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The men that shaped mining

Cover of  by Michael Coulson

In coming issues, AJM will profile some of the most influential figures in the history of mining. The rollcall of characters includes entrepreneurs, explorers, barons, magnates, politicians, scientists, financiers and scribes. The series will start in the ancient world and move forward chronologically to the industrial revolution and British Empire, to the present day.
The profiles are lifted from Michael Coulson?s magisterial new 496-page volume entitled The History of Mining, published by Harriman House. Coulson is an eminent London-based mining analyst and stockbroker. For more details of the book, contact Rebecca Blackman at email: or visit:

Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD)

Although the great Roman soldier and observer Pliny the Elder was not a mining man, his writings on mining operations that he visited across the Roman Empire, particularly Spain where he was a procurator responsible for mine administration, have created an invaluable record for posterity. The book in which they appear, Historia Naturalis, is in fact a comprehensive study of geography and nature in the Roman Empire, and the sections on metals and mining are just a small part of the work. However, they are one of the few sources of directly observed comments on mining techniques in the ancient world that have survived to this day.
Born Gaius Plinius Secundus in 23 AD in Como, northern Italy, Pliny?s family held equestrian status indicating that they had money and were deemed aristocrats or knights. Pliny received formal education in Rome where his tutor, Pomponius, who was one of Rome?s leading poets, provided Pliny with connections important to his future career. At the age of 21 he went to the Low Countries to serve as a military tribune, an administrative post, but soon became a military officer. For the next few years Pliny served in the Lower Rhine area where he saw active service under his old tutor Pomponius.
At this stage, around 50 AD, Pliny began to write books, which included a biography of Pomponius and a history of the Germanic Wars. He returned to Rome where he might have been expected to continue his career in public service. It was, however, the age of Nero and Pliny?s position as a serious historian did not fit into Nero?s increasingly debauched society. He wrote further books which did not attract positive comment and as Nero?s rule ended with the Emperor?s suicide, a vicious civil war broke out. Around that time Pliny?s brother-in-law died and Pliny took on the guardianship of his nephew
Pliny the Younger.
Vespasian, whose son Titus was a great friend of Pliny?s, had taken up arms to press his claim to become emperor as the post-Nero situation became increasingly chaotic. Vespasian entered Rome as emperor in 69 AD and from that point on Pliny?s career took a major turn for the better as he assumed a number of important public posts as a procu- rator, which took him all over the Empire. One of the regions he visited was Spain, where his responsibilities included keeping an eye on the gold mines which had assumed a key role in the Empire?s finances. It was here that he made copious notes on the techniques of mining and treating gold at locations such as Las Medulas in Leon, observations which eventually were incorporated into the mining section of his Historia Naturalis. He was not remotely a gold bull, however, as he believed that it merely played on man?s natural greed. He also made observations about silver min- ing, base metal (including lead) mining and even diamonds. The Historia also contained sections covering the use of metals in what we would now call manufacturing.
Pliny?s career continued with his appoint- ment as prefect for the Roman navy in the western Mediterranean and it was during this phase of his life that Historia Naturalis was completed and published in 77 AD. In August 79 AD Pliny was holidaying with his sister and Pliny the Younger in Misenum when Mount Vesuvius erupted. Pliny ordered a fleet of ships, which he commanded, to set sail to rescue those who had escaped the disaster and were gathered on the shore outside Pompeii. He, unfortunately, had to spend the night ashore and in the morning was found dead overcome by the sulphurous fumes from Vesuvius.
The only book of Pliny?s to have survived is Historia Naturalis. Whilst archaeologists have done work on ancient mining sites around the world and in so doing have provided much useful information on mining construction and techniques, Pliny?s observations are the real thing. They reveal the relatively sophisticated mining methods of the Romans, including the use of hydraulic (water pressure) style mining 1700 years before it was introduced into 19th century mining. As such Pliny?s work holds an invaluable place in the study of the mining industry?s historic development.

Georgius Agricola (1494-1555)

