Ask most college students about “de re metallica” and they’ll probably mutter something about a heavy metal band. Montana Tech students, of course, know better. Tech’s motto, “de re metallica,” is a good fit for what began as The Montana School of Mines—a college that originally focused on degree programs such a Mining Engineering and Mineral Processing, and that today offers a diversity of programs including Technical Communication.
Our motto was taken from the name of the book, De re metallica, published in 1556 by the Saxon philologist and physician Georgii Agricolae (aka Georgius Agricola; 1494-1555). Like many learned men of the time, he adopted a Latinized version of his original name, Georg Bauer (which translates as “George Farmer” or “George Peasant”). Similarly, Latin was the standard language of the time for academic publications.
It was a heady time in Saxony, with the Protestant Reformation, a silver mining boom, and some miners joining the Peasants’ War to fight repressive government. Agricola was more interested in mining and his own career than he was in the political or religious events of the day.
As a practicing physician in Joachimsthal, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), in the late 1520s, Agricola also studied mining and smelting activity at the local silver mines. This research led to the publication of Bermannus (1530), a short work on metallurgy. It was written in the form of a Socratic dialogue with the “learned miner” Bermannus, who was based on his friend Lorenz Berman.
After 1530, Agricola moved to nearby Chemnitz, a larger mining and smelting center. He published a number of smaller works and, by 1550, completed the text for his magnum opus, De re metallica. Twelve chapters cover topics such as mine surveying, mining machinery, assaying, ore processing, and separating lead from gold. The book was not published until after Agricola’s death, probably because of the numerous illustrations—each had to be painstakingly cut into a wooden printing block.
De re metallica became a popular work of technical communication, serving as the standard source on the subject for nearly 200 years. After 1750, the book was largely a historical curiosity until the early 1900s. A young mining engineer named Herbert Hoover (later President Hoover) was working in Europe when the old book came to the attention of his wife, Lou Henry Hoover. She began an English translation in 1906 and, along with Herbert, completed the work in 1911 and published it the following year. The Montana Tech library has several copies of the Hoovers’ translation.