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Ancient Technology in Electroplating

 
 
Ancient Electroplating is a technology is not sufficiently discussed on the Internet, so we are sharing this excerpt from The Electric Mirror on the Pharos Lighthouse and Other Ancient Lighting with any Web surfer who might be interested in more evidence for ancient electroplating.  There is much more on ancient electroplating in The Electric Mirror, so it would be worthwhile for those who want to learn more about electroplating in antiquity to obtain a copy.  Meanwhile, this excerpt, speaking of lampposts and the ancient Bagdad batteries, will have to suffice:
 
 

A Replica and Illustration of an Ancient Electric Cell (Battery) found near Bagdad (Baghdad) in the 1930's

 

Large items like these probably could have been electroplated by large batteries based on a similar design to the one used by the Mesopotamian electric cells.  In fact, in the 1970’s they were tested to prove they could electroplate articles.  Dr. Eggebrecht, a director of Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany, possessed a small statue of the Egyptian god Osiris, from about 400 B.C.  It was solid silver covered with a layer of gold that was so thin and smooth that he believed it could not have been applied by beating and gluing techniques.  To reproduce the effect, Science News says that

 

“He connected many replica Baghdad batteries together using grape juice as an electrolyte, and claimed to have deposited a thin layer of silver on to another surface, just one ten thousandth of a millimeter thick.”

 

Speaking of electroplating on other ancient artifacts and the Baghdad batteries as well, in Secrets of the Lost Races, Rene Noorbergen wrote:

 

“The ancient batteries found in the Baghdad Museum and elsewhere in Iraq all date from the Parthian period of Persian occupation, between 250 B.C. and A.D. 650.  However, electroplated objects, which presuppose the use of some form of battery, have been discovered in Iraq in Babylonian ruins dating back to 2000 B.C.  It would appear that the Persians and later craftsmen in Baghdad inherited their batteries from one of the earliest civilizations in the Middle East.

 

 

 

Electroplated objects were also found in Egypt by the famous nineteenth-century French archaeologist Auguste Mariette. Excavating in the area of the Sphinx of Gizeh, Mariette came upon a number of artifacts at a depth of 60 feet.  In the Grand Dictionaire Universal du 19th Siècle [The Great Universal Dictionary of the Nineteenth Century], he described the artifacts as ‘pieces of gold jewelry whose thinness and lightness make one believe they had been produced by electroplating, an industrial technique that we have been using for only two or three years.’”

 

 
 

The Alexandrians probably used ancient electroplating technology to place a shine on the large concave mirrors on the Pharos.  If Jacobi of Dorpat managed to gild “the iron dome of the Cathedral of St. Isaac at St. Petersburg with 274 pounds of ducat gold deposited by battery”* in the 1840’s—surely the more erudite Ptolemaic priests could have electroplated their smaller reflectors.

 

 
 

They probably also used electroplating to disguise the value of coins.**  However, unofficial counterfeiting of coins then was rewarded with the severest of penalties,* so it was a popular pastime for only the most ruthless of entrepreneurs.  One of the most popular techniques for counterfeiting coins was by a method called plating.  However, according to a coin historian, Harold Mattingly,  “The plating of silver coins (much more rarely of gold coins) was a practice of the mint, not exclusively at any rate of the forger.”  It looks like the government mints were competing with the forgers.  Nevertheless, writing in 1928, before the Baghdad batteries were discovered, Mattingly inadvertently suggested electroplating when he wrote:

“The precise method by which the close envelop of precious metal was fastened down over the base core is still a secret.”***

 

 
 

 

Now we know the secret—ancient electroplating!  In The Photo Identification Guide on the Internet, a writer warns buyers to beware of ancient coins that have been counterfeited by electroplating by the ancients as well as modern forgers who make ancient originals look like they were counterfeited in antiquity.  This is because they often bring a higher price than the genuine specimens bring.  The enlightened writer casually accepted the fact that the ancients used electricity and defined Mattingly’s term “plating” in the following words:

“Plating: Basically, an enterprising Roman figured out that he could electroplate a cheap bronze coin to make it appear like a solid silver (or gold) coin. . . . or electroplate a silver coin with a thin layer of gold.  This process was probably first developed in present day Iraq around 250 B.C. and caught on quickly.  There seems to be more than a few of these hoaxes perpetuated during ancient times and some of these coins keep surfacing today.  The process was simple: they would immerse a silver (or gold) ingot beside a common bronze coin into a modified Baghdad Battery and fill it with vinegar.  Crude, but it worked.   Some modern-day archaeologists speculate (to their horror) that many ancient gold coins on display in museums today may actually be gold-plated silver.  Ouch!”

The alchemists in late Roman times undoubtedly electroplated objects, but their love of secrecy and mystification demanded that they mix their secret recipes up with allegories and shapeless symbolisms that were almost impossible for a layman to recognize . One of their mystical formulas, about the tail-biting serpent Ouroboros (an ancient Egyptian magical symbol) declared:

“A serpent [battery] is stretched out guarding the temple.  Let his conqueror begin by sacrifice [preparation], then skin [clean] him, and after having removed his flesh [grim] to the very bones [base metal] make a stepping-stone [bribe] of it [a coin] to enter the temple.  Mount upon it [electrodes] and you will find the object [type of coin] sought.  For the priest, at first a man of copper, has changed his color and nature and become a man of silver; a few days later, if you wish, you will find him changed into a man of gold.”****

Modern electrochemistry allows us to figure out this mysterious formula for ancient electroplating.  The serpent is electricity (a battery), and skinning him means cleaning the coin—down to the “bare bones” or base metal before placing it in a chemical bath and hooking up the electrodes.  The alchemist could then electroplate (change its “color and nature”) the copper item with silver, or, if desired, could change the elements in the bath and slowly apply a little current until it turned to gold “a few days later.”

 


ENDNOTES:

* The 1875 February edition of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine

** Ancient counterfeiting is what initiated the practice of cutting notches in the edges of coins to determine their actual content.  This trick became popular in antiquity, and it was effective.

*** Roman Coins from the Earliest Times to the Fall of the Western Empire

**** Dr. Lynn Thorndike’s History of Magic and Experimental Science

 

 

Ancient technology in electroplating is covered, among many other ancient electrical devices, in The Electric Mirror on the Pharos Lighthouse and Other Ancient Lighting.

 

 





 
 
 
 This page was last modified on Friday, November 25, 2016