The golden mine of inventions
You can’t stop progress
It is true that Banská Štiavnica achieved success in the textile, tobacco, and wood-processing industries, for mining did not flourish in every era, and not all town inhabitants could have gone underground. But, it is absolutely true that the most noticeable discoveries made in this town were linked to mining. More precisely, with gold and silver. Every gram of these precious metals motivated people toward progress in both mining and metallurgy. Even before the Tartar invasions (1241 – 1242), experts from Tirol came to the region, and then, after the invasion, also from Saxony and Thuringia. The experts offered advice on mine bracing, ventilating and draining. And, in 1385, somebody left us a note about a device which drained water from the Banská Belá mines. It was simpler than its name: rota artificialis (artificial wheel).
Hammers and chisels, explosives, and Potter
For long centuries, miners carved the mines, millimetre after millimetre, with the help of only hammer and chisel. It was only in 1627 that the first blasting using gunpowder took place in a mine here, and it was also the first time anywhere. The new method of breaking rocks then spread into the world. To help satisfy the obsession with gold, the following methods were used as well: transversal mining of ore veins, horse-drawn railways in mines, various types of pumps, a unique system of tajchs (reservoirs) used as a source of water to drive mining machines, and a steam powered pumping device, the first in continental Europe. This steam powered pump was introduced here by an English man, Isaac Potter. Steam energy was then used by other inventors, too; for example, by J. K. Hell for his famous water-column pumping machines.
A recipe for scrambled silver
Metallurgy went hand in hand with mining. But, at the beginning of the 17th c., as much as 27% of silver was still being lost in the metallurgical process. Until Ignaz von Born came to the scene with his technical news, called amalgamation. You roast ore with salt. As a result, you get silver chlorides which are easier to amalgamate. Clear, isn’t it? Born promoted this “recipe” at the world congress of metallurgists in Sklené Teplice in 1786. Amalgamation was such a metallurgical breakthrough that even without travelling anywhere to demonstrate it, Born attracted scientists from all over the world to the congress, for example, one of the discoverers of tungsten, Fausto de Elhuyar, from Mexico. Born also used the congress to found the Society for Mining Development. Not only metallurgists and chemists became members of the Society, but also, for example, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, James Watt and Antoine L. Lavoisier.
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.