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European Themeroute | Mining

Coal from European and American collieries was the universal fuel during the Industrial Revolution. Nonetheless technical inventions in mining played a relatively insignificant role. The main cause was the ongoing abundance of workers. Colliery owners were able to attain higher outputs simply by ... more

Icon: MiningThe treasures of the Earth. European Theme Route Mining

Coal from European and American collieries was the universal fuel during the Industrial Revolution. Nonetheless technical inventions in mining played a relatively insignificant role. The main cause was the ongoing abundance of workers. Colliery owners were able to attain higher outputs simply by employing more workers. For the same reason they were able to postpone any improvements to the catastrophic working conditions for a long time.

Thus, for centuries technical developments failed to move on from the Middle Ages, when mining in central Europe had been dominated by silver and gold. Hydraulic power was the main source of energy. In order to remove unwanted water from the pits, large water-wheels were installed both above and below the surface, linked by a clever system of rods with extraction pumps. In order for collieries to remain independent of fluctuations in natural water supplies. coal was also brought to the surface with the help of hydraulic power. The Oker pond in the German Harz region, constructed in 1720, is generally regarded as the first reservoir in Europe.

By this time surface supplies had been exhausted in many places; but digging to greater depths involved the use of ever larger water wheels to drive the pumps. The water column machine, first presented in France in 1731, offered a more efficient solution. Water falling from a great height drove a piston downwards, which was then emptied and rose back up again. However, the decisive innovation was the invention of the steam engine in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen. This was first used to raise pit water in a colliery near Wolverhampton. Other British collieries soon followed. True, Newcomen’s invention needed huge amounts of fuel, but this was practically irrelevant because they were erected directly over the coal supplies. Only a few steam engines went into operation on the continent; in the Belgian mining areas around Liège and Mons. Improvements to Newcomen’s model, and new machines developed by James Watt, made steam technology truly viable around 1800.

By that time coal was the leading mining branch. By 1709 the English had already succeeded in making coke from coal. Around the end of the century the new fuel was in wide use in ironworks. This development rapidly increased the demand for coal on the British Isles. But further improvements in mining were necessary. The use of steam engines make the process more efficient. In addition the old winding cables made of hemp were replaced by wire rope, developed in metal-ore collieries in the Harz mountains in 1834. Lifts were then built into the shafts in British collieries, and wooden pithead scaffolding erected to hold the cable wheel.

New technical developments in ventilation were not put into operation for purely economic reasons. Fresh air was not only needed by the miners underground, it was also necessary to reduce the levels of explosive pit gas. For this reason experiments began with air pumps in British collieries: but colliery owners regarded the investment costs as too high. Many colliers continued to lose their lives as a result of explosions underground, and the risks were made greater by the use of open lighting; candles and oil lamps. In 1815 a scientist by the name of Humphry Davy came up with the first effective safety lamp, whose flame was screened off from the pit gas by an extremely thin wire trellis.

Work underground remained highly dangerous and extremely dangerous to health because of the risk of explosions, roofs collapsing and the bone-breaking labour beneath the surface. Hewers equipped with pick, chisel and hammer were sent along appallingly insecure, badly ventilated galleries which were sometimes so low that they were forced to lie down whilst working. The coal was then loaded into baskets or low wagons, to be drawn by horses over wooden or iron rails – when the galleries were high enough to allow this. If not, people had to push and pull the wagons. In British collieries this work was often done by women and children crawling on all fours. The loads of coal they had to push, weighed up to 250 kg.

Starting in the 19th century a huge number of mining engines were patented: the Englishman Richard Trevithick invented a rotating steam-driven drill; this was then followed by a piston drill that worked along the same principle as a steam engine. These inventions would have made work underground much easier, were it not for the fact that they were considered too expensive by the colliery owners. Real progress was only made after 1853 with the introduction of compressed-air drives.
Starting in the 1840s massive pithead towers made of quarrystone or redbrick, began to be introduced, mainly on the continent. They were able to bear the loads imposed on the cables, which were being let down to ever greater depths, better than the old wooden constructions. After only a few decades these so-called "Malakoff towers" (named after the fortress in the Crimea), often had to be made higher by the addition of a steel frame. Around the turn of the 20th century Malakoff towers were replaced completely by even higher steel frames.

