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Mining People Magazine

by Debra McCown

Staff Writer / Field Reporter


We are, in our time, benefiting

from one of those long runs of

technological progress

Mining in the Space Age – and the Stone Age


ne thing that’s always fascinated me about history is

something that it reveals about technological progress:

It isn’t always linear.

Sometimes things move in a straight line of development for

years, generations, or centuries. Other times they move off

helter-skelter, with one area of effort pursued intensely while

another is completely ignored.

All it takes is the fall of a dynasty, the invasion of an empire, or

the outbreak of famine or disease, and suddenly whole bodies

of information that were seemingly common knowledge of the

age are lost to history, plowed under by the churning up of


It is normal in human history, in every part of the world, for

bouts of learning and technological progress to develop

and flourish during prosperous times only to disappear and

be lost to the ages – with remnants to crop up again with a

rediscovery of interest centuries later.

We are, in our time, benefiting from one of those long runs

of technological progress – those centuries-deep time frames

where progress has marched forward despite the destructive

antics of our species. It began in Europe more than half a

millennium ago, drawing upon both new trends and efforts

and the global knowledge of antiquity.

No doubt social trends and values underlying civilization

have also advanced in the common knowledge base during

this time, but unlike all that, technology is documentable in

concrete form: measurements, descriptions, drawings, and

results that can be duplicated.

This means – especially since the advent of the printing press

– that technological records have endured long after the social

goings-on of a particular generation have been forgotten.

In some places and times past, large-scale disruptions in

society have led to religious scholars hoarding away scrolls in

an effort to protect the troves of hard-won human knowledge

from the human-induced apocalypse that always, inevitably,

leads to a level of upheaval that replaces higher pursuits with

the desperate struggle for survival.

So common is this trend in human history, there are those

who speculate that long before what we think of as ancient

times – 50,000 years ago, say – Earth may have been home

to a civilization of humans much like the one we have today,

but which destroyed itself, all evidence of its advanced state

simply erased by millennia of natural processes.

It’s a fantastical idea that encapsulates the routine trends

of human history: the alternate periods of building and

destruction that we as a species seem to subject ourselves to

over the centuries.

It lends some context to the moment where we stand today,

where the excited rantings of the Internet and newscasters seem

to insist upon the newness of every darn thing – even though,

when it comes to human nature, there’s never really anything


Just as it’s easy to miss the fact that the controversy over mask-

wearing is a recycled drama from the 1918 flu pandemic – or the

fact that every political scandal has been heard and done before

– it’s easy to think that we 21st-century humans are the first ones

to think of new ideas.

But in ancient Rome, they developed some things that required

some pretty hefty engineering – from the system of aqueducts

that brought running water into the city to the construction of

roads that, in some places, remain – even centuries later – the

sturdiest means of transportation around. Though the ancient

Romans had their vices and their brutal entertainment, they also

made great progress for humanity.

Among their innovations: concrete. As much as we rely on this

foundational building material today, the recipe was lost for more

than a thousand years before its rediscovery in the 1700s.

After the fall of Rome, it took many centuries for Europe to get its

bearings again technologically speaking – even though, in some

other parts of the world, there were periods of cultural flourishing.

That happened in what’s called the early modern period, as the

continent emerged from the apocalyptic devastation of the Black

Death and began to look toward the future.

For the first time in dozens of generations, an approach to

technology – including mining technology – began to take

on a quality of science. It was a sea change, and it prompted

a period of development that slowly but surely began to drive

development in Europe. The advent of that scientific approach

saw the transformation of mining into a technical discipline

– a foundation of thought and practice that would lead to new

efficiency and innovations.

A few hundred years later, at the start of the 20th century, we

entered another period of rapid technological advancement;

within a generation, production shifted from relying on the manual

labor of men and animals to the use of mechanical equipment

that could do the work far more efficiently. With it came better

engineering of mines and important aspects like ventilation which

also made it safer for workers. Throughout the 20th century,

these technologies were refined and improved.

Now, two decades into the 21st century, we are witnessing

another rapid era of change. Just as mule power gave way