Tuesday, November 24, 2009

World famous in Scotland

Listening to CBC One's Ideas program on early steam engines last night, I heard a Scots expert say about James Watt, "We all know his story, I guess," and I realized:
I know next to no personal anecdotes about Watt, nothing on the level of what I know about Newton; and other people do.

Image: Watt's engine, turning linear motion into circular motion. And don't forget the condensers.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008


One of the most impressive sites I saw in Cornwall sits right between early and more modern history. Cornwall for over 2000 years -- less the last decade or so -- has been characterized as much as anything by hard rock mining for tin and other base metals. Much of the country is covered with old mine works built out of Cornwall rock (see top picture), generally the remains of a smokestack associated with the steam engines used to pump the mines out and power the processing machinery. In Cornwall the ruined mine works are a well-known symbol, to the rather humorous extent that "pure Cornwall spring water" is marketed in bottles marked with the silhouette of abandoned mines. (Think about it!) But those mine works are impressive. I have to I admit that it never occurred to me before the trip that I would be walking in the footsteps of Newcomen and Watt. Nor did I know the steam engine made possible undersea mining. Some of the old mines began on a headland and followed the ore where it led, to places where miners could hear the sea water surging overhead. Brr!

Much as I admire the pioneers of the steam engine, it isn't really them that I think about when my mind goes back to Cornish mines I saw this month. It's the ordinary miners. They have monument of their own in Geevor, picture above, a modern if now closed mine that dates to the 20th century. Opened up, just after the First World War, in an area previously mined no one knows how many times, Geevor was a productive mine until the 1980s, when tin prices collapsed. The last working shift took place in 1990. But that is not the end of the story: Geevor has been preserved as a museum to its own history and the history of mining in Cornwall. Visitors can see well-constructed displays showing the technical and social history of mining, old workings that they can barely walk through ( perfectly safe -- it's hard rock tunneling), and a fair selection of the machinery that existed there late in Geevor's life. People who worked there 20 years ago are still there maintaining the site -- in hopes, I think, that rising commodity prices will bring mining back to Cornwall.

Two overwhelming impressions : First the overwhelming amount of labor that went into this industry over the millennia, labor that has had a very important impact on the history of the entire world (Geevor rightly is a World Heritage site); Second, the pride that people, perhaps I should say men, so often put into backbreaking labor. When they closed Geevor, the miners' locker room was left exactly as it was. The clothes and boots and other items they used are still there, covered in iron oxide stains. And to make it even more personal, the corridor to that locker room is lined with photographs of strong smiling men who used to work there.

I am pleased that so much care has been taken to preserve this heritage. Go here for more. Below, I hope to post a picture that will mean something to some of my fellow historians at Nipissing University. I'm glad the story has been told, and is still being told.

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