Charles Babbage and Cornish Mines

An up and coming talk based on my Recent John Taylor‘s publication has led me temporarily away from the South Caradon Mine’s post series, but I will return once the talk has been and gone (follow this post for news of the talk). So here is the start of some posts on the Cornish system.

The Cornish System supported

Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage (1791-1871) is best known for his role in the development of what Charles Babbagewould become today’s computers. But Babbage was a  multifaceted genius, he was a mathematician, inventor, philosopher, scientist and astronomer.

One of his influential works  was “On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures” published in 1832.  A work on which he lays out is ideas on the organisation of manufacturing. The later editions of this work included views on combining the interests of labour and capital  into a system that would be far more effective than the normal employer-employee arrangement. One of the key pieces of evidences supporting his argument was the effectiveness of the system used in Cornish mines, “The Cornish System”.

This post contains a short extract from Babbage’s book, an extract that describes the Cornish System through the eyes of an economic philosopher. The extract has been formatted and re-paragraphed to make easier reading on-line, a change that I suspect Babbage would have enjoyed seeing.

For books about, and by, Charles Babbage-Click here>

On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures
1832

Extract from Chapter 26 On a New System of Manufacturing

307. In the mines of Cornwall, almost the whole of the operations, both above and below ground, are contracted for. The manner of making the contract is nearly as follows. At the end of every two months, the work which it is proposed to carry on during the next period is marked out. It is of three kinds.

  1. Tutwork, which consists in sinking shafts, driving levels, and making excavations: this is paid for by the fathom in depth, or in length, or by the cubic fathom.
  2. Tribute, which is payment for raising and dressing the ore, by means of a certain part of its value when rendered merchantable. It is this mode of payment which produces such admirable effects. The miners, who are to be paid in proportion to the richness of the vein, and the quantity of metal extracted from it, naturally become quick-sighted in the discovery of ore, and in estimating its value; and it is their interest to avail themselves of every improvement that can bring it more cheaply to market.
  3. Dressing. The ‘Tributors’, who dig and dress the ore, can seldom afford to dress the coarser parts of what they raise, at their contract price; this portion, therefore, is again let out to other persons, who agree to dress it at an advanced price.

The lots of ore to be dressed, and the works to be carried on, having been marked out some days before, and having been examined by the men, a kind of auction is held by the captains of the mine, in which each lot is put up, and bid for by different gangs of men. The work is then offered, at a price usually below that bid at the auction, to the lowest bidder, who rarely declines it at the rate proposed.

The tribute is a certain sum out of every twenty shillings’ worth of ore raised, and may vary from threepence to fourteen or fifteen shillings. The rate of earnings in tribute is very uncertain: if a vein, which was poor when taken, becomes rich, the men earn money rapidly; and instances have occurred in which each miner of a gang has gained a hundred pounds in the two months. These extraordinary cases, are, perhaps, of more advantage to the owners of the mine than even to the men; for whilst the skill and industry of the workmen are greatly stimulated, the owner himself always derives still greater advantage from the improvement of the vein.

This system has been introduced, by Mr Taylor, into the lead mines of Flintshire, into those at Skipton in Yorkshire, and into some of the copper mines of Cumberland; and it is desirable that it should become general, because no other mode of payment affords to the workmen a measure of success so directly proportioned to the industry, the integrity, and the talent, which they exert.

NOTES:
1. For a detailed account of the method of working the Cornish mines, see a paper of Mr John Taylor’s Transactions of the Geological Society, vol. ii, p. 309.


JT cover FrontJohn Taylor’s account reprinted

The Paper mentioned by Babbage is available in paperback or Kindle format.

Click here for paperback on Amazon>

Click here for Kindle>

 

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