Willoughby: Gonna bring a steam drill ‘round | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Gonna bring a steam drill ‘round

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Library of Congress photo A miner drives a hammer drill called a Leyner machine, typically used in Aspen’s mines.

More and more we read that robots replace factory workers and technology increases production. In a similar way, machinery transformed local industry during Aspen’s mining years.

The introduction of machine drills spurred a revolution. The technology and its uptake developed slowly, yet the pace of adaptation increased during the 1890s. Machine drills merged the power of steam and compressed air. A mounted drill would bore a hole the size of a dynamite stick faster than two miners could swing a sledge against a steel chisel.

“Drill” is a misleading term because a cutting edge hammered the rock, rather than spinning like a drill bit. These tools ranked by the number of hammerings per minute. As drills improved, that number rose from a couple of hundred to nearly 2,000. Even a man who hefted a 12-pound sledgehammer 30 times per minute could not compete.

You may remember the old song “John Henry.” When the captain said “gonna bring a steam drill ‘round,” John Henry raced the steam drill to his death. By the time Aspen’s miners adapted machine drills, pressurized air had replaced steam within the drill. But steam power compressed the air needed for the drills. At first electric motors and later gas motors outside the mine compressed the air and pushed it through shafts and tunnels to the drilling areas. Today you see a similar get-up for making snow, with a central air compressor to power the guns.

The early drills weighed so much they required two men for setup. Even the later ones, mostly Ingersol-Rands, required a couple of laborers — the same number required for the older sledge process. The workforce, therefore, did not necessarily decrease as productivity increased. Two hand-driving miners may have advanced a tunnel 6 inches during a shift but the same-size team of machine drillers would easily triple that distance. The number of work shifts declined, and mechanics who constructed and managed the compressed air equipment and pipes replaced miners.

The productivity boost balanced labor costs in Aspen at a time when the price of silver dropped.

In the beginning, miners did not favor mechanical drills — not so much because the miners might lose their livelihoods but because they feared for their lives. Mechanical rock hammers created more health hazards such as silica dust and were known as “widow makers.” A new hollow core drill substantially reduced the dust. It resembled a pipe with thick sides through which water could be delivered to the cutting edge.

Jackhammers that chew up pavement or concrete at construction sites remind me of miners’ mechanical drills. Imagine that racket confined within an underground rock cavern. Drilling a hole into solid rock has not changed much in a hundred years, except there are fewer John Henry songs.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.

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