Hammer and Pick

In the early 1990s, I traveled to Germany to complete research begun years before during my year abroad as a doctoral graduate candidate. As a proud Montana Tech professor, I wore a traditional “School of Mines” lapel pin given to me one year at graduation by our Dean of Engineering, Pete Knudsen. It is in the form of the Tech shield, including our motto and emblem, the hammer and pick. These are the same crossed implements that adorn the cover page of The Technocrat.

The pin fascinated my German colleagues. As historians of science and technology, they knew immediately what “De Re Metallica” referred to, but the symbol of the crossed hammer and pick puzzled them. Germany had only recently reunited, and the emblem of the former East Germany had been a hammer and compass (see illustration), itself derived from the hammer and sickle emblem of the Soviet Union. Some of my German colleagues assumed that the Montana Tech emblem meant that my college was a communist institution!

This prompted me to investigate how the crossed hammer and pick might have come to be Tech’s emblem. Sure enough, it turned out that “crossed proletarian implements” – including hammers, picks, and sickles – were commonly used as symbols by communist nations. The hammer and pick symbol, however, long predated the rise of Marxism in the early 20th century. 

The coat of arms for Berggießhübel, a 15th century Saxon town known for iron mining and hammer making, depicted a miner holding a pick against a rock face with a hammer raised in his other hand. Coats of arms for other towns, such as Barsinghausen (a sandstone quarry and later a coal mining center in lower Saxony) and Freiberg (in the “Ore Mountains” of Saxony), incorporated a crossed hammer and pick remarkably similar to Montana Tech’s emblem. The symbol became widely used in the 16th century during the great mining boom in Saxony.

The hammer and pick emblem was incorporated into the shield of the Freiberg Mining Academy, established as the world’s first school of mines in 1765. In the United States, several schools in addition to Montana Tech also adopted some version of the hammer and pick symbol as part of their emblem. These included the Colorado School of Mines, South Dakota School of Mines, and America’s first—the Columbia School of Mines, established in 1864 and now called the Mining and Mineral Resources Research Institute of the State of New York.

Topographic map users will also recognize the hammer and pick as the USGS symbol designating a quarry or open pit mine. 

I’ve never understood why my German colleagues immediately recognized the origins of “De Re Metallica” but failed to recognize the origins of the hammer and pick symbol. On the one hand, I think, it reflects scholarly neglect of visual information or visual artifacts. Similarly, many historians of chemistry would be hard-pressed to distinguish between Erlenmeyer and volumetric flasks. After all, they might explain, historians of science deal with ideas and not things (or symbols of things). On the other hand, it also reflects the universities and archives where I did my research—all were far removed from historic mining districts such as Silesia or Saxony. 

Here in Butte America, we are (or were) at the center of a major mining district. You can hardly take a hike or hunt a now-deserted ridge without tripping over a tailings pile, stumbling into a dog hole, or finding an abandoned adit. And on campus, of course, the hammer and pick emblem is a constant reminder of our heritage.

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