Mining People Magazinewww.miningpeople.org
by Debra McCown
Staff Writer / Field Reporter
We are, in our time, benefiting
from one of those long runs of
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