What happened to all the copper engraving plates the USGS used to use?
June 4, 2013 10:47 AM   Subscribe

My dad has a unique coffee table that his father (a geologist) made, in which the top surface is a copper plate once used by the USGS to print topographic maps. I was curious if I could find any more of these plates out there somewhere.

All I have been able to find out is that the USGS abandoned the copper plate process in 1942, which is probably when my grandfather acquired this one. There must have been many thousands of them - so where did they all go? Wasn't able to find any on ebay, or any information about collectors/collecting on google. Partly wondering if this is rare or valuable, but mostly just for my own curiosity and edification.
posted by silvergoat to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
There must have been many thousands of them - so where did they all go? Wasn't able to find any on ebay, or any information about collectors/collecting on google.

They were almost certainly scrapped, melted down and reused elsewhere. Copper is too valuable a commodity for something like those to be socked away somewhere. They are now the plumbing in a foreclosed suburban home.

Partly wondering if this is rare or valuable
The few that survived are likely invaluable art-level pieces. Your grandfather's table is probably worth a lot of money (not qualified to estimate) due to its combination of artistic expression, craft materials, and proven usefulness/durability as antiqued furniture.
posted by carsonb at 10:53 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Left over plates may be rare. Copper is easily recycled and at the time USGS abandoned them (circa 1942), copper was in short supply for the war effort. Thus, easily to see how the plates would have been recycled into war equipment. (eg why the mint made steel pennies in 1943)
posted by k5.user at 10:55 AM on June 4, 2013

Thirding melted down. Copper was in such short supply during WWII that it was even replaced with silver in some uses.
posted by Jehan at 11:01 AM on June 4, 2013

This map library in Maine says plates were given to the states in the 1950s and they have the plates for Portland Maine http://www.oshermaps.org/exhibitions/mapping-republic/vii-governmental-mapping-topography-coastal-geological. It's down where it says "Maine Portland Quadrangle"
posted by interplanetjanet at 11:08 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

This thread is worthless would be worth more with pics of your grandfather's coffee table!
posted by mosk at 11:13 AM on June 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

Googled and found this listing of one offered by Sir Richard's Antiques in Vermont; sounds very similar to yours - considered very rare, and sold (but they don't list a price)
posted by j810c at 11:22 AM on June 4, 2013

Wow, I'd love to have something like that. Here's a University of Virginia site about the history of American maps.
posted by mareli at 11:31 AM on June 4, 2013

I bet it would be possible to make your own. Copper etching is a process that you can do in your back yard. The basic notion would be to take a USGS topo map that you like (as US government works, they're in the public domain), and print it at high resolution on a *laser* printer. Then use an iron to transfer the toner to a copper plate. The toner acts as a resist for the Ferric Chloride.

The one worry I would have is that a large sheet of copper would be a heat sink, making it hard to do the transfer. Perhaps the solution to this is to heat the copper in the oven with the topo map on top, and then use the iron to press the printout onto the already-hot plate.

(This is starting to sound awful tempting to do myself, actually).
posted by novalis_dt at 12:17 PM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

It would be an interesting project to track down what may have happened to them state by state -- historical museums? university libraries? or just scrapped?

Of course, the ensuing orthophotographic process they went on to develop is technologically fascinating in and of itself -- but also fails to lend itself historical artifact creation in the same sense.
posted by dhartung at 3:35 PM on June 4, 2013

I will ask the emeritus USGS person that is most likely to know the answer to this. Stay tuned, but I am pretty sure the answer is that they were all (or almost all) scrapped.
posted by rockindata at 4:07 PM on June 4, 2013

At least one of these is on display at the USGS National Center in Reston, VA. In my two years of exploring the building when I worked there, I never found the secret stash of these in the broom closet.
posted by buttercup at 5:35 PM on June 4, 2013

Piling on to say: Probably rare and valuable.

Printing plates are a means to an end, rather than an end themselves. They were/are typically preserved about as long as preserving them was 1) useful and 2) cheaper than remaking them. At that point, they are often deliberately destroyed or defaced to prevent them from undermining the value of the end-product, or a more recent edition thereof. All this is true quite apart from the fact that copper has long been a metal that is worth the effort of recycling.

Put the two factors together and I would conclude that any such plates that weren't destroyed were almost certainly preserved by someone who valued them for what they were, rather than what they were made of, and thus aren't likely to be available or affordable.
posted by Good Brain at 6:09 PM on June 4, 2013

In case anyone is wondering- the majority of these plates are still in storage at the USGS, but won't be for long. They are going to offered for sale this Summer(2014). Details can be found here.
posted by rockindata at 1:10 PM on May 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

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