Steam power, like milling, an evolution of mining-related technology

Steam power, like milling, an evolution of mining-related technology

Mineral concentrating became the focus of mining companies throughout the Lake Superior mining district after the mid-19th century. Metallurgy, as practiced in the mining region, however, began at a much earlier period — much earlier. How much earlier depends on who is asked. Once source, Thomas Pleger, in his 2000 Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology article, “Old copper and red ocher social complexity,” says that what is now called the Old Copper Complex of the Western Great Lakes can be dated as far back as 9,500 years ago. The National Park Service website post “Timeline of Michigan Copper Mining Prehistory to 1850” estimates the date at 7,000 years ago.

The time period, however, is not as significant as the archaeological findings from these sites. The Milwaukee Public Museum webpage “Old Copper Culture” states:

“There has been little dispute over the last century that the primary copper sources that were exploited by the Old Copper Complex manufacture came from natural ore deposits spanning 120 miles along the southern shores of Lake Superior on the Keweenaw Peninsula.”

Whether 9,500 years or 7,000 years ago, these ancient-period copper-producing people were capable of shaft mining to extract native copper. The museum webpage continues, stating:

“Once the copper was extracted, the primary method of tool manufacture was by hammering the ore into the desired form. An additional fabrication technique was annealing, a process in which the ore was heated to a more malleable state and then hammered into shape.

The Journal of Archaeological Science, Vol. 38, Issue 7, of July 2011 article, “Metallurgical analysis of copper artifacts from Cahokia,” reported that the North American copper artifacts that they examined generally appeared to have been annealed at 700-800 °C (approx. 1,300 °F), and that one Mississippian copper object seemed to be “laminated,” or composed of multiple sheets layered together. The article also reported that there has never been any credible evidence that Native Americans of the eastern United States employed melted metal technologies prior to European contact. But while research suggested the annealing occurred at approximately 1,300 degrees, the melting point of copper is 1,984 degrees.

Sadly, the mining and metal processing that occurred in the Lake Superior district is largely ignored by historians. Many sources share the assertion that ancient Egyptians mined copper as far back as 3,000 BC or 5,000 years ago. In presenting a timeline of U.S. mining history, some sources do not even mention the Lake Superior region at all. Although little research seems to have been conducted on when roasting ore started, many archaeological sites of the Lake Superior ancient mines have uncovered extensive evidence of its practice.

Returning to the developments and evolution of mineral dressing and metallurgy in the 19th century Lake Superior companies, it seems ironic that many inventions, such as John Collom’s copper washer and William Evans’ rotating slime tables, were designed for treating local copper; mineral dressing in the region began during the Neolithic period.

Of course, metallurgy and mineral dressing were developed to process raw metal into refined products, another technology that was originally developed for the industry of mining was steam power.

While the first steps toward practical steam application had begun with Hero of Alexandria in the first century, the most significant step occurred in 1698 when Thomas Savery was granted a patent for “an invention for raising water and occasioning all sorts of millwork by the impellent force of fire,” a steam engine.

Savery was born in 1650, at the manor house of Shilstone, near Modbury, in Devon (bordering Cornwall to the east). Brilliant in mechanics, he became a military engineer. Among his inventions was the machine for “rowing ships … with a more easy, swift and steady motion, than ores can.” In short, his invention called for the use of the paddle wheel powered by a capstan, states Celina Fox, in her 2007 British Library journal article “The Ingenious Mr. Drummer: Rationalizing the Royal Navy in Late Seventeenth-Century England,”

Savery’s other notable invention, the steam engine, was designed to pump water out of the Wheal Von tin mine, in Cornwall.

The engine consisted of a chamber that was filled with steam from a boiler. A pipe ran from the chamber down into the water which was to be sucked up. The steam in the chamber was condensed and water was sucked up by the resulting vacuum and prevented from returning by a valve. Steam was then admitted into the chamber which forced the water up a delivery pipe, according to the Toronto Cornish Association website article, “Cornish Engines,” by Michael G. Gichard.

Mary Bellis’ 2019 article “Thomas Savery and the Beginning of the Steam Engine” states that although Savery’s fire engine began to be used for supplying water to towns, large estates, country houses, and other private establishments, it did not come into general use among the mines. The risk of an explosion of the boilers or receivers was too great.

An additional hindrance to using the early Savery engine was, as Bellis points out, the consumption of fuel with these engines made operating costs inhibitive.

“The steam could not be generated economically because the boilers used were simple forms and presented too little heating surface to secure a complete transfer of heat from the gases of combustion to the water within the boiler,” Bellis states.

Thomas Newcomen worked with Savery on the development of an atmospheric steam engine which, considered inefficient even for its time, was the best steam engine for its purpose.

Newcomen, like Savery, was born in Devon. Newcomen, like Savery, was an engineer, and like Savery, he designed a steam engine for pumping water out of mines. Savery held the British patent for any machinery designed for such a purpose, so Newcomen worked with Savery to design his own engine which, unlike Savery’s, was designed to use atmospheric pressure. However, Newcomen’s design was based on Savery’s engine.

Bellis states that Newcomen’s engine pumped steam into a cylinder. The steam was then condensed by cold water, creating a vacuum on the inside of the cylinder. The resulting atmospheric pressure operated a piston, creating downward strokes. Unlike Savery’s engine, patented in 1698, the intensity of pressure in Newcomen’s engine was not limited by the pressure of the steam. Together with John Calley, Newcomen built his first engine in 1712 at, it is thought, the Coneygree Coal Works near Dudley Castle, Staffordshire. There is much debate on the location, however.

The mine at which Newcomen’s engine was erected is not important for our discussion. Our discussion is focused on the evolution of steam power and its journey from the UK to the Lake Superior region because, like the evolution of milling and metallurgy, without steam power, the Lake Superior mines could not have operated.

We will continue our discussion on Steam next week.


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