De Re Metallica by Georgius Agricula (1494–1555) is a remarkable book—and not just because US President Herbert Hoover (a mining engineer by training) and his wife translated it into English from the original Latin.1 The text provides a comprehensive description of the mining industry during the early Renaissance. The descriptions in De Re Metallica were based on personal observations as Agricola traveled and practiced medicine in German mining communities—some of which still contain active mines. In De Re Metallica, we have the first comprehensive look at the interactions between engineering and human health.
Agricola presents his observations in 12 chapters, with more than a hundred woodcut illustrations (Figure). Published only after Agricola's death in 1555, the book remained the primary source of mining engineering for 200 years.
With regard to ventilating machines (page VI-200), Agricola observed that:
“…If a shaft is very deep and no tunnel reaches to it,…or, when a tunnel is of great length and no shaft reaches it,…, and burning lamps are also extinguished,…There is, …a need for machines… which…allow the workers to breathe easily and carry on their work.”
“…Stagnant air which remains in a shaft…or tunnel, produces a difficulty in breathing; the remedy for this evil is the ventilating machines which I have explained above. …If by good fortune the injured ones escape…no one should descend into the mine or into the neighboring mines, or if he is in them he should come out quickly.”
On the topic of miners' health, Agricola writes (page VI-214):
“It remains for me to speak of the ailments and accidents of miners, and the methods by which they can guard against these, for we should always devote more care to maintaining our health, that we may freely perform our bodily functions, than to make profits. Of the illnesses, some affect the joints, others attack the lungs, some the eyes, and finally some are fatal to men.”
As our news headlines attest, the dangers of mining remain as dramatic today as they were 450 years ago.
1. Agricola G. De Re Metallica.
Hoover HC, Hoover LH, trans-ed. New York: Dover Publications, Inc; 1950.