Mining Engineering

The Character, Training, and Obligations of the Mining Engineering Profession.

In a discussion of some problems of metal mining from the point
of view of the direction of mining operations it may not be amiss
to discuss the character of the mining engineering profession in
its bearings on training and practice, and its relations to the

The most dominant characteristic of the mining engineering profession
is the vast preponderance of the commercial over the technical in
the daily work of the engineer. For years a gradual evolution has
been in progress altering the larger demands on this branch of the
engineering profession from advisory to executive work. The mining
engineer is no longer the technician who concocts reports and blue
prints. It is demanded of him that he devise the finance, construct
and manage the works which he advises. The demands of such executive
work are largely commercial; although the commercial experience
and executive ability thus become one pier in the foundation of
training, the bridge no less requires two piers, and the second
is based on technical knowledge. Far from being deprecated, these
commercial phases cannot be too strongly emphasized. On the other
hand, I am far from contending that our vocation is a business
rather than a profession.

For many years after the dawn of modern engineering, the members
of our profession were men who rose through the ranks of workmen,
and as a result, we are to this day in the public mind a sort of
superior artisan, for to many the engine-driver is equally an engineer
with the designer of the engine, yet their real relation is but as
the hand to the brain. At a later period the recruits entered by
apprenticeship to those men who had established their intellectual
superiority to their fellow-workers. These men were nearly always
employed in an advisory way--subjective to the executive head.

During the last few decades, the advance of science and the complication
of industry have demanded a wholly broader basis of scientific and
general training for its leaders. Executive heads are demanded who
have technical training. This has resulted in the establishment of
special technical colleges, and compelled a place for engineering
in the great universities. The high intelligence demanded by the
vocation itself, and the revolution in training caused by the
strengthening of its foundations in general education, has finally,
beyond all question, raised the work of application of science to
industry to the dignity of a profession on a par with the law,
medicine, and science. It demands of its members equally high mental
attainments,--and a more rigorous training and experience. Despite
all this, industry is conducted for commercial purposes, and leaves
no room for the haughty intellectual superiority assumed by some
professions over business callings.

There is now demanded of the mining specialist a wide knowledge
of certain branches of civil, mechanical, electrical, and chemical
engineering, geology, economics, the humanities, and what not; and
in addition to all this, engineering sense, executive ability,
business experience, and financial insight. Engineering sense is
that fine blend of honesty, ingenuity, and intuition which is a
mental endowment apart from knowledge and experience. Its possession
is the test of the real engineer. It distinguishes engineering as
a profession from engineering as a trade. It is this sense that
elevates the possessor to the profession which is, of all others,
the most difficult and the most comprehensive. Financial insight can
only come by experience in the commercial world. Likewise must come
the experience in technical work which gives balance to theoretical
training. Executive ability is that capacity to co÷rdinate and command
the best results from other men,--it is a natural endowment. which
can be cultivated only in actual use.

The practice of mine engineering being so large a mixture of business,
it follows that the whole of the training of this profession cannot
be had in schools and universities. The commercial and executive
side of the work cannot be taught; it must be absorbed by actual
participation in the industry. Nor is it impossible to rise to
great eminence in the profession without university training, as
witness some of our greatest engineers. The university can do much;
it can give a broad basis of knowledge and mental training, and can
inculcate moral feeling, which entitles men to lead their fellows. It
can teach the technical fundamentals of the multifold sciences which
the engineer should know and must apply. But after the university
must come a schooling in men and things equally thorough and more

In this predominating demand for commercial qualifications over
the technical ones, the mining profession has differentiated to
a great degree from its brother engineering branches. That this
is true will be most apparent if we examine the course through
which engineering projects march, and the demands of each stage
on their road to completion.

The life of all engineering projects in a general way may be divided
into five phases:[*]--

[Footnote *: These phases do not necessarily proceed step by step.
For an expanding works especially, all of them may be in process
at the same time, but if each item be considered to itself, this
is the usual progress, or should be when properly engineered.]

1. Determination of the value of the project.
2. Determination of the method of attack.
3. The detailed delineation of method, means, and tools.
4. The execution of the works.
5. The operation of the completed works.

These various stages of the resolution of an engineering project
require in each more or less of every quality of intellect, training,
and character. At the different stages, certain of these qualities
are in predominant demand: in the first stage, financial insight;
in the second, "engineering sense"; in the third, training and
experience; in the fourth and fifth, executive ability.

A certain amount of compass over the project during the whole
five stages is required by all branches of the engineering
profession,--harbor, canal, railway, waterworks, bridge, mechanical,
electrical, etc.; but in none of them so completely and in such
constant combination is this demanded as in mining.