About the same time the use of disc-cutting machines – a British innovation – was gradually spreading in the USA and Great Britain. These were equipped with chisels on moving discs, rods or chains to cut a horizontal rift beneath the level of the coal and thereby facilitate hewing. Although this invention lightened miners’ physical labour, it introduced a new stress: noise. Furthermore, the noise of the machines often made it impossible for miners to detect the cracking sound in gallery roofs, that preceded collapses. At first the disc cutters were driven by compressed air, but this was replaced by electricity after people found a way of preventing sparks from intruding into the galleries, and dirt getting into the machines.
Where there were suppliers of soft coal, it proved more advantageous to use a mechanical pick. This was introduced into Belgian coalmines and, after the First World War, into the pits along the Ruhr. Hand labour underground, which had continued almost unchanged since the Middle Ages, was gradually coming to an end.

The coal was increasingly transported from the surface via chutes hanging on chains and shaken with the aid of compressed air. In the 1920s companies began to equip their collieries with electrically-driven conveyor belts. Pit railways with electric locomotives were used along longer stretches. In 1934 a cutter loader was introduced in Great Britain for the first time. This not only cut coal but loaded it in a single working process. In areas where the coal was softer a coal plane was used as an alternative. The first experiments were made in France and the USA and improved to mass production standards by engineers in Westphalia (Germany). The plane was drawn along the surface of the coal, which simultaneously fell on to a moving belt. Finally, fully mechanised coal mining began in the 1940s.

Cercs | Spain
Around the upper reaches of the Llobregat river there are many mines which have riddled the mountains with their galleries. The mines of Figols and the surrounding area were for long the source of the coal that moved the steam engines that drove Catalan industry. The mining museum reveals 150 years ...

Cercs Mining Museum
Museu de les Mines de Cerc
Plaça Sant Romà s/n. Colònia Sant Corneli
08698 Cercs, Spain

Cuevas del Almanzora | Spain
Cuevas de Almanzora, 70 km north-east of Almeria, is the principal town of the mining district in the Sierra Almagrera, a range of mountains that runs parallel to the coast for about 12 kms. Minerals were worked in the region from prehistoric times, and the towns stands in the shadow of a sixteenth ...

Sierra Almagrera mining district
Information: Tourist office
Plaza De La Contitucion
04610 Cuevas del Almanzora, Spain

El Entrego | Spain
Asturias was one of the most important coal mining regions in Spain and the museum at El Entrego, 3 km south of Langreo, provides evidence of the role of the mining industry in the 19th and 20th centuries. The museum is located in a spectacular series of colliery structures. A steel headstock ...

Museum of Mining and Industry
Musea de la Mineria y de la Industrie
El Trabanquin
33940 El Entrego, Spain

Gallarta is a community in the iron ore mining region 14 km north-west of Bilbao, best known as the birthplace of Dolores Ibarrun, La Pasionara (1895-1981), the daughter of miner who became one of the leading figures in the Spanish republican movement. The Asociación Cultural Meuseo Minero (Cultural ...

Mining Museum of the Basque Country
Euskal Herrike Meatzaritzaren Museoa Fundazioa Museo de la Mineria de Pais Vasco
Campo Dieog Auzoa
48500 Gallarta, Spain

La Unión | Spain
Mining flourished in the province of Murcia, on the Mediterranean coast in south-eastern Spain, from Roman times. The Carretera del 33 (Way of the 33) is a road that links the community of La Unión with the port of Portmán. From 1869 until the last mines closed in 1991 the principal mineral ...

La Unión Mining Park
Parque Minero de la Unión
Carretera del 33
30360 La Unión, Spain

Large-scale coal mining was the principal economic activity in the province of Asturias in northern Spain from the 1840s. Langreo, with a population of 43,000 is the fourth largest town in the province and lies close to the River Samuñ which extends 8 km from its source to its confluence with the ...

Samuño Valley Mining ecomuseum
Ecomseo Minero del valle de Samuño
El Cadavíu Ciañu
33909 Langreo, Spain

Guldsmedshytta | Sweden
Guldsmedshyttan is a small community in the township of Lindeberg, 40 miles north of Örebro. The Stripa Mine, which worked until 1977, was one of the most productive iron ore mines in the region. It was a pioneer in the use of electricity to power mining machinery, and its managers developed ...

Stripa Gruva
Gruvbackevägen 8
71178 Guldsmedshytta, Sweden

Ludvika | Sweden
The Bergslagen Ecomuseum, which administers many historic sites in Sweden’s most historically important industrial region, has its headquarters at the open air museum of mining, the first of its kind, established in 1938 by Karl-Erik Forsslund and Gustaf Bjorkman. The museum’s emblem is a gigantic ...

Bergslagen Ecomuseum
Ludvika gammelgård & gruvmuseum Stiftelsen Ecomuseum Bergslagen
Nils Nils gata 7
771 03 Ludvika, Sweden

Sala | Sweden
Sala was called ‘Seva rikes skattkammare’ (Sweden’s treasure chest). Silver mines discovered in the late 15th century were developed with the assistance of German miners. Until 1908 Sala was the country’s principal source of silver, and zinc production continued well into the 20th century. More than ...

