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The golden mine of inventions

If deposits of gold and silver existed only on the Earth’s surface, history would not know any of the inventors we will talk about shortly. To find precious metals, people dug deeper and deeper, overcoming ever greater obstacles. Read about what people managed to invent in order to mine gold and silver in Banská Štiavnica, and what such stars as Goethe, Watt, Lavoiser, or even Potter had in common with these efforts.

Mining in Štiavnické Bane, a drawing by Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli, published in his work Danubius Pannonico Mysicus in 1726. Resource: Europeana, German photo library

Inventors of Štiavnica in Mozart’s work

Progressive scientists working in Banská Štiavnica were good at impressing, but also at hard work. Do you want to know which one gained the admiration of Maria Theresa’s sons and who made it all the way to The Magic Flute by W. A. Mozart?

The first professor of the Mining Academy, Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin, devoted his introductory year at this school to building a unique chemical laboratory. With his experiments, he managed to excite not only students. When Joseph and Leopold, Maria Theresa’s sons, visited Banská Štiavnica in 1764, Jacquin presented the ignition of nitric acid by iron filings to them. Also, Joseph and Leopold were quite overwhelmed to see other experiments, such as metal precipitation with the help of another metal, changing of metals’ colours, acquisition of zinc from ore, and production of artificial cinnabar. One of Jacquin’s followers was the aforementioned Ignaz von Born, who discovered a new way of extracting gold and silver from poor ores. By the way, he was the head of Vienna’s Freemason lodge, another member of which was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He was inspired by Born and Jacquin; and to honour Born, Mozart composed cantata K471, entitled Freemasons. In his opera The Magic Flute, Mozart personified Born in the character of Sarastro, and Jacquin in the character of the priest.

A tribute to failure

The deeper the miners delved beneath Štiavnica, the more persistent were the mining waters. A number of ingenious devices, celebrated even today by mining historians, were created to pump the waters. Equally notable were the inventions that did absolutely nothing to help mining in the area.

Around 1477, the master of pumps, Peter von Felsan of Gdansk (Poland), was invited to Štiavnica. However, he kept avoiding his work, devoting his time to other jobs in Poland and Saxony. Because he did not fulfil his obligations, Felsan was imprisoned in Gdansk. In 1626, Peter Legler, a mechanical engineer, visited Štiavnica, boasting that, with his father, he had built a pumping machine in Altenberg that pumped all the water from the local mines. Three years later, he presented his novelty. The machine did pump water, but broke down constantly. Legler put other engines into operation, too, but the flooding in the mines was soon so extensive that no machine could handle the waters. In 1632, Fermin Mazalet and Basquet of France showed up in town. They asked for 6,000 talers (silver coins) and an exclusive 20-year patent for their invention that would pump all the water from the mines. The machine was brought to life, but not for long. After it failed its first test, the inventors disappeared into thin air, leaving only clouds of dust behind. Other mechanical experts came from Vienna, Tirol, Venice, and Kremnica. Today, all of them would be hot candidates for the Nobel anti-prize. Among the inventions that would be eligible in this category, the giant treadwheel, which needed 128 people to operate it, stands out. Apparently, rumours about the machine spread very quickly; in a short while, there was not a soul who would have been willing to work on it. It’s no wonder that after all this experience people were convinced there was nothing better than the “horse whim” (a machine driven by the power of teams of horses) to pump the water from the mines. Everything changed upon the arrival of Matej Kornel Hell.

“Find ten differences” or “Drawing of a water-pumping machine at Amália Shaft”, designed by Jozef Karol Hell. Resource: Central State Mining Archive

Nicolaus Joseph von Jacquin. Resource: Austrian National Library