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Technology and Culture 41.2 (2000) 321-347

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Innovation or Imitation? Technological Dependency in the American Nonferrous Mining Industry

Roger Burt

The transatlantic transfer of industrial technology and the comparative performance of British and American industry during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been of evergreen interest to several generations of economic historians. Similarly, but independently, the history of modern metal mining technology has supported a rapidly growing literature. This article attempts to bring these two subjects together, asking how the experience in metal mining accords with that of other, better-known industries during the period, such as textiles and mechanical engineering, and testing the received explanations of differing performance on either side of the Atlantic. This apparently straightforward investigation, however, is confused by uncertainty on the part of American mining historians about the exact status of technological change in their domestic industry--about whether that industry was simply an imitator, adapter, and accelerator of inventions that had been developed elsewhere or a pioneer of major new technologies of its own. If there was a change from one tradition to another--from follower to leader--when and why did it take place? These issues have not been clearly addressed before now, and the arguments presented here will no doubt prove controversial. But the overall conclusions will suggest that the experience of this sector reinforces the current explanations of differing technological performance, albeit in a rather unexpected form of role reversal.

The nonferrous mining industry is, and always has been, one of the most international of industries in terms of its organization, finance, and diffusion of technical knowledge. By the beginning of the nineteenth century it had a deep-rooted history in many regions across Europe and had developed a complex technology entirely of its own, sharing little with related sectors, such as iron and coal mining, other than basic mechanical power sources. Europe's traditional nonferrous mining industry, however, [End Page 321] was about to encounter increasing competition from new, rich, low-cost mines being discovered and developed around the globe. The escalating demand for metal in an industrializing world ensured the profitability of these new ventures, and entrepreneurs dispatched capital, labor, and technical and managerial skill in all directions to claim a share of that wealth. In those distant parts they sometimes met with equally dynamic spirits intent on finding and exploiting their own domestic resources. Nowhere was this meeting of experience, energy, and greed more fruitful than in the United States. A small-scale industry based in the eastern states exploded into national dimensions with the development of lead mining in Wisconsin, copper in Michigan, and, particularly, gold in California during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Over the next half century, mines mainly located in the central and western regions of America produced around a third of the world's total output of gold, silver, and copper, a fifth of its lead, and an eighth of its zinc. Taken together, the value of their output in the last two decades of the century alone was almost exactly three billion dollars. This was the equivalent of more than three-quarters of the total value of domestic coal production during the period, and was many times greater than the value of iron ore or petroleum output. It regularly outstripped iron and steel, even during their peak years of production around 1900. 1

This great expansion of capacity in the United States was achieved partly by opening mines in new districts and partly by increasing investment in old and new technology in established workings. The question to be addressed here is not the fact of the introduction of new machines and methods but the sources from which that technology was drawn. Was it imported--as certainly it must have been during the early years of development--or was it home-produced, as it might have become by the end of the century? More specifically, was the late-nineteenth-century transition from traditional "selective" mining--undertaken by skilled and experienced miners working massive, high-quality lodes--to...


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