particular qualities became apparent in the course of time. Finds from aceramic (without pottery) settlements in eastern Turkey show that the ‘original inhabitants’ were indeed made to search for this raw material, which went beyond the initial occasional and individual collecting of native copper. Since the early 6th millennium B.C., heavy weapons of native copper were produced in Anatolia— the mace-head found in Can Hasan. Native copper finds from settlements have often been presumed a sign of experimentation with copper smelting. In the second half of the 7th millennium B.C., the skills working with fire hearths (pyrotechnology) had developed through work with the first pottery kilns to such an extent that attempts at smelting can be expected. The first cast axes discovered clearly are attested clearly later in the time after 5000 BC .And it is during this stage of development at the latest that the existence of specialized craftsmen can be reckoned. With the ability of casting a new quality was achieved: The special attractiveness of metal lay in the fact that it could be melted. Every broken axe could be melted down and a new axe cast. Alternatively, a broken axe could be melted down in order to cast an object in demand, for instance, a bracelet or a chisel. Thus, united in metal were two remarkable features that were largely absent in other materials: reparability (that is, renewal) and convertibility. When the blade of a stone axe broke, the whole object had to be shortened considerably in order to repair it; in the worst case a new axe had to be made5. The appropriate stone material was not always at hand; hence, there was a certain dependency upon exchange partners, who had access to the corresponding raw material for making axes. Otherwise, if stone quarries were accessible, the craftsman had to procure the stone material, for example silex, on his own, which could involve a journey of several days.” 6
Israeli investigations discovered some of the earliest smelting of lead at the Ashalim Cave in the northern Negev desert, Israel, dating to the late 5th Millennium B.C.—and a particular object indicates that the lead was likely to have been smelted from a relatively pure ore…this Ashalim Cave object exhibited trace elements such as cobalt might likely be the earliest lead artifact produced from smelted lead.7
Artifacts made of metals have been recovered including religious figures, daily use vessels, jewelry, weapons, and tools—made of gold, silver, copper, iron (generally of meteoric origin if Pre-Iron Age), tin, and occasional instances of metal antimony and arsenic.8 Bronze (a copper and tin alloy,9 and, in some cases copper and antimony) had begun to be used around the mid-15th century B.C., but recent finds pushes the date back much earlier. Brass is a combination of copper and zinc and came into use around 1000 B.C. Electrum may be found in nature or may be produced as an alloy of gold and silver. Nickel was not known to ancient craftsmen.
Artifacts have demonstrated technical evidence of ancient production of gold wire and silver wire10 and nails dating to the Mesopotamian city of Ur in the Ubaid period of the 4th millennium B.C.—but ancient works in Bulgaria near the Lake of Varna on the Black Sea coast go back another thousand years and crucible melting slag (a by-product from melting in crucibles) discovered in Chatal Huyuk in ancient Anatolia (Turkey) dates to 6000 B.C.11 Copper slag has been discovered in ancient South American, Chile which dates to circa 1000 B.C.12
Sources of ancient mines which have been discovered suggest a global supply of metals. These include Iran, Afghanistan, the Levant (Turkey), Balkan region, and as far away as Spain and Saudi Arabia. In fact, the ancients around the Mediterranean (including Etruscans, Phoenicians, Cretians) and other locations seemed to be mass producing fibula by the thousands that have been recovered and are on display in museums around the globe—and proves those people produced assorted metal wires of gold, silver, electrum, lead, iron, tin and various alloys. But jewelry was hardly the limit. Around the world, spectacularly complex machines13, tools14, religious devices, art, and weapons of war astoundingly testify to the levels of expertise these ancient civilizations had obtained. We are discovering many new facts about the ancients and we know much more now than what academia believed was so just 25 years ago.
The genesis of working with iron is commonly thought to have begun around 1200 B.C.—and to have spread rapidly and simultaneously through diverse regions across the world—from Anatolia, the Germanic Black Forest, Crete, and in many Middle East area. Interestingly, the artifacts discovered thus far have all been weapons of war, leading experts to conclude that an ancient arms race may have catalyzed the use of iron.15
When iron use actually began—other than native iron—is unknown. Cast iron products (having higher than 2% carbon) date back to the beginning or the Iron Age. Wrought iron has traced back to the “Warring States” China (400B.C.) and the Han Dynasty China in 200 B.C., Wrought iron continued on as majority of iron based products made by blacksmiths in England other parts of Europe up until the mid 1800s—until more precision iron working processes began.