Georgius Agricola is one of the most influential figures in the history of mining. His book De Re Metallica was the core textbook on mining and metallurgy for over two centuries. It remains today a remarkable body of work, both historically significant and an unrivalled description of mining in the Middle Ages and before. In 1912 it was translated into English by American mining engineer Herbert H. Hoover and his wife Lou; Hoover subsequently became president of the USA.
Born Georg Bauer in Glauchau, Saxony, in 1494, Agricola went to Leipzig University and after graduating in 1518 he taught Greek and Latin in the city of Zwickau. He went back to teach at Leipzig but intrigued by the Renaissance he travelled to Italy where he became interested in science and obtained a degree in medicine in 1526, and where he also became known by the Latin translation of his German name.
In the late 1520s he returned to Germany to Joachimstal where he took up the position of town doctor. It was at this time that Agricola became interested in mining, having invested with some success in the Gotsgaab silver mine which provided him with a lifetime income. He made an extensive study of mining techniques and metallurgy in the region around Joachimstal, which was a major mining centre.
In the 1530s Agricola moved to Chemnitz to take up another medical appointment and it was around this time that his first book on mineralogy, De Natura Fossilium, was pub- lished. He continued his study of mining and metallurgical techniques in tandem with his medical practice and began work on De Re Metallica. In 1543 he married Anna, a widow, whom it is thought may have been his second wife. Agricola had at least three children by Anna and reference is made in Joachimstal records to other earlier children.
During this period he also found time to serve as burgomaster in Chemnitz, a considerable tribute to his standing as he was a staunch Roman Catholic in a Protestant country. He died in 1555 having completed Metallica a few years before and the book was posthumously published a year later. It was his last and greatest work; in total he wrote more than 20 books and pamphlets covering mining, metallurgy, medicine
and religion. Anna and at least three of his children survived him and were still living in the 1580s.
De Re Metallica is comprehensive in its scope, covering hundreds of mining opera- tions that Agricola had observed or studied. The book also includes scores of highly detailed woodcuts illustrating aspects of mining and metallurgy, and some of the first observations on geological strata and how rocks occurred in layers that could be traced for many miles. It is an historic and formidable work that stood the test of time, two centuries in fact, and it remains an invaluable work for studying the mining techniques of the Middle Ages today.

John Winthrop Jr. (1606-1676)

John Winthrop Jr. was born in Suffolk in England, the son of John Winthrop who eventually became the Governor of Massachusetts. Winthrop Jr. was educated at Bury St Edmond?s Grammar School and then at Trinity College, Dublin. On leaving Dublin he studied law in London for a short time in 1624, but then became something of an adventurer in the 1620s, join- ing the Duke of Buckingham?s unsuccessful expedition to release the beleaguered Huguenots in La Rochelle on France?s Atlantic coast. Thereafter he travelled around the Mediterranean.
On his return to England in 1629 he found his father had been appointed Governor of Massachusetts in the New World. Winthrop Jr. remained in England to look after his step- mother and siblings, and his father?s business affairs. In 1631 he followed his father to America with the family and founded the town of Ipswich in Massachusetts, but was then encouraged by his father and interests in London to take up the position of Governor of Connecticut which led to his return to London to obtain patents from the Crown for the establishment of the colony of Connecticut.
He succeeded in obtaining the Crown?s permission to establish the colony and on his return to America he became excited by the potential for minerals in both Connecticut and Massachusetts. He spent time in Massachusetts in the late 1630s persuading the primarily agrarian inhabitants of the colony to take an interest in developing the mineral potential of the area. Winthrop Jr. established two ironworks in Massachusetts, at Braintree in 1644, the first in the American Colonies, and then a bigger one at Lynn, both using locally mined bog iron. He then went back to Connecticut and continued his new role as a mining and metals entrepreneur building ironworks at North Branford. He also established a granite quarry on his land at Waterford on the Connecticut coast. Winthrop Jr. was known as America?s first commercial iron maker, and due to his efforts Connecticut earned the title cradle of American mining.
But Winthrop Jr. was much more than a political figure and mining developer; he was a man of science also and very interested in alchemy. This interest meant he was curiously in demand over matters of witchcraft, something of an obsession in colonial New England. In the latter years of his life he spent a lot of time fulfilling the duties of Governor of Connecticut and in 1675 he became one of the Commissioners of the United Colonies of New England, which merged Massachusetts, Plymouth, Connecticut and New Haven. He was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in London and contributed a paper on maize, another area of his expertise as he owned and operated a grist mill in New London, Connecticut, where he had a monopoly over the milling of maize.
Winthrop Jr. married a cousin, Mary Fones, in 1631 and she accompanied him and the other Winthrops to Massachusetts in 1633. Unfortunately Mary and their baby daughter died the following year. The tragedy tem- porarily saw him back in England where he met and married his second wife, Elizabeth Reade, in 1635. They had nine children, one of which, Fitz-John, followed father and grandfather as a colonial governor.
Winthrop Jr. was a man of many parts, being interested in science, medicine and astronomy. Indeed he acted as a physician in Connecticut for a number of years and on the astronomical side claimed the sighting of a fifth moon around Jupiter many years before it was confirmed through the work of others. He also carried out experiments to mine salt from the ocean by evaporation. He died in 1676 of a cold caught in Boston where he was attending the New England Convention.
The Winthrop family is one of the exclu- sive group of rich upper class Americans who trace their heritage back to the founding days of the American colonies and beyond that back to England and even the Normans. Today the rich founding families are often seen as outposts of American snobbery whose past is perhaps more glorious than their pres- ent. John Winthrop Jr., dedicated administra- tor and politician, mining entrepreneur and scientist, a man of brilliance, underlines the difficulties for his ancestors in living up to the family?s past glories.

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