Saturday 3 August 2013

Leonhard Danner; Designer, Engineer, Inventor

Leonhard Danner of Nuremberg (V&A)
There is something curiously and inevitably contrary about the figure of Leonhard Danner, the sixteenth century Nuremberger engineer/inventor. A tireless figure who we can only imagine through the machines he left behind, the scope of which indicates the breadth of his expertise, imagination, whilst channelling the vision of princely patrons. Biographical details of his life are scant and unreliable; as befits a successful, wealthy, gentleman engineer we know roughly what he looked like but his date of birth is either 1497 or 1507. What we do know is that by 1585, married to his second wife Dorothea, he died a wealthy citizen, enjoying for a brief time an Imperial Privilege derived from timber. 

Tracking down the busy engineer to his Nuremberg or Dresden workshops where I could interview him proved impossible so instead I imagined a scenario whereby an article could be written, given the information available. All information is in either French or German, so any mistakes in translation are all mine.

Leonhard Danner maintains a relatively low profile these days, however, previously he was extremely well known – if not well documented – by everyone who mattered in his home town of Nuremberg and then later in Dresden. Although his family didn’t originate in Nuremberg, his father Martin entered the service of that city in 1531 where the City Council valued his skills and experience in carpentry and machinery making. As a non-native of Nuremberg, Leonhard acquired the right to call himself citizen in 1540, which given his activities and inventions, perhaps served a dual purpose of keeping him on their side, as well as endowing him with an air of respectability.

It is this duality which intrigues me most. He was renowned for instruments which could demolish strong Moorish castle walls, gadgets for breaking through locks and metal bars as well as creating lifting machinery for heavy artillery. At the same time he was also producing delicate artistic works of a non destructive nature.

The screw device which could destroy locks came from his workshop around 1560 and the operation of the vicelike tool was as simple as it was effective. The machine's lawless efficiency and capacity to enable criminal behaviour was quickly recognised by the Nuremberg City Council and they issued a decree banning it from January 16, 1561. Anyone requesting such an apparatus should be reported to the reigning mayor, whilst instructions for manufacturing them were restricted. This obviously didn't prevent more of these 'Dannscher Brechschrauber' being manufactured and not all of them were Danner's. Indeed he was busy with commissions from other patrons. As a consequence of this invention, locksmiths developed far better and secure locks for worried house and business owners.

When not inventing murderous and/or illegal machines, he was making bronzes of fine prints, creating delicate brass engravings, perfecting pressed coinage techniques and, more playfully, pressing wooden counters for games such as draughts/chequers. Whilst his epitaph remembers him modestly as a joiner and screwmaker, illustrious connections in his varied career saw his inventions commissioned, collected and used by various Electors, Princes of the Holy Roman Empire.

Like his father before him, it was recorded in 1555 that the City Council of Nuremburg employed Danner's military expertise. Inevitably, given the parlous religious and political ferment in which various German cities and principalities existed in that period, he was sought out by other customers. For instance, Otto Heinrich, Elector Palatine of the Rhine (1502-1559), a protestant leader famous for his love of art and books, employed Danner in a military engineering capacity. With this last Elector's death, Danner was free to devote more time to other champions of the protestant cause. One such Prince, Augustus, Elector of Saxony (1526-1586) had been pressing Danner to settle in Dresden since 1554 so that he could make use of this inventive engineer.

Augustus was not unique amongst his princely contemporaries in his genuine practical interest in mechanical engineering, indeed Francesco I de Medici was well known for his expertise in alchemy, china production and ballistic design. However many wealthy Europeans were filling room upon room with marvels of nature, fine art/sculpture, curious mechanical objects but had little knowledge of some of the practical application of the devices they owned. But according to Ludolf von Mackensen, Augustus's 'art room' (kunstkammer) could be more accurately described as a 'science cabinet' (wissenschaftskammer). This simplistic distinction between early modern arts and sciences is ill-advised but the collection inventory of his collection undeniably demonstrate where his interests lay. As well as a large collection of precision measuring instruments (clocks, compasses, astrolabes and cartographic), he had practical 'how to' manuals in his library and a veritable arsenal of guns and shot. But most importantly he possessed manufacturing machines which he personally used to make items, which sets him apart. He had dies for minting coins, a lathe for ivory and wood, tools for cutting agate and by 1565, a large decorative goldsmith's wire drawing bench.

It is this bench which will become the centre of my story. Augustus had commissioned Danner to produce a bench fit for an elector, bearing in mind wire drawing benches by this time were normally operated by young goldsmith apprentices. Danner surpassed all previous machines and produced one with state of the art winding mechanisms, powered by devastatingly strong crossbow technologies and richly decorated with marquetry using twenty types of wood. Augustus would have used this to create his own gold and silver wire - for filigree work, jewellery making, to embroider or weave into cloth. Examples of the goldsmith's work in his collection would provide inspiration for creativity.

The bench – with associated draw plates, internal mechanism, spindles and tools - wasn't the only item that Danner made for Augustus. In fact it seemed that the princely partnership was a meeting of minds which were obsessed equally with creating beauty and deadly destruction, both with a scientific precision. With the assistance of a team of family and associates willing to move to Dresden, Danner provided fortifications, weapons and artillery, as well as small scale tools such vices, pliers, planes, saws and screws. In 1580, whilst still in the employ of the Elector, one of Danner's students Balthasar Hacker invented the first wheelchair. This long lived and profitable relationship of mutual respect between a prince and engineer contributed much to the development of early modern technology and invention.

In our modern age where according to the fashion, engineers oscillate between obscurity and recognition, it is perhaps time to re-evaluate Danner's technological contribution. At the moment, early modern science and technology seems to be enjoying a period of popular interest, and even more encouragingly, it is not totally Anglo-centric. The lack of relevant linguistic skills and access to source material makes it harder for English speaking academics to revisit the impact of continental, middle Eastern and oriental engineers on native craft. Which is why I find myself immersed in interdisciplinary, foreign language material for this project on Danner's wiredrawing bench.


Les Cahiers de la Musee National de la Renaissance, Le Banc d'Orfevre de l'Electeur de Saxe, (Paris, 2012)
Herman Maué, et al.,(eds), Quasi Centrum Europae: Europa kauft in Nürnberg 1400–1800, (Nürnberg, 2002)
Watanabe-O'Kelly, Helen, Court Culture in Dresden: From Renaissance to Baroque, (Palgrave, Basingstoke, 2002)


  1. I think that it would be relevant to point out that Nürnberg (that's Nuremberg for English speakers) was the leading metal working centre of Europe during Danner's lifetime and that several Nürnberg craftsmen worked on objects for Augustus' Kunstkammer.