The Biblical king of Bashan, Og, (about 13th Century B.C16) was recorded in Deuteronomy 3:11 to have a “bedstead of iron” (‘eres barzel=iron axhead) that measured 9 cubits long by 4 cubits wide—or 13/12’ x 6’.17 I assume Og’s bed was a bed stead or bed frame—possibly with an ornately wood carved headboard and the cast iron members or support rails extended either head-foot direction or side-side direction and anchored in wood support members. This would be similar to “french hook” rails attached to headboard and footboard. This is only my conjecture. A mattress would have been piled on top of this piece of furniture.
It would take the needs for precision materials—mostly steel for precision clocks—to create the evolution of processes which began in Germany and spread to England.
Metal working skills centered close to the iron ore mines—and Nuremburg, Germany in the 15th century played a pivotal role in the development of sprung metal (special flexible grade metal) used in clock-making. Up to the 16th century advances in steel technology in Europe was led by armourers, but as developments in firearms rendered body armor useless—the direction for improved steel technology passed to gunsmiths and clockmakers. The natural manganese-rich iron ores originally smelted by the Romans in Austria were generally regarded as the highest grade steel.18 We do not know if it was a locksmith or an armourer that first came upon the idea—but in 1450 a portrait of Burgundian nobleman with his clock proudly displayed in the background reveals the presence of clock mechanisms and helps us unwind the story.19
New research coming from the Peruvian site of El Purgatorio is shedding light on Pre-hispanic metallurgical processes. Until recently, evidence for the use of lead in Prehispanic Andean metallurgy had been sparse. While some artifacts containing lead have been reported in the literature, far less is known about the role of lead in the metallurgical process and to what extent Pre-hispanic artisans were practicing intentional selection of lead-rich ores, versus intentional mixing of lead with other metals (such as copper and silver) to create alloys. By the 1700s, England was the global center of the iron industry20 and to create 1 ton of iron it took 10 acres of forest for charcoal fuel. England began to have a shortage of forests (raw materials for ship building) and so the government21 put the brakes on iron production. Iron production was mostly used to products war weapons such cannon. The British government believed there were enough cannons made for domestic defense and any more production would be exported.
It would take the colonization of America and its subsequent raw material sources of iron, the American Independence and United States Constitution Article I. Section 8 on patents, internal improvements, and other key components to drive ingenuity, The Best Friend of Charleston, Samuel F. B. Morse, and a panoply of events to create the mixture and the means to produce wire—for steel springs.
But some unknown ingenious inventor and mechanic created the Antikythera Mechanism that “proves that ancient Greeks used complex arrangements of precisely cut wheels to represent the latest in scientific understanding; the ancient mechanics who captured the cosmos in bronze weren’t just modeling astronomical theories but were also inspiring them.”22
While it may be true to state that Samuel Pratt of Bond Street in the County of Middlesex was granted a patent on October 18,1828 for an elastic wire spring to be used in cushions and mattresses, we cannot make any conclusive statement that this is when furniture springs began. Why? Simply because, as we have seen, there are too many possibilities that some objects predated by centuries or longer what we may believe is novel—an “invention”. The Antikythera Mechanism was a complex metal computer over 2000 years old—and that torsion springs and coiled springs were invented 1000 years earlier.
The fast-paced forward advancements from The Industrial Revolution and great developments in the 1850s to date—all come on the shoulders of those ancient artisans. We shall discover in Part II.
2,000 Year Old Computer – Decoding the Antikythera Mechanism – Full Documentary HD Video
- The enormous trove of metal objects discovered in Assyrian ruins (614 B.C.) in Sargon’s “Burnt Palace” included five bronze fibulae, two iron sickles, four iron arrowheads, a bronze weight, and a “finely modeled” bronze lynch-pin. Scientific analysis of about one hundred fibulae recovered at the Sargon complex using X-ray and atomic absorption discovered those bronze items contained copper mixed with 2.2%-10% tin (this tin likely arrived from Spain into Assyrian workshops by Phoenician trade ships) and in some cases up to 1.3% lead content was discovered. The Examination of Late Assyrian Metal Work, John Curtis, 2013, p 10, 114.
