November 2009

Historical Metallurgy

The beginnings of mineral processing research in Canada (Part 1)

By F. Habashi

The exploration and mining of mineral deposits and physical metallurgy are intimately related to the domains of mineral processing — beneficiation and extractive metallurgy. The metallurgical industry is also similarly closely tied to the chemical industry, for example, the processing of ores in electric furnaces to produce calcium carbide or the production of fertilizers as a co-product of metal production. Today, the mining industry in Canada is worth over $40 billion, and Canada is a world leader in metallurgical research.

The Frobisher expeditions

In 1560, Martin Frobisher (c.1535-1594), one of the first English explorers to sail the North American coast looking for the elusive Northwest Passage to the Orient, reached Labrador and Baffin Island. Among the prizes he brought back home to England was a sample of some “black earth,” a substance rumoured to be gold ore. The story of his fabled discovery spread quickly and the next year, Queen Elizabeth I lent Frobisher’s ship aid from the Royal Navy and funds to defray his expenses. A Company of Cathay was established and Frobisher was appointed admiral. On his second voyage in 1577, Frobisher carried 1,500 tons of “black earth” home only to be informed that it was worthless iron pyrite.

Undaunted, Frobisher returned to Canada in 1578 and found what he thought was another source of gold. He carted 1,300 tons of material from this new site back and was informed that it, too, was the same worthless substance as his first sample. This second consecutive failure made Frobisher the target of much dissatisfaction among the investors who financed his voyages. He was temporarily discredited and found little employment for several years until 1586, when growing naval hostilities between England and Spain created the need for a bold sea-captain. His standing restored, Frobisher remained in royal service for the rest of his life.

New France

During the French Regime (1534-1763), many scientific observers noted and catalogued the natural resources of New France. In 1635, Jesuit missionaries, the first organized group with both a scientific education and an interest in nature, founded the Collège des Jésuites in Quebec City. As the first teaching institution in what later became Canada, the Collège educated young French immigrants during the rule of Louis XIV. From the mid-17th century, the Collège also began to teach general science. The Jesuit fathers sent back to Europe reports known as Jesuit Relations in which they provided detailed descriptions of the new land.

The Collège remained New France’s only institution for classical education until 1759, when it was closed down following the British conquest. A few years later, in 1764, the Jesuit Order was banned in France, and then dissolved by the Pope in 1773. Earlier, the impressive Collège library had been donated to the Séminaire de Québec. This seminary, founded in 1663 by François de Montmorency Laval (1623-1708), the first bishop of New France, later became known as Séminaire des Missions Étrangères de Paris.

Interest in mining and metallurgy in Canada can be traced to the Collège and its library, which contained a copy of the original Latin edition of Agricola’s De Re Metallica (published in 1555) and several other related works.  The first true metallurgical operation in Canada was the exploitation of sedimentary iron ore at Saint-Maurice in Quebec. The Saint-Maurice Forges, which were established in 1736, ran until 1883. Formal engineering schools that taught mining and metallurgy, however, were to come much later, with proper scientific research beginning even later.

Following the arrival of the Jesuits in Quebec came the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists, each of whom established colleges in the different parts of Canada, mainly to formally educate and ordain priests.  It was the founding of the Geological Survey in Montreal in 1842, and the discovery of gold in British Columbia in 1858 and of other mineral resources in different regions that provided the impetus for establishing the Mining Section of the Ministry of Interior in 1901. The section was mandated to help promote the mining and metallurgical industry through research.

Mining and metallurgical education

It was only after several decades of the country’s early development that the need for educating engineers was realized. Engineers were needed not only to exploit natural resources but also to plan and supervise the construction of railways and bridges across Canada. Sir Edmund W. Head, who from 1854 to 1861 was the Governor General of British North America, played an instrumental role in establishing engineering education. In the early Canadian engineering faculties, the teaching of mining and metallurgy was conducted by professors from England or Canadians who had studied in Europe, mainly at the Royal School of Mines in London or the Mining Academy in Freiberg.  Gradually, as universities were formed by the amalgamation of small colleges and came under state control, these engineering faculties expanded.

The Geological Survey

In 1842, the Province of Canada took the lead by creating the Geological Survey of Canada, under the direction of the Montreal-born William E. Logan (1798-1875). Modelled on its British and American counterparts, the Geological Survey was at first limited to Upper and Lower Canada. After 1867, it was faced with the exploration of virtually all the territories now comprising Canada. This marked the beginning of the use of scientific principles to determine the extent of Canada’s mineral wealth. Within the next few years, numerous important discoveries of mineral deposits were made. The collections of the Survey, first housed at Logan’s home, evolved into the National Museum of Natural Science by the 1890s.

Before the Confederation in 1867, each province had its own office for managing its mines. For example, in Quebec the Department of Land of the Crown administered the issuing of permits for mineral exploration and the operation of mines.  In 1881, the Quebec government engaged Joseph Obalski (1852-1915), a Franco-Polish graduate of the School of Mines in Paris, as the mining engineer of the province of Quebec. In 1891, Obalski became the chief of Quebec’s newly founded Bureau of Mines. He is credited as being the first person to systematically analyze and evaluate exploration samples.

Nova Scotia had also instituted a Commissioner of Mines before Confederation, while Ontario set up its Bureau of Mines in 1891. By the dawn of the 20th century, most provinces maintained government bureaus devoted to mining. In 1898, the Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy was founded in Montreal by an Act of Parliament to serve as an umbrella organization for workers in these fields. Later, it incorporated petroleum engineers as well.

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