Sala Silvermine
Sala Silvergruva
Dr. Christinas Väg
733 36 Sala, Sweden

Davos Platz | Switzerland
Iron ore and other metallic ores were mined in the canton on Grisons in the nineteenth century, and the history of mining in the region is commemorated in the museum at Schmelzboden, 4 km south-west of Davos, which is situated in the early nineteenth century headquarters building of one of the ...

Graubünden Mining Museum
Edelweissweg 2
7270 Davos Platz, Switzerland

Travers | Switzerland
Asphalt was discovered at La Presta in the Val-de-Travers in the Canton of Neuchâtel in western Switzerland in 1711, although through the eighteenth century it was used almost entirely for medicinal purposes. It was applied to road-making from about 1812, and large-scale mining began in 1873. ...

Asphalt Mines
Les Mines d’Asphalte
Site de la Presta
2105 Travers, Switzerland

Zinal | Switzerland
The La Lee copper mine, in the canton of Valais, is located on the left bank of the River Navizence, 1920 m above sea level. Visitors are able to explore workings that extend 500 m into the mountain, and there are displays that explain the geology of the mine and its technical history, as well as ...

La Lée Copper Mine
Mine de Cuivre de La Lée Tourist Office
Case Postale 198
3961 Zinal, Switzerland

Donetsk | Ukraine
The city of Donetsk owes its existence to the building of an ironworks in 1870 by John Hughes, a Welshman. It grew rapidly, exploiting the rich mineral resources of the Don basin, and was originally named Yuzovka after Hughes. In 1924 it was named Stalin (later Stalino) after the dictator of the ...

Regional History Museum
189a, ulitsa Chelyuskintsev
Donetsk, Ukraine

Aberdare | United Kingdom
The Museum tells the story of the social history of the Cynon Valley from 1800 to the present. Audio visual presentations in the gallery include films on the iron industry around 1830 and the Miner’s Strike of 1984/85. The displays explore issues such as sport, health, religion, popular culture, ...

Cynon Valley Museum and Art Gallery
Depot Road Gadlys
CF44 8DL Aberdare, United Kingdom

Amlwch | United Kingdom
As long ago as the Bronze Age people knew that the North Wales mountain of Mynydd Parys contained copper. Just how much was lying untouched in the ground, however, only came to light in 1768. This had undreamt of consequences, one of which, if only indirect, was Nelson’s victory at the Battle of ...

Mynydd Parys and Porth Amlwch
The Sail Loft, Porth Amlwch
LL68 9DB Amlwch, United Kingdom

Ashford-in-the-Water | United Kingdom
The Pennine Hills in Derbyshire were for many centuries one of the principal sources of lead in England, and there are many archaeological remains in the area of early workings. The Peak District Mines Historical Society has been responsible for conserving the remains of Magpie Mine, Derbyshire’s ...

Magpie Mines
DE45 1QU Ashford-in-the-Water, United Kingdom

Ashington | United Kingdom
The museum at Woodhorn Colliery houses one of the most significant collections in Europe of paintings by workers who had no formal training in art. In the early twentieth century some miners from pits in Northumberland were accustomed to sell paintings for small sums in the Grainger Market at ...

Woodhorn Northumberland Museum and Archives
Queen Elizabeth II Country Park
NE63 9YF Ashington, United Kingdom

Beamish | United Kingdom
Beamish, once called the North of England Open Air Museum and now ‘the living museum of the north’, occupies a site of more than 100 ha 14 km north-west of Durham City. It was established in the 1960s through the personal commitment of its founder-director Frank Atkinson, and is concerned with the ...

Beamish Museum
DH9 0RG Beamish, United Kingdom

Caerphilly | United Kingdom
Senghenydd is a mining community 15 km north-west of Caerphilly, and 25 km north of Cardiff, which was the scene of the worst mining disaster in British history. The Universal Steam Coal Co discovered good coal seams in the vicinity in the 1890s and proceeded to open a mine that was exceptionally ...

Universal Mine Senghenydd
Aber Valley Heritage Museum
Gwern Avenue Senghenydd
CF83 4HA Caerphilly, United Kingdom

Callington | United Kingdom
Kit Hill is a landmark hilltop located in the east of the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape WHS. The hill has a rich mining heritage and its ornate feature chimney, a reminder of its mining past, dominates the landscape for miles around. The area is now a country park extending to 152 ...

Kit Hill Country Park
PL17 8HW Callington, United Kingdom