(Guest Post by www.tuffstuffaustralia.com.au)
For almost as long as we’ve mucking about with tools, humans have been using them to dig things out of the ground. The only difference between now and 40 000 years ago is that we’ve dug enough things out of the ground by now to make much, MUCH bigger tools to do it with.
The oldest mines ever discovered are in Swaziland and Hungary, built by humans and Neanderthals respectively. These simple holes in the ground were probably built with little more than stone tools. Today, ginormous machines such as the Bucket Wheel Excavator tear the ground asunder in the quest to procure ever more minerals from the ground. But how did we get from one situation to the other? Well wonder no more, for here is a brief history of mining equipment and techniques, as well as a look at where the industry is headed into the future.
Mining has historically been known as a dangerous occupation. While that stigma is no longer as true as it once was, in the early days of the industry it was a reputation well deserved. Early peoples in ancient Egypt and other places were chiefly concerned with getting what they needed from the earth: the safety of the miners themselves was of little importance.
Mining has a long history in Egypt, from simple sifting of shale deposits to extensive vein mines and full scale quarrying operations. The Great Pyramids of Giza are by far the most famous feature of the country, and their construction necessitated massive quarrying of granite. Ancient Egypt was one of the most prolific mining nations of the ancient world, and certainly one of the earliest to do so on such a huge scale.
Humans must be part mole, because even as far back as the ancient Egyptians we were burrowing into the earth, not just scraping around on top of it. The Egyptians used two primary mining techniques, open cast and underground, both of which are still used today. Early underground mines were incredibly dangerous but the value of metal in the desert meant the Egyptians were willing to take the risk. Even if the workers themselves may not have been , their superiors and overseers certainly were.
One of the earliest and most enduring mining techniques was known as fire-setting, in which the rock to be removed was heated with fire and then quickly doused with water. This caused the rock to weaken and crack, making the excavation process much easier. This method endured well into the middle ages, being a staple of the industry for thousands of years before explosives and mechanical excavation equipment made the process redundant.
Romans were also prolific miners, and like in all aspects of their culture they were very good at what they did. Like the Egyptians, Romans undertook both open cut and shaft mining. They had a very good understanding of the dangers of searching for ore underground and designed technologies to combat them. Some of these were quite ingenious.
Water, for example, was a constant concern in underground mines, especially when underground rivers, streams and springs were encountered. In less severe cases workers would simply fill large buckets which were then winched to the surface, bailing out the water. For situations where water was a more pressing problem, the Romans used more advanced methods including the Archimedes Screw and man powered water wheels.
The Romans also understood the dangers of stale air and a lack of ventilation. They designed their mines to be as well ventilated as possible, with shafts leading to galleries from which the ore was obtained. The galleries were propped up with wooden bracing or unmined stone, and the Romans were so adamant about trying to keep the mines safe that there was a penalty of death for anyone who mined away these supporting stones. Still, accidents were a constant risk and there is a lot of archaeological evidence of miners who never returned to the surface.
The Middle Ages
During the middle ages iron was perhaps the most sought after metal and was extensively mined. People were hell bent on having wars at the time and with vast armies needing to be equipped there was constant demand for the material. As ever, gold and silver were also highly desirable, to the point that the technology of the day could not keep up with demand, resulting in the Silver Crisis of the mid 15th century.
The Middle Ages are known as a time of technological and social stagnation but that wasn’t necessarily the case for the mining industry. The age old problem of ventilation at deep levels was largely solved with the introduction of water powered mills which could power bellows and aerate the shafts. These water wheels were also used to crush and raise ore, being essentially a more powerful and efficient version of the people powered wheels of the Roman era.
By the end of the middle ages, even the issue of water flooding was being solved, as mechanically driven pumps helped to extract it far more efficiently than Screws or buckets ever could. In the 17th century one of the biggest advancements in mining occurred, with the introduction of explosives. Fire setting was made redundant immediately, and the size of mines and the places they could be constructed was massively expanded.
Mining had always been dangerous, but during the industrial revolution it took on almost ridiculous levels of risk. Not only did the occupation become more dangerous, but working conditions were incredibly poor and low income workers were regularly abused and taken advantage of.
