Mining inventors and innovations

Materials World magazine
10 May 2019

Scientists and engineers have made major contributions to mining, from tools to drive efficiency to regulations and practices to prevent repeated disasters. The IOM3 Mining Technology Division lays out some of the critical contributions to the safety and economics of the mining industry. 


HASWA – Alfred Robens
Underground Occupational Health – John Scott Haldane
Flame safety lamp – Sir Humphrey Davy and George Stephenson
Explosion prevention – Sir William Edward Garforth

The 19th Century witnessed coal mine explosions of firedamp and coal dust as an almost common occurrence, with a considerable toll in terms of mine workers’ lives. This continued, albeit with less frequency, into the 20th Century. The number one priority for innovators was to control and eliminate this phenomenon. This was initially tackled in terms of personal flame safety lamp designs, then to a more broad concern for technical solutions, to underground occupational health of the workforce. Finally, events such as the Aberfan disaster in Wales lead to the enactment of improved health and safety legislation that regulated the underground working environment.


Shearers – James Anderton
Powered supports – Tom Seaman
Ventilation and sub-surface environment – Malcolm McPherson

Perhaps the most important development in coal mining in the period since 1945 has been the introduction of mechanised longwall mining, facilitated by James Anderton’s shearer for smaller coal cutting and the power loader, and Tom Seaman’s powered roof support. This was largely achieved by UK and German companies and the technology has been exported to deep coal mines world over. The rockbolting revolution moved in the opposite direction, being adopted in the UK once it had been refined overseas, but it brought with it major safety and efficiency benefits. Solutions to improve the underground environment by designing high-quality ventilation systems throughout the working areas of the mine, that provide sufficient oxygen, dilute noxious and flammable gases and control elevated temperatures, are essential to protecting the mine workers in the underground environment.


Surface coal mining – Ascania Sobrero, Alfred Nobel

Mining deposits close to the surface has always been seen as a less costly solution to mineral extraction than going underground. This was supported by the discovery of nitroglyecerine and later the invention of ammonia nitrate, to break rock. Additional capacity came by switching shovels and draglines from steam powered or horse drawn, to electric. Bucket wheel excavators, wheel loaders, and haulage trucks have also become more sophisticated, with higher capacities and remote control.


High-pressure steam engines – Richard Trevithick
Mine water pumping – Thomas Newcomen

These technologies mark the lifetime achievements of two pioneering engineers who focused their innovative skills on solutions to address the problem of dewatering mines in order to gain access and extract from deeper deposits. Newcomen worked largely in the 17th Century, firstly in Cornwall, UK, and then the West Midlands. Trevithick came along approximately 100 years later with a high-pressure steam design that was focused largely on rail transport in the UK, although in his later years he achieved a colourful career in and around various South American countries.


The light bulb – Sir Joseph William Swan
Electricity in mines – Nikola Tesla

The introduction of electricity into the underground coal mine environment to provide lighting and power machinery in flammable atmospheres has been one of the most major success stories of mining in the 20th Century. First came Joseph Swan’s electric and later battery-powered lamps, soon followed by Nikola Tesla’s AC motor. This opened the way for significant safety and efficiency improvements with the adoption of intrinsically safe and flameproof equipment. It has not stopped there - from lighting to haulage and communications, voice, data and remote operation systems are being developed to embrace the benefits modern electric tools can bring to underground operations.


Shaft sinking – William Coulson
Cementation grouting process – Albert Francois
Detaching hooks – John King
Locked coil wire rope - Wilhelm August Julius Albert

Sinking vertical shafts to depths of many hundreds of metres has been key to the accessing of substantial reserves of minerals deep below the surface. This was, and remains, an internationally based activity with a legacy of technical innovation that stretches back from the beginnings of deep mining to the present day and into future. Coupled with the shaft sinking activity itself, through water bearing and weak rock strata, is the requirement to line the shafts to maintain the integrity of the shaft structure. Additionally, the invention of the first twisted steel cable, or Albert Rope, drove wire rope technology and protection against overwind incidents.

This information was adapted from the booklet Mining Inventions and Innovations through History, by the IOM3 Mining Technology Division. Get in touch to request your copy.