Field of Science

Bone and blood is the price of coal - Animals in Mines

"Humanity’s genius is to have always had a sense of its weakness. The physical energy and strength, with which nature insufficiently endowed humans, is found in animals that help them to discover new territories."
From the movie "Home" (2009)
Since prehistoric times humans searched for rocks and minerals hidden deep inside earth. First for silex and quartz, used for stone tools, later for metals and finally for coal and oil to fuel the industrial revolution.
In antiquity the work in mines was done by prisoners or slaves. In the middle ages miners became professional workers. The demand was so high that miners were members of a privileged social class, often freed from direct taxes, living in villages with own independent jurisdiction. The price for the privileges was nevertheless high. The work in the mines was dangerous, rock-fall and sudden flooding of the tunnels, wet and cold conditions for hours, poisoned air and dust causing sickness and death.

But not only humans, also animals had to suffer. In the middle ages animals, like horses, were not yet used directly in the mines, but to move large machines, like pumps, cranes and conveyor belts. Only after 1750 pit ponies were introduced for the first time in coal mines to pull mine tubs.

Fig.1. & 2. A horse as engine, image from Georgius Agricola "De re metallica libri XII" (1556). Apart horses or mules, in alpine regions also dogs were used to help in the transport of the ore, here carrying empty bags up the mountain.

Fig.3. A pit pony in a subterranean railway tunnel.

Apart infrastructure, animals played also a role in the security and hygiene of a mine. To detect poisonous and highly explosive methane-gas, called also grisú, miners relied on canary birds. As birds however have a poorly developed sense of smell they were more useful to detect carbon monoxide, as this gas would suffocate first the birds, warning so the miners.

Fig.4. Miners using a canary.

To control rats and mice in the Yorkshire mines terrier dogs were used, the Yorkshire was breed for size and agility, to catch rats even in the narrowest of tunnels and galleries.
Cats were used as living detectors. Able to see in near darkness and thanks to their keen hearing, entrapped miners could be more quickly found and may rescued in time.
Modern mines nowadays use powerful machinery and sensors have replaced the cats, but it´s still hard work. Also still in many less developed countries, working in small mines, humans and animals risk their health and lives to extract the precious metals, essential to run our modern electronic gadgets.
Famous physician Philippus Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541), better known as Paracelsus, interested both in mines and diseases, once wrote:

...nothing good can be acquired without a price.“

1 comment:

  1. "When the earth is restless, miners die." Springhill, N.S.
    But too often exacerbated by shortcuts and greed.


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