A good 30 years after their manufacture - retired General Motors Senior Project Engineer, Walter M. Gaudette revealed the origin of dies used to produce the controversial “Lincoln Head” Roller Press “pennies”.
The tokens were manufactured within the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, sometime in the mid-1960s while G.M. and the U.S. Mint cooperated in a joint venture to build an ill-fated “Ten-thousand-coins-a-minute” coin roller press.
Gaudette’s interest in revealing the origin of the Lincoln Head “penny” dies was sparked by his curiosity in wanting to view an article that I had written on the subject that was published in the March 15, 1993 issue of Coin World. He came to the 1996 Michigan State Numismatic Society Fall convention (where he heard I was likely to be found) hoping to meet me and obtain a copy of the article for no particular reason other than to read what was said about a token that he was so intimately familiar with.
While he was unable to find me, he did leave his business card with several dealers and eventually I supplied him with my article and another more recent article by Eric M. Larson (Coin World May 29, 1995), and other literature pertaining to the subject.
Gaudette later contacted me and stated that Larson’s article and statements in David Lange’s, The Complete Guide to Lincoln Cents, contained several errors that he was interested in correcting. In addition, he also found errors in my own article that in were in need of revision.
According to Gaudette, contrary to the information provided by Larson that stated that Mint Engraver, Frank Gasparro produced the Lincoln Head token dies and that they were supplied by the U.S. Mint, the Lincoln Head token dies were produced without official U.S. Government knowledge within the G.M. Tech Center on an “electrical discharge machine” (EDM).
He said that engineers in the project decided to produce token dies that closely simulated a Lincoln cent to see if the metal of the planchet would flow sufficiently to form up the design. He said he was present when actual Lincoln cents were fixed in an Elox EDM machine where they acted as the model or electrode and dies were “cut” through the spark erosion process. Later he was to learn that the dies and tokens produced were made supposedly contrary to public law but he indicated that there was never any thought that their production may have been questionable because the normal Lincoln Memorial reverse was substituted with a reverse reading: “Manufacturing Development Staff” which was the name of the division working on the roller press. (At least three distinct obverse and reverse varieties were produced bearing a Lincoln Head obverse and a reverse bearing this inscription. A variety depicting the initials “GM” on the obverse and “MD” (for Manufacturing Development) on the reverse were also produced and said by Larson to be from dies supplied by the Mint).
He also took exception to Larson’s statements that the obverse dies were sandblasted to remove detail from the Lincoln head design and that the date and legends were removed. He stated that this was definitely not true and that the lack of detail and the so-called sandblasted effect is actually a characteristic of EDM. He said that as he remembers, they had every intention of producing obverse dies complete with legends and a date but that the Elox machine was not intended for precision work (used primarily for sparking out broken taps, etc.) and that a rough copy of Lincoln’s head was all they could get (though there is evidence of the fields being stoned, an obvious necessity to remove the granular surface from this area).
In all fairness to Larson, it should be noted here that Gaudette’s observations pertain to only one of the varieties of the Lincoln Head token dies. Perhaps the die with the highest relief (as shown in my 1993 article) did have legends removed -- though the question remains as to why this would have been done if G.M. officials were of the impression that their productions were legal.
Gaudette indicated that Larson’s (and later, Lange’s) assertion that the first press to produce tokens was “electronically-driven” was in error. He reaffirmed the fact that the first press was actually a small rotary type machine with a single die pair that was operated by hand “with a very long lever.” Gaudette recounted his assignment of measuring the pounds necessary to produce a token by measuring it on a spring scale while depressing the lever. This he said was necessary to determine what horsepower motor was required to turn the pair of rollers on the first “prototype” machine that was still in the planning stages. He said that a motor-driven prototype with a single pair of rollers was produced before the final press with two sets of rollers (which he also considers a prototype) but that the hand-operated machine was actually the first to produce tokens - though it was not a true “prototype” of the roller press.
Gaudette stated, reports that the Mint produced the Lincoln Head dies were simply “untrue” and that the only dies he is positively aware of being produced by the Mint were the so-called Lady’s Head dies. He said when Mint officials came into the G.M. Tech Center and saw Lincoln Head tokens being produced they said something like: “What the hell do you think you’re doing!” and they explained that the pieces were being produced contrary to public law. (They were obviously referring to the 1947 regulation issued by Mint Director Nellie Taylor Ross that stated "no official coinage dies, domestic or foreign” were to be used for striking trial pieces except under rigid security, that "no special coinage die bearing the inscription, insignia or device, in whole or part, of the United States or foreign government, bearing a resemblance thereto, is to be used for striking experimental or trial pieces.”)
Production of the Lincoln Head pieces was halted, and shortly after, dies simulating the metal flow of a Lincoln cent were supplied by the Mint. These were the so-called “Lady’s Head” token dies with nonsensical legends in place of the date, In God We Trust and Liberty; the Lady’s hair in a bun (to simulate Lincoln’s beard) and other similarities to the Lincoln cent.