The determination of the commercial value of projects is a greater
section of the mining engineer's occupation than of the other
engineering branches. Mines are operated only to earn immediate
profits. No question of public utility enters, so that all mining
projects have by this necessity to be from the first weighed from
a profit point of view alone. The determination of this question
is one which demands such an amount of technical knowledge and
experience that those who are not experts cannot enter the
field,--therefore the service of the engineer is always demanded in
their satisfactory solution. Moreover, unlike most other engineering
projects, mines have a faculty of changing owners several times
during their career, so that every one has to survive a periodic
revaluation. From the other branches of engineering, the electrical
engineer is the most often called upon to weigh the probabilities
of financial success of the enterprise, but usually his presence
in this capacity is called upon only at the initial stage, for
electrical enterprises seldom change hands. The mechanical and
chemical branches are usually called upon for purely technical
service on the demand of the operator, who decides the financial
problems for himself, or upon works forming but units in undertakings
where the opinion on the financial advisability is compassed by some
other branch of the engineering profession. The other engineering
branches, even less often, are called in for financial advice,
and in those branches involving works of public utility the
profit-and-loss phase scarcely enters at all.

Given that the project has been determined upon, and that the enterprise
has entered upon the second stage, that of determination of method of
attack, the immediate commercial result limits the mining engineer's
every plan and design to a greater degree than it does the other
engineering specialists. The question of capital and profit dogs
his every footstep, for all mines are ephemeral; the life of any
given mine is short. Metal mines have indeed the shortest lives of
any. While some exceptional ones may produce through one generation,
under the stress of modern methods a much larger proportion extend
only over a decade or two. But of more pertinent force is the fact
that as the certain life of a metal mine can be positively known in
most cases but a short period beyond the actual time required to
exhaust the ore in sight, not even a decade of life to the enterprise
is available for the estimates of the mining engineer. Mining works
are of no value when the mine is exhausted; the capital invested
must be recovered in very short periods, and therefore all mining
works must be of the most temporary character that will answer.
The mining engineer cannot erect a works that will last as long as
possible; it is to last as long as the mine only, and, in laying
it out, forefront in his mind must be the question, Can its cost
be redeemed in the period of use of which I am certain it will
find employment? If not, will some cheaper device, which gives
less efficiency, do? The harbor engineer, the railway engineer,
the mechanical engineer, build as solidly as they can, for the
demand for the work will exist till after their materials are worn
out, however soundly they construct.

Our engineer cousins can, in a greater degree by study and
investigation, marshal in advance the factors with which they have
to deal. The mining engineer's works, on the other hand, depend at
all times on many elements which, from the nature of things, must
remain unknown. No mine is laid bare to study and resolve in advance.
We have to deal with conditions buried in the earth. Especially in
metal mines we cannot know, when our works are initiated, what
the size, mineralization, or surroundings of the ore-bodies will
be. We must plunge into them and learn,--and repent. Not only is
the useful life of our mining works indeterminate, but the very
character of them is uncertain in advance. All our works must be in
a way doubly tentative, for they are subject to constant alterations
as they proceed.

Not only does this apply to our initial plans, but to our daily
amendment of them as we proceed into the unknown. Mining engineering
is, therefore, never ended with the initial determination of a method.
It is called upon daily to replan and reconceive, coincidentally with
the daily progress of the constructions and operation. Weary with
disappointment in his wisest conception, many a mining engineer
looks jealously upon his happier engineering cousin, who, when he
designs a bridge, can know its size, its strains, and its cost,
and can wash his hands of it finally when the contractor steps
in to its construction. And, above all, it is no concern of his
whether it will pay. Did he start to build a bridge over a water,
the width or depth or bottom of which he could not know in advance,
and require to get its cost back in ten years, with a profit, his
would be a task of similar harassments.

As said before, it is becoming more general every year to employ
the mining engineer as the executive head in the operation of mining
engineering projects, that is, in the fourth and fifth stages of
the enterprise. He is becoming the foreman, manager, and president
of the company, or as it may be contended by some, the executive
head is coming to have technical qualifications. Either way, in
no branch of enterprise founded on engineering is the operative
head of necessity so much a technical director. Not only is this
caused by the necessity of executive knowledge before valuations
can be properly done, but the incorporation of the executive work
with the technical has been brought about by several other forces.
We have a type of works which, by reason of the new conditions
and constant revisions which arise from pushing into the unknown
coincidentally with operating, demands an intimate continuous daily
employment of engineering sense and design through the whole history
of the enterprise. These works are of themselves of a character
which requires a constant vigilant eye on financial outcome. The
advances in metallurgy, and the decreased cost of production by
larger capacities, require yearly larger, more complicated, and
more costly plants. Thus, larger and larger capitals are required,
and enterprise is passing from the hands of the individual to the
financially stronger corporation. This altered position as to the
works and finance has made keener demands, both technically and in
an administrative way, for the highly trained man. In the early
stages of American mining, with the moderate demand on capital and
the simpler forms of engineering involved, mining was largely a
matter of individual enterprise and ownership. These owners were
men to whom experience had brought some of the needful technical
qualifications. They usually held the reins of business management
in their own hands and employed the engineer subjectively, when
they employed him at all. They were also, as a rule, distinguished
by their contempt for university-trained engineers.

