April 2019

From the archives: The standards we inherit (1968)

  • By Sir Maurice Mawby CBE, AusIMM President 1953-54 and 1968

This is an edited excerpt of a presidential address that was delivered at AusIMM’s 1968 Annual Meeting, held in the Public Lecture Theatre at the University of Melbourne

At last year’s annual meeting of the Institute, Sir George Fisher, as President, compared it somewhat nostalgically to a meeting of its kind in the 1920s when comment was expressed on the decline of Australian mining and on the lack of new mineral discoveries. 

I feel that tonight’s annual meeting is even more an occasion for nostalgia, for it represents the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of AusIMM. I hope that I may be allowed to retrace some of the circumstances of AusIMM’s origin and at the same time look at some of the broader happenings of those 75 years.

From this distance in time it is, of course, much easier to see things in perspective; one of the things that compels enormous admiration in looking back over the history of our Institute is to note the qualities of foresight and keen concern for professional standards which moved the pioneers in this Institute. They had no benefit of hindsight to aid them.

Just over 75 years ago, a small group of men met in Broken Hill to discuss the possibilities of forming an association of mining engineers. The moving spirit was Uriah Dudley, our first secretary, manager of the Umberumberka mine at Silverton. The first formal move to form an association of mining engineers came from the Amalgamated Mining Managers’ Association of Australasia. At the time, this association was a fairly new group, being five years old. It had been formed to try to raise the standard of management throughout the industry. Uriah Dudley and our first provisional president, John Howell, held their first talks in 1891 and further meetings at Broken Hill followed. The inaugural meeting, attended by 200 members, was held in Adelaide in April 1893.

Why then was AusIMM founded? Our original objects tell us a great deal. They were ‘to promote the arts and sciences connected with the economical production of the useful minerals and metals, and the welfare of those in these industries, by means of meetings for social intercourse, and the reading and discussion of professional papers, and to circulate by means of publications amongst its members and associates the information thus obtained.’ 

The most important aspect of these objects was the promotion of the arts and sciences of the mining industry.

Until the 1880s, the industry had been dominated by gold production. Bendigo, Ballarat, Castlemaine, Clunes, Palmer River, Gympie and many other familiar names were the main centres of mining activity. Apart from gold, there had been the copper mines of Kapunda, Burra and Moonta in South Australia, but these were overshadowed by gold.

Gold mining was a relatively simple operation in the 1850s, with the diggers working alluvial fields or mining in simple and not very deep shafts. With the introduction of deep-leads, some technical problems arose, but they were mainly engineering ones. The safety of the miner in getting down the shafts to the leads, the slowness and expense of tunnelling and the uncertainty of underground exploration dogged the industry for some years. The introduction of the safety cage, the diamond drill, the rock drill and dynamite between 1860 and 1880 lessened many of the mining problems even if many mining managers were reluctant to adopt the new techniques. After the first 30 to 40 years of gold mining, water was the main technological problem still unsolved. Water was a constant threat to the life of mines and miners, and even after the introduction of the steam engine and pumps, water still plagued operations in a large number of mines.

If the mine managers of the time were slow to adopt new mining techniques, they almost completely refused to introduce modern metallurgical practices. Victorian gold was usually free gold and simple to mill. A mill operator without any scientific knowledge could extract about 90 per cent of the gold using plant that remained unchanged in design for many decades. Gold which was free of pyrite and other minerals meant that a mine could be successful with a minimum of ore dressing technology. 

As the industry spread to other states and further into the more outback areas, the mine managers who had operated in Victoria were eagerly sought after. They had proved their worth in handling workers in the mines of Walhalla, Ballarat, Bendigo, Beechworth and Maryborough. But during the 1880s and outside Victoria, they often found mining more complex than the simple Victorian reefs with their free milling gold ores. The goldfields at Ravenswood and Mount Morgan in Queensland and Mount Lyell in Tasmania provided baffing metallurgical problems that had not been met in Victoria. At Ravenswood, the sulfide ores would yield only part of the gold they contained. The Mount Morgan gold was exceptionally fine and traditional milling failed to extract it. At Mount Lyell, the stamp mill from the coast could not separate gold from oxidised ores and the company was unable to pay its way.

As gold mining was becoming more complex with new fields being opened, the focus of the industry started to swing to other metals, particularly silver, lead, zinc and copper. In all cases, except South Australian copper mines, metallurgy and geology were to play the determining role in the success or failure of the new fields being opened during the 1880s. The Mount Lyell copper fields were idle for want of geological and metallurgical knowledge, but the most serious metallurgical problem the industry had ever encountered in Australia was how to treat the sulfide at Broken Hill. Gravity concentration methods resulted in the total loss of zinc, one-third of the lead and silver, and just as much of the copper. 

In 1890, the problem of sulfide ores had not arisen in Broken Hill. The mines were extracting ore from the oxidised zone of the orebody, but sulfides were becoming evident and at that time there was no efficient method of recovery of the individual economic sulfide minerals.

Technical barriers at Broken Hill – the lack of geological and scientific knowledge – were the main topics of conversation in mining circles, and discussions in the local hotels were dominated by the vexing question of sulfide ores. John Howell, the general manager of BHP in 1893, wrote  ‘I am free to state that the want of practical scientific knowledge in the management of mines, and the treatment of ores, has caused more failures, and surrounded mining enterprise with more doubt and distrust, than all other causes put together’ (Geoffrey Blainey, The Rush That Never Ended). The Economist of 1895 noted that the ‘future of the mine really depends upon the solution of the question of how far the sulfide ores can be treated.’

Apart from the treatment of sulfide ores at Broken Hill, continued successful mining seemed to contemporary observers to be in the balance as the result of the surface creep arising from collapse of underground workings. Working in the mines on the Broken Hill lode was extremely dangerous. To stop the collapse of the underground openings, the technique of square-setting was adopted from the methods used in the great Comstock mines in the USA. The problems of Broken Hill, however, were not the same as the Comstock’s. Square-setting did not entirely solve the subsidence problem.

At the beginning of the 1890s, there was a growing need for greatly increased technical competence and the adoption of new technologies for ore concentration. The emergence of Broken Hill as a major mining centre, and the development of Mount Lyell and Mount Morgan meant that Australian mining had reached the stage where mining was no longer a ‘rule of thumb’ game.

Broken Hill happened to be the place where this was first felt acutely. The geological and metallurgical problems facing the industry of Broken Hill were beyond the resources of the young Mine Managers’ Association. A more technically-orientated association was required to meet the problems then facing the industry. Thus, the technical problems of Broken Hill were the most important single factor responsible for the formation of our Institute. The Australasian Institute of Mining Engineers, as it was first known, was formed to help members improve the level of technical and scientific competence of the industry. 

The full address is published in the Proceedings of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, No 226, Part 1, June 1968. 

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