Despite the advancements in technology, mining had become a greater hardship than ever before. This was thanks to the unprecedented demand for coal that the industrial revolution led to. Before, coal had been useful really only for heating, but with the advent of the steam engine and coal fired power stations, suddenly it was a source of power and a desperately needed resource for pretty much everyone.
In reality, the technology behind underground mining was no more dangerous than in the past, but it was the extent to which the new mines were built that created the danger. Coal mines now extended for miles underground, deeper and longer by far than they had ever been before. Every danger that had already been present was amplified tenfold. Gas pockets, suffocation, flooding, collapse and explosions were a constant fear.
A dearth of labour laws meant that employers could pay their workers pretty much whatever the liked, make them work for as long as they wanted and employ people of all ages. Economic destitution meant there were all too many desperate people out there who were willing to work themselves, sometimes literally, to death for the pittance they were payed. Children, pregnant women as well as men of all ages died in droves in the mines until parliament finally stepped in in the mid 19th century.
Despite the horrific working conditions, the industrial revolution was nevertheless a period of great advancement for the mining industry. Inventions such as the steam engine made mining more efficient than ever, and as engines of all kinds became commonplace, the rate at which ore could be removed and returned to the surface increased exponentially. There were also significant safety improvements, with the invention of ignition proof lamps and gas removal technologies. Though they made mining safer, it remained highly dangerous work.
Eventually, the industrial revolution drove an economic boom which resulted in the creation of a middle class, which led in turn to labour unions and the modern workplace as we know it today, not just in the mining industry but society wide.
The Modern World
The same two forms of mining which have existed since ancient times, underground and surface mining, are still the predominant types around today. That said, the technology used in each has undergone monumental changes in the past century or so. Humans have slowly been supplanted by the machines they have created, and today a miner is more likely to operate a piece of heavy machinery than a pick axe.
Excavators, all the way from humble diggers to the mammoth bucket wheel excavators, chew through rock and soil at incredible speed, while the ore is removed by dump trucks larger than houses.
One of the most important improvements in mining is the vastly improved safety record. Improvements in technology have allowed humans to take a step back from the literal coal face, handing off some of the riskiest jobs to machines. Safety standards have also developed greatly: where once a mine collapse was a constant risk and common occurrence, today such an event is a rarity that attracts worldwide attention when and if it does occur.
Mining is an enormous industry, only becoming more critical as humanity’s standards of living increase and our population grows ever larger. Fossil fuels are still by far the most common form of energy production in the world today, and it’s through mining that they’re obtained to run our cars, lights, factories and electric moustache trimmers. One thing that continually stops mining is the need for replacement parts in this harsh environment for the under carriage. Rubber track parts Melbourne is the place to go for your part needs.
With the increased demand for mined ores however has can come an increased realisation of the environmental effects our never ending quest to wrest minerals from the earth can have. This has created much controversy in the modern world, as concern for the world we live one wrestles against the march of progress.
Into the Future
As long as humans are around, it’s unlikely that mining will ever go away. As we gradually exhaust reserves of certain fossil fuels and move towards renewable energies for power we will probably see a reduction in mining for certain materials, yet there will always be a demand for others.
Technology wise, as in any other aspect of our lives, we will no doubt see ever improving techniques introduced. Robotic machines which can perform almost all the tasks humans can will eventually become commonplace, to the point where people may simply need to sit on the surface as overseers, directing the work below from complete safety.
It can be hard to see too far into the future, but who is to say where we may one day find ourselves? If space exploration becomes commonplace and easy, then we may expand our mining efforts to different planets, perhaps even solar systems. Maybe one day we’ll find a way to mine a sun of its hydrogen, or excavate a planet for its diamonds? The possibilities are endless. One thing is without doubt however: as long as we keep advancing, keep creating and keep learning, we are going to need the resources the universe has provided us, and we’ll get them with mining, of some sort. Mining is tuff so is www.tuffstuffaustralia.com.au for all your earthmoving part needs.