From Alchemy to Chemistry:
Five Hundred Years of Rare and Interesting Books

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Rare Book Room Exhibit

AGRICOLA, GEORG (1494 – 1555).De Re Metallica. Basel, 1556.

FIRST EDITION of the mining classic, and one of the first technological books of modern times. The increased European demand for metals that came with the revival of trade in the late Middle Ages saw a corresponding growth in the European mining industry, which developed to an advanced state in the metal-rich nations of Saxony, Austria and Bohemia. The twelve books of Agricola’s treatise On Metals, illustrated with over 270 woodcuts, embrace everything connected with Renaissance mining and metallurgical industries, including administration, the duties of companies and workers, prospecting, mechanical engineering, ore processing and the manufacture of glass, sulfur and alum. It provides detailed descriptions of sixteenth-century mining technologies, such as the use of water-power for crushing ore and the improvements in suction pumps and ventilation that became necessary as mine shafts were sunk deeper underground; it also includes an account of the diseases and accidents prevalent among miners, along with the means of preventing them. De Re Metallica remained the standard textbook on mining and metallurgy for over two hundred years. Agricola's magnum opus was published posthumously in 1556. The woodcuts are models of book illustration in the cause of information. Agricola writes "I have hired illustrators to delineate their forms, lest descriptions which are to be conveyed by words should either not be understood by men of our own times, or should cause difficulty to posterity." The illustrations were so many, and so complicated that they delayed the final year of publication. The mining engineer Herbert Hoover (later U. S. President), who translated De Re Metallica into English in 1912, regarded Agricola as the originator of the experimental approach to science, "the first to found any of the natural sciences upon research and observation, as opposed to previous fruitless speculation."

Dibner, Heralds, 88; DSB; Norman Library of Science, 20;

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