February 2011

Economic Geology

The foundations of modern economic geology (Part 1)

By R. J. (Bob) Cathro

The last two dozen articles in this series have focused on six major mining camps and deposit types that were discovered in the southwestern United States between 1850 and 1900: California Motherlode, Comstock, Homestake, Butte, Bingham, and Nevada-type Gold. They were chosen because they were among the most influential discoveries during that period, measured by their immediate and lasting impact on global exploration. As it turns out, that exploration and research led rapidly to the modern renaissance of the branch of science called economic or mining geology.

This series initially traced the study of the origin of metals from Eastern Europe, in the age of Agricola, to France and Scotland-where the link was recognized between metals and the processes that produced volcanic and plutonic rocks -and finally to Cornwall. It is easy to forget that prior to the California Gold Rush, most economic geologists were members of specialized local guilds in the tin/copper districts of Erzegebirge and Cornwall or were engaged in coal and iron mining. They had been trained mainly as mining engineers in a dozen institutes in Europe and Great Britain. Geology had been restricted to stratigraphy, mineralogy and paleontology. In the words of Thomas Rickard (1910):

"The study of ore deposits for a hundred years owed its progress to German research. In England, the detection of fossils and the correlation of strata absorbed the attention of geologists to the exclusion of investigation into the nature of the mineral aggregates that are the subject of mining ... Englishmen founded geology and Germans started the systematic study of ore deposits; but it was in America that economic geology won proper recognition ...

"Indeed, not only did geology give the cold shoulder to mining but when geolo-gists condescended to be interested in mineral deposits, they made blunders highly perplexing even to those willing to accept scientific aid. Thus Murchison rashly enunciated the generalization that the Silurian rocks were particularly favorable to gold veins, basing this broad statement on his knowledge of the Ural region; and when gold was discovered in Australia in slate and sandstone of Silurian age, he congratulated himself on the confirmation of his dictum. Later, he interpreted the scanty data at his disposal as warranting the inference that deep mining in the solid quartz rock is usually unprofitable. No wonder the miner looked askance at the geologist, so that there was a lack of cooperation between the young science and the venerable industry. Moreover; the idea obtained in England that geology stooped to commercialism when she concerned herself with mining ...

"This tradition in effect prevented English geologists from attempting to unravel the complexities of ore occurrence. A notable example is afforded by the Geological Society (London). This organization was founded by the fathers of modem geology, and in its records will be found the presentation of the principles that constitute the very foundations of the science. Yet the sum total of the information concerning ore deposits to be found in the journals of the Geological Society is negligible. Englishmen as geologists occupy a position second to none; as contributors to the study of ore deposits they are nowhere. I impute the poverty of result entirely to the fact that men of culture have deemed it undignified to make commercial use of the scientific knowledge."

Economic geology only became a "dignified" profession after it made the jump to North America. It will surprise and perhaps disappoint many geologists to learn that the first economic geologists in North America were educated as mining or civil engineers, simply because engineering was the best training available at the time. Included were engineers such as Thomas Rickard (1864-1953), an English graduate of the Royal School of Mines in London; Waldemar Lindgren (1860-1939), a Swedish graduate of the Bergakademie at Freiberg, Germany; Rossiter W Raymond (1840-1918), an American educated at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, the Bergakademie at Freiberg, and Heidelberg and Munich universities; and Richard P. Rothwell (1836-1901), a Canadian (born at Oxford, Ontario) educated at the Rensselaer Bergakademie at Freiberg. They represent a small minority of mining engineers at that time who learned some basic geology during their technical training and early field careers, and also had a natural interest in the geology of the mines they visited. In addition, they achieved great influence because of their skills in observation and communication.

Good mining engineers were in great demand during the rapid growth of the mining industry in the latter half of the 19th century, and some had an opportunity to travel widely throughout North America and to new mining districts around the world. Although they probably did not realize it at the time, they were helping to establish the foundations of economic geology.

The next few articles will examine some of the factors that enabled economic geology and the mining industry to grow so quickly. These included the establishment of: high-quality mining newspapers and technical journals, which were the 19th century equivalent of today's Internet; technical associations that provided forums for discussion at con-ferences; new university departments and schools of mines for training economic geologists and conducting research; and federal and state/provincial geological surveys in the United States, Canada and worldwide, which adopted an increased focus on economic geology.

The initial emphasis will be on those who had an influential early impact due to their roles as both geologists and journalists/authors, such as Thomas Arthur Rickard. "TA," as he was called, was perfectly groomed for this role. His father, grandfather and great grandfather were all Cornish mining experts who were called "Captain" in the Cornish tradition. His father Thomas had been one of the first min-ing engineers to visit the California goldfields, bringing a sectional stamp mill with him by land across the Isthmus of Panama in 1850 (Cathro, 2007). Thomas Sr. had four mining engineer brothers, William Henry, Richard White, Reuben and Alfred. Other family members who pursued a mining career were TA's brother Forbes and three of his cousins. In fact, eight members of his family were members of the American Institute of Mining Engineers (AIME) at one time.

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