- A New Type Of Early Iron Age Fibula From Albania and Northwest Greece; John Papadopolous;The Journal of American School of Classical Studies of Athens; April-June 2010; p. 233-252.
- An iron dagger discovered in Egypt’s King Tutankhamuns’s tomb was scientifically dated to 1350 B.C.—200 years before the Iron Age ; an iron dagger discovered in Alaca Huyuk in Turkey dates to 2500 B.C. and both of these objects are of meteoric origin.
- Supernova Nucleosynthesis and Supernova Theory are among the ideas considered by physicists including Dr. Fred Hoyle that believe that all iron and other heave metals in the Earth came from ancient exploding supernova.
- The recycling of metals began in the ancient world because metal was too scarce and precious; if an object or a tool was broken it was recycled into a new object unless buried in tombs due to burial practices. In 2013 the world’s quota for recycling of copper was 35% and 80% of all the copper produced in the world since the 5th Millennium B.C. is still in use.
- Metal Matters: Innovative Technologies, Stefan Burmeister and Svend Hansen, p. 137-142, VMP, 2013
- The Earliest Lead Object In the Levant, Yahalom-Mack et-al, p. 1-14, PLOS ONE, 2015 New York State Museum Editor John P. Hart
- Arsenic alloys with up to 5% arsenic concentrations became quite common around the turn of the 4th to the 3rd millennium BC (De Ryck et al. 2005, 261), and until the 2nd millennium BC arsenic-bronze remained the most popular copper alloy (Moorey 1985, 15–16)Appropriating Innovations: Entangled Knowledge In Eurasia, 5000–1500 BC. Phillip W. Stockhammer, 2017, Oxbow Books
- Pure copper casting was perfected in the 4th Millennium B.C. but tin-bronze was introduced to Mesopotamia in the middle of the 3rd millennium— c. 2600–2350 BC), it took until around 1500 BC for tin-bronze to completely replace the arsenic-copper alloy that prevailed. Appropriation of Tin-Bronze Technology: A Regional Study of the History of Metallurgy in Early Bronze Age Southern Mesopotamia, Ulrike Wischnewski. p. 211
- A 22mm diameter copper wire 1mm thick ring was discovered in Late Iron Age Bulgarian caves in the Varghis Ravine; the ring is constructed with overlapped and twisted ends—many were made of silver, gold, and bronze. Marisa: The Late Iron Age Finds From The Collections of Istevan Denes , Sandor Berecki, p. 117, 2013
- Ancient Mesopotamian Materials And Industries, P.R.S. Moorey, p 217-301, Crenndon Press, 1999
- The Mastery and Uses of Fire In Antiquity, J.H. Rehder,, p. 119, 2006, McGill-Queen’s University Press
- The Antikythera Mechanism now on exhibit in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens was discovered by divers in 1901. The 2000 year old bronze device is probably the most complex machine from the ancient world—quite probably from the works of Cicero and Archimedes and is a computer that positions the locations of the moon, the sun, and the planets Mercury, Mars, Venus Jupiter and Saturn.Gears From The Greeks, Derek Price, 1974, The American Philosophical Society.
- A bronze cart wheel discovered in 2016 at the Must Farm in Peterborough, England measures 1 meter in diameter and 3.5 cm thick and dates to 1000 B.C.
- Civilizations of the Ancient Near East Jack Sasson, 2001, Vol. III. Mining And Metalwork In Ancient Western Asia, James D. Murley, p. 1501-1517.
- Smelting of metals began around 3000 B.C.—so The Iron Age 1500-1200 B.C. aligns with this account.
- The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, Editor, Vol. IV, p. 2181-2182, Eerdmans Publishing 1939
- The Ferrous Metallurgy Of Early Clocks And Watches in Post Medieval Steel, Michael Wayman, pg. 1-19, British Museum no. 136, 2000.
- Connections, James Burke, 131-135, Little and Brown, 1978.
- As example Sussex, England in 1573 had 52 furnaces and 51 forges; in 1591 Duffield one works was capable of producing 105 tons of metal into cast iron in an 18 week period and it took 75 tons of pig iron to makes 50 tons of bar iron for casting. Iron And Steel In The Industrial Revolution , Thomas Ashton, p. 1-10, Manchester University Press
- Parliament: The Act of 1543 regulated the cutting of trees and The Act of 1585 forbade the erection of new forges and furnaces.
- Smithsonian Magazine, Jo Marchant, February 2015