Sept/Oct 2011

Economic Geology

The foundations of modern economic geology (Part 6)

By R. J. Cathro

On the eve of World War I (1917 for the U.S.), engineer-journalist Thomas A. Rickard commented on the difference between the levels of prestige accorded to the profession in the United States and Britain. He wrote that a young American woman regarded the mining engineer “as an energetic explorer on the frontier, as a resourceful technician that finds the metals required in civilized life”, whereas the young Englishwoman had “a vague idea that the mining engineer is a somewhat nomadic person connected with queer doings on the stock exchange” (Rickard, 1937). On the same topic, Herbert Hoover told of being with a charming female companion, an Englishwoman, on a trans-Atlantic voyage. When the trip was nearly over, in response to her query, he told her he was a mining engineer and she was shocked. “Oh, I thought you were a gentleman”, she said (Hoover, 1951).

- Spence, 1970, p. 16.

[Hoover later served as president of the United States between 1929 and 1933.]


The final step in building a strong foundation for economic geology was to train enough mining engineers and mining (economic) geologists to satisfy the rapidly growing demand in the western United States and other parts of the world. The reason this article focuses on mining schools is because they provided the best technical training during that era. Many of the future geologists probably did not even know they had an interest and aptitude for the subject until they began their mining courses or, in some cases, until they had embarked on their careers in the industry.

Engineer Benjamin B. Lawrence described mining in 1910 as “the most polyglot of all the professions. … Geologist, surveyor, lawyer, mechanic, chemist, metallurgist, mineralogist, electrician, this was the mining engineer of the old school.” As long as technical knowledge had not advanced too far, the engineers were able to remain general practitioners, but ultimately – even before the 20th century – they began to develop specializations that might take them in half a dozen different directions.

During much of the 19th century, most engineers were of the practical variety – men who through circumstance, ability, hard work and experience in the different aspects of mining and milling had won their positions without special education. But from the mid-1860s on, the trend moved in the opposite direction, and it was estimated that 85 per cent were college-trained by 1921 (Rickard, 1921). “It was the American universities that took engineering away from rule-of-thumb surveyors, mechanics and Cornish foremen and lifted it into the realm of application of science, wider learning in the humanities with the higher ethics of a profession ranking with law, medicine and the clergy” (Hoover, 1951).

Prior to about 1870, most of the educated mining engineers in America were the products of European schools, the most important of which was the Bergakademie at Freiberg in Saxony. As noted in previous articles, the school had produced some of the most influential economic geologists, including Rossiter Raymond, Waldemar Lindgren, Samuel Emmons, Richard Rothwell and John Hays Hammond. Whereas only a handful of Americans had enrolled there before 1850, the number increased rapidly to as many as 25 annually during the early 1860s. By the late 1860s, about half of the enrolment of 100 came from the United States.

By 1876, however, the trend was changing and only 18 of 139 were American. Students from the United States or Canada came with varying backgrounds and, although not mandatory, most had taken some previous college courses before they entered. Applicants were required to pass examinations that were roughly equivalent to Harvard admission standards, to be followed by a practical four-month preparatory course in the mines and smelters. Most American students were not degree candidates; however, many remained at least three years. If they were not working towards degrees, they were not required to take examinations and could do very little, if they so desired.

The Bergakademie combined theory and practice. The latter, covering both mining and smelting, was a spring and summer program designed to prepare students for the regular fall classes. By the 1870s, Freiberg had four principal courses: mining engineering, metallurgical engineering, mine surveying, and iron mine engineering and metallurgy. Students studied geology under Bernhard Von Cotta and Alfred Stezner. Except for drawing, surveying, mineralogy and petrography, physics and chemical analysis, blowpipe and assaying, all teaching was done through lectures with a minimal emphasis on laboratory work. That emphasis would soon shift in American schools.

After leaving Freiberg, many American students spent time at other European mining schools, such as the École des Mines in Paris, where they were taught mineralogy by Daubrée and geology by Élie de Beaumont and De Chancourtrois. Other outstanding schools included those in Clausthal (Hartz Mountains), Berlin, Frankfurt, Gotingen and Schemnitz (Slovakia). John A. Church, an American mining engineer, wrote in 1871 that there were only four first-class mining schools in Europe: Freiberg, Berlin, Paris and the Royal Mining Academy at St. Petersburg. Very few Americans were trained at the latter. Church did not include any British schools, although a few Oxford and Cambridge graduates did become mining engineers. Even the Royal School of Mines at London lacked the prestige and influence of the best European and American institutions, in part because the profession had less social and intellectual prestige in England. The eminent graduate T. A. Rickard wrote in 1904 that if British technical men held their own, “it is rather through inherited ability than the aid afforded by the miserably financed … (British) schools of mines.”

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