Gottfried in a Nutshell #10

Silver rush

This year, a "silver rush" seized the stock market. For the first time since 2013, rumours on the internet regarding silver attracted the attention of speculators. This resulted in a short-term peak of up to €24.04 per troy ounce (31.103 grams) of the precious metal.

In Leibniz's time, people also indulged in a "silver rush". The need for prestige in the baroque era was reflected in silver valuables and tableware. Moreover, the European economy was mainly driven by silver coins. Self-respecting aristocrats dined from silver plates befitting their social status. However, Electress Sophia remarked that "doctors would do well to ban those that contained large amounts of copper, which often resulted in verdigris, especially if the sauce contained vinegar". At court too, not all that glittered was actually made of silver!

Mining and metallurgy were the high-tech industries of the time while the Harz Mountains were the leading industrial belt in Europe. More than 40 percent of the Welf's budget was covered via silver mining in the Upper Harz region. When Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz took up his post at court in Hannover in 1676, he soon took an interest in the considerable silver deposits and the surrounding ironworks as a promising source of revenue on the outskirts of the residence city. It is no coincidence that coins minted from Harz silver in Zellerfeld often picture the "wild man": a titanic hermit living in the woods, with flying hair and brandishing a club. The Harz miners were highly specialised and enjoyed an excellent reputation in their field. At the same time, they were considered rough fellows that did not tend to be squeamish. Instead of a miner's hammer and pick, the young inventor Leibniz preferred using his quill. On approximately 38 occasions, between 1680 and 1686, and again between 1693 and 1696, he visited the Upper Harz region by coach and spent a total of 173 working weeks there. "For the Harz Mountains are a true source of experience and discoveries in the field of mechanics and physics; I believe that more can be discovered with five or six workers from the Harz Mountains than with 20 of Europe's greatest scholars", he wrote enthusiastically. Leibniz saw considerable potential for optimisation in existing technologies and was convinced that his innovations could make mining even more profitable quickly. Without a single day of experience in mining under his belt, he proposed himself for the position of machinery director (chief engineer of all mines in Clausthal directly reporting to the head mining officer. This proposal did not go down too well with the experienced mining officers in the Harz Mountains. His application was denied.

Nonetheless, he used his inventive talent to develop various suggestions for improvement to replace water as an energy source with wind, or to save water in ore mining. He invented a windmill intended to move into the direction of the wind by itself, built a horizontal windmill mentioned in travel reports about China, considered using an Archimedes' screw and designed conical rope baskets with a spiral drum inspired by clock technology.

However, there was some trouble brewing between the experienced and committed mining office in the Harz Mountains and the inventor from Hannover. The mining officers struggled to accept Leibniz's plans since they seemed too "artificial". If they let him, Leibniz quickly analysed problems such as "the difficulty that water cannot be retained in winter". In spite of that, the mining office insisted that one should at first "demonstrate the desired effect", before practising Leibniz's work as a "universal solution". Since the mining office had to ensure continuous operation, profit-oriented metal production in the mines, as well as the safety of the miners, they generally had reservations about test runs with prototypes. Leibniz argued that this was a project phase and technical flaws would be remedied little by little, since "with new things, one should proceed step by step, instead of moving full steam ahead". Understandably, the mostly underpaid miners depended on immediate practical implementation and a quick profit of the mines and could not sustain financial losses. For these reasons, the relationship between Leibniz and the Harz miners generally known for their determined and intense reactions to unfair treatment in front of their superiors, was quite strained. Since the mining office was located in the middle of the mining region, not in the state capital, there was a strong bond between the mining officers and the miners. After all, mining is a team effort. As an outsider, Leibniz countered via petitions and memorandums, the methods of a courtier. Nevertheless - or perhaps because of that: he had to put aside his own interests in mining management, waiting for material and wood until it was his turn.

When considering these conflicting interests and in light of existing dissent and dialogue, Leibniz's spirit becomes evident to us. His mindset and approach: Carry on in spite of setbacks. Constantly reassess and rethink matters. Leibniz tirelessly worked on new ideas. Often using very modern approaches. His proposals were sustainable and energy-efficient. Moreover, Leibniz's ideals become apparent: He intended to develop technical improvements in the interest of the "common good" and use the proceeds to promote science, investing them into building a scientific academy. He made a special effort to convince the Tsar to establish a mining technology transfer to Russia and suggested an exchange of staff "skilled in the art of mining".

Today, the cultural landscape reminds us of the former "silver rush" in the Harz Mountains, such as the Oberharzer Wasserregal, a system of reservoirs and other structures in the Upper Harz. Although the mines were shut down one by one, some of Leibniz's ideas persist: The concept of using a chain as a counterweight, the conical drum and the reel used in shaft sinking (winding drum) for balancing moments became state of the art technology in mining. By recycling the water used in mining via a horizontal windmill or by installing holding ponds, Leibniz anticipated the idea of today's pumped-storage hydroelectricity plants. As so often, Leibniz was ahead of his time.

Glück auf! *


* Traditional greeting used by German miners

Contact Information

Dr. Ariane Walsdorf
Communications and Marketing
Dr. Ariane Walsdorf
Communications and Marketing