Today, a president's wife meets a great Renaissance
mining engineer. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Georgius Agricola lived in
the early 16th century. His masterpiece, De
Re Metallica, was published in 1556 -- the
year after his death. Agricola studied philology
and medicine. He first worked as a town physician
in the mining region of Bohemia. But there he was
drawn to mining and metallurgy. He soon gave up his
post and devoted the rest of his life to mining
De Re Metallica is a very modern book.
Agricola avoided the methods of the alchemists. He
wrote straightforward and accurate accounts of
observed facts. And a shrewd observer he was. The
book was sweepingly comprehensive, and it was still
the bible of mining engineers on the eve of the
Industrial Revolution -- 200 years later. And I
mean bible, as some churches were known to chain
copies to their altars. That way the clergy could
translate parts of its Latin text for miners in
Before he entered national politics, President
Herbert Hoover had become the outstanding mining
engineer of his generation. In 1905 his wife Lou
wrote to a Stanford Professor named Branner, who'd
taught geology to both Hoovers. Lou had run across
a copy of De Re Metallica in London.
She wondered if there was an English translation.
If there wasn't, she wanted to use her knowledge of
Latin to create one.
That was the innocent step into the maelstrom. Lou
and Herbert Hoover undertook the job together. They
worked every spare hour on it from 1907 until 1912,
and what they produced was no mere translation. I
have a copy here. It's 670 pages long. A great deal
of it is introductory material, footnotes, and
appendices. By themselves, these annotations make
up the first comprehensive history of mining that'd
ever been written.
Agricola had had to invent most of his Latin
technical terms, and all the previous German
translators had butchered them. Now, with
extraordinary care, the Hoovers -- using Herbert's
knowledge of mining -- figured out Agricola's
intent. They made a whole separate study of Latin
and medieval units of measure. Herbert even did
laboratory experiments to check Agricola's
statements. Together, the Hoovers take us on a
guided tour through the complete mining literature
before Agricola and much of what followed. These
two amateur historians established the entire
provenance of the field of mining engineering with
brilliant scholarly work.
And it's lovely to look at. Its 289 fine woodcuts
not only tell us just what mining was like and how
it was done; they also present a microcosm of early
16th-century life. The Hoovers' work stands today
as the classic in the history of mining.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds