The German mineralogist and writer on mining Georgius Agricola (1494-1555) is a major figure in the history of technology. His main contribution was his book on mining and metallurgy, "De re metallica."
Georgius Agricola, whose real name was Georg Bauer, was born at Glachau in Saxony on March 24, 1494. Virtually nothing is known of his family, his childhood, or his schooldays. At school his teachers Latinized his name to Georgius Agricola, a customary practice at the time.
Agricola entered the University of Leipzig at the age of 20 and was awarded a degree in 1517. He began teaching Latin and Greek in the town school of Zwickau in 1518, and within a year he was made the principal. From 1522 to 1524 Agricola was a lecturer in the University of Leipzig. Then, in order to further his studies of the natural sciences, philosophy, and medicine, he spent 3 years studying in Italy at the universities of Bologna, Padua, and Venice.
By 1526 Agricola had returned to Germany, and a year later he took the job of physician in the little town of Joachimsthal, Bohemia. At that time Joachimsthal was in the center of one of the most productive metal mining regions in Central Europe, and Agricola was soon deeply involved in studying the closely related techniques of mining and metallurgy. After 3 years' residence in Joachimsthal, he finished his first book on mining, a hand-book on mineralogical and mining terms.
By now Agricola was fully committed to his research into mining and metallurgy. Around 1530 he left his medical post in Joachimsthal and toured German mines for 3 years. However, the lure of his native Saxony brought Agricola to Chemnitz in 1533, and he was appointed city physician. He lived and worked there for his remaining years. In 1543 he married a widow of Chemnitz, and they had at least five children.
Five of Agricola's books were published in a one-volume edition in 1546 in Basel, comprising De ortu et causis subterraneorum, a pioneer study of physical geology; De natura eorum quae effluunt ex terra, dealing with subterranean waters and gases; De natura fossilium, the second in importance of Agricola's works, being the first proper study of mineralogy; De veteribus et novis metallis, dealing mostly with the history of metals; and Rerum metallicorum interpretatio, a dictionary of Latin and German mineralogical and metallurgical terms. In 1548 a curious little book, De animantibus subterraneis, appeared; it is a not very sound study of animals which live underground. He wrote more than two dozen works, many of which have survived, on mining, metallurgy, medicine, and religion.
In 1546 Agricola began to take an active interest in public affairs. He became a burgher of Chemnitz and served four terms as burgomaster. Although he was a staunch Catholic living under a Protestant monarchy, other political duties and civic responsibilities came his way and indicate the high esteem with which he was regarded. He died on Nov. 21, 1555.
Agricola's masterpiece, De re metallica, was the most important 16th-century book on any aspect of technology. He appears to have begun it about 1530, when he left Joachimsthal, and it took 20 years to complete. The printing was delayed until 1553, because of the time required to prepare the illustrations, and its publication in Basel in 1556 was a year too late for the approval of the author.
De re metallica consists of 12 books and covers every aspect of the industry. Hundreds of mining operations are described, and there are sections dealing with such related problems as surveying, geology, smelting, assaying, and administration. No less important and interesting than the text are the hundreds of delightful wood-cuts, which are technical drawings the like of which had not been printed before. Although they are not the only surviving illustrations of 16th-century engineering, they are the most realistic and reliable because they are based on actual practice rather than on speculation.
For 2 centuries De re metallica was the standard work in its field. Agricola had, for the first time in mining history, attempted to place the subject on an organized and scientific footing. More than a dozen editions appeared before 1700 in Latin, German, and Italian.
Agricola's De re metallica is his essential work. The fully documented translation by Herbert Clark Hoover and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover (1912), is recommended. There is a biography of Agricola in German but no full-length biography in English. Bern Dibner, Agricola on Metals (1958), is primarily an analysis of De re metalica but also provides some information on Agricola's life. Background material is in Frank Dawson Adams, The Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences (1938), and William B. Parsons, Engineers and Engineering in the Renaissance (1939), which contains a description of Agricola's techniques of mining and metallurgy.