The gradually increasing employment of the engineer as combined
executive and technical head, was largely of American development.
Many English and European mines still maintain the two separate
bureaus, the technical and the financial. Such organization is open
to much objection from the point of view of the owner's interests,
and still more from that of the engineer. In such an organization the
latter is always subordinate to the financial control,--hence the
least paid and least respected. When two bureaus exist, the technical
lacks that balance of commercial purpose which it should have. The
ambition of the theoretical engineer, divorced from commercial
result, is complete technical nicety of works and low production
costs without the regard for capital outlay which the commercial
experience and temporary character of mining constructions demand.
On the other hand, the purely financial bureau usually begrudges
the capital outlay which sound engineering may warrant. The result
is an administration that is not comparable to the single head with
both qualifications and an even balance in both spheres. In America,
we still have a relic of this form of administration in the consulting
mining engineer, but barring his functions as a valuer of mines, he
is disappearing in connection with the industry, in favor of the
manager, or the president of the company, who has administrative
control. The mining engineer's field of employment is therefore not
only wider by this general inclusion of administrative work, but
one of more responsibility. While he must conduct all five phases
of engineering projects coincidentally, the other branches of the
profession are more or less confined to one phase or another. They
can draw sharper limitations of their engagements or specialization
and confine themselves to more purely technical work. The civil
engineer may construct railway or harbor works; the mechanical
engineer may design and build engines; the naval architect may
build ships; but given that he designed to do the work in the most
effectual manner, it is no concern of his whether they subsequently
earn dividends. He does not have to operate them, to find the income,
to feed the mill, or sell the product. The profit and loss does
not hound his footsteps after his construction is complete.

Although it is desirable to emphasize the commercial side of the
practice of the mining engineer's profession, there are other sides
of no less moment. There is the right of every red-blooded man to
be assured that his work will be a daily satisfaction to himself;
that it is a work which is contributing to the welfare and advance
of his country; and that it will build for him a position of dignity
and consequence among his fellows.

There are the moral and public obligations upon the profession.
There are to-day the demands upon the engineers which are the demands
upon their positions as leaders of a great industry. In an industry
that lends itself so much to speculation and chicanery, there is the
duty of every engineer to diminish the opportunity of the vulture
so far as is possible. Where he can enter these lists has been
suggested in the previous pages. Further than to the "investor"
in mines, he has a duty to his brothers in the profession. In no
profession does competition enter so obscurely, nor in no other
are men of a profession thrown into such terms of intimacy in
professional work. From these causes there has arisen a freedom of
disclosure of technical results and a comradery of members greater
than that in any other profession. No profession is so subject to
the capriciousness of fortune, and he whose position is assured
to-day is not assured to-morrow unless it be coupled with a
consideration of those members not so fortunate. Especially is
there an obligation to the younger members that they may have
opportunity of training and a right start in the work.

The very essence of the profession is that it calls upon its members
to direct men. They are the officers in the great industrial army.
From the nature of things, metal mines do not, like our cities and
settlements, lie in those regions covered deep in rich soils. Our
mines must be found in the mountains and deserts where rocks are
exposed to search. Thus they lie away from the centers of comfort
and culture,--they are the outposts of civilization. The engineer
is an officer on outpost duty, and in these places he is the camp
leader. By his position as a leader in the community he has a
chieftainship that carries a responsibility besides mere mine
management. His is the responsibility of example in fair dealing
and good government in the community.

In but few of its greatest works does the personality of its real
creator reach the ears of the world; the real engineer does not
advertise himself. But the engineering profession generally rises
yearly in dignity and importance as the rest of the world learns
more of where the real brains of industrial progress are. The time
will come when people will ask, not who paid for a thing, but who
built it.

To the engineer falls the work of creating from the dry bones of
scientific fact the living body of industry. It is he whose intellect
and direction bring to the world the comforts and necessities of
daily need. Unlike the doctor, his is not the constant struggle
to save the weak. Unlike the soldier, destruction is not his prime
function. Unlike the lawyer, quarrels are not his daily bread.
Engineering is the profession of creation and of construction, of
stimulation of human effort and accomplishment.

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