He said there wasn’t much fanfare attached to the Mint’s order to stop production of the Lincoln Head tokens and that to the best of his knowledge, none of the tokens or dies were confiscated by the Mint but that they (G.M. employees) were simply told to not let any of them get out. He presumes the Lincoln Head tokens were binned up and returned to the Mint with other tokens made from Mint supplied brass strip and returned as required.
In an attempt to confirm Larson’s statement, that Gasparro had told him that he had produced the Lincoln Head token dies, I sent photographs to Mr. Gasparro and called him a week later for his assessment of Larson’s contentions. Gasparro indicated that he did not remember producing such dies. When asked if he had indicated to Larson that he produced the Lincoln Head token dies his reply was, “no, no, no, no”. He then indicated it had been too many years for him to remember exactly what he had produced and he commented no further on the project other than to note that any further questions on the tokens should be directed to the U.S. Mint.
None of this is to suggest Larson presented false information. The fact is, Gasparro’s statement to Larson was most probably about dies of standard design used within the press once it was set-up at the Philadelphia Mint. Coins struck from these dies were said by observers to be indistinguishable from other Lincoln cents struck on regular presses but it is obvious that the configuration of the shank of the dies would have had to be of a special design and something Gasparro most probably would have been involved with.
One other confusing entry in Larson’s article was his statement that: “The Potter specimen is described as possibly made of “powered metal” or a base metal core (probably zinc) plated with ‘powdered metal”. In fact there is no suggestion in my 1993 article that implied that I or any other specialist examining the token believed that there was a possibility that it was made of powered metal. My article made clear that while the original owner seemed to feel this was a possibility that it was my opinion that it was produced from a solid planchet cut from coinage strip that may have been later plated with “powdered metal”. However, Gaudette has confirmed Larson’s contention that only brass strip was fed through the roller press dies which eliminated the possibility of it being struck on a zinc planchet (copper plated after striking).
This revelation prompted me to seek out the owner of the piece and beg to examine it again. The gentleman was surprisingly cooperative and even suggested that I wash the coin with a gentle solvent to remove loose contamination that was obviously hindering the examination (and certainly wasn’t helping the token). However, even before “cleaning”, it was obvious under the superior lighting and the aid of the microscope at my office that what appeared to look like a possible plating of powdered copper over zinc was actually contamination similar to what you might see on a cent laying in the bottom of a lady’s cosmetic bag (such as rouge). After “cleaning” all signs of contamination was gone and it was clear that the token was struck on a solid brass planchet.
The detailed examination also revealed that the incuse “Xs” on either side of Lincoln’s head that I originally thought were alterations to the token (after it was struck) were now void of the whitish-gray powder (that looked like zinc) that was originally trapped within. More importantly, the “Xs” were revealed to actually be elements in the die. Obviously somebody gouged crude “Xs” into one of the actual Lincoln cents that was fixed into the EDM machine as the model (or electrode) and the “alterations” were transferred to the dies.
Another error that Gaudette noted was in Lange’s book in reference to the nonsensical legends on the Lady’s Head tokens. Lange states that the obverse dies feature a: “left-facing bust of a young woman surrounded by letters which approximate the positions of the legends found on the Lincoln Cent; seemingly nonsensical, these legends are coded to identify the individual dies. The reverse dies feature a wreath enclosing additional nonsensical legends which similarly serve to identify the particular die from which a coin was struck.”
In actuality, all the dies supplied were identical to one another and the nonsensical legends on the obverse and reverse are (at least to the best of my knowledge) just that, and serve no identifying purpose. (I suspect that the single letter “G” found in the “Mint mark position” on the obverse and in the lower center of the reverse represents Frank Gasparro’s last initial).
Gaudette stated that the “codes” referred to in this reference are undoubtedly the well-known alphanumerical codes that were later etched into the dies by hand by G.M. Tech Center employees.
Though none are currently known within the hobby, Gaudette said that a number of the earliest “Lady’s Head” tokens were struck without the etched-in codes. Later as they tried to devise a system of separating the production of each die pair from one another (to identify defective dies) they etched in the codes to identify each set of dies. The obverses were coded with a number to the left of the Lady’s head, to identify in which row it was located, and to the right of the Lady’s head was etched in a letter L, M or R to indicate its left-bank, middle-bank or right-bank location. Numismatic researcher Thomas K. DeLorey has also uncovered evidence of this coding taking place on at least one reverse die (which is shown here).
I would like to thank Mr. Gaudette for coming forward and providing these clarifications to existing published research on this seemingly endless subject. More research is needed in this area and reader comments are welcome. I may be contacted at the address below.
Ken Potter has written for Coin World and other publications on the subject of modern trial strikes on previous occasions. His regularly featured Coin World column, Varieties Notebook, can be found in the first issue of every month.
To contact him, send a self-addressed stamped long envelope to Ken Potter, P.O. Box 33, Pinckney, MI 48169. He may be contacted via e-mail at: Kpotter256@aol.com. Visit his Educational Image Gallery at http://koinpro.tripod.com.