The Discovery of a Professional Tradition:  Herbert and Lou Hoover’s Translation of De Re Metallica

By Thomas F. Schwartz

Often projects that seem simple at first, become more complicated and involved once begun.  Unanticipated problems emerge as greater comprehension of what is required only emerges by working through the project.  And so it was when the Hoovers decided to undertake an English translation of Georgius Agricola’s De Re Metallica, a seminal text on mining engineering that only existed as a medieval Latin text.  Lou Henry Hoover studied Latin and was quite proficient.  The Hoovers originally thought that simply translating the Latin into English was all that was required.  They soon discovered that much more than a translation was needed.  Much of De Re Metallica dealt with mining processes that lacked Latin words.  Agricola had to invent Latin terms to describe various mining techniques and refining processes that were not part of traditional Latin vocabulary.  Moreover, only by experimentation and the process of elimination could the Hoovers determine which word stood from a specific mining technique or process.  Of greater significance was discovering that neither of them knew much about what had been written prior to the publication of De Re Metallica.  Not knowing what was available to Agricola for reference, the Hoovers had to build a library of mining texts that might have been used by Agricola to write De Re Metallica.

While all of these issues are interesting stories in and of themselves, perhaps the most unique revelation to Herbert Hoover was the discovery that mining engineering was truly an ancient profession with important ideals and lessons learned over the centuries.  “For many years I have been impressed,” wrote Hoover, “with the general assumption by the members of the engineering profession that theirs is the youngest of all the professions; that, as a profession, it was the creature of the last century; that it is without a long background of literature, history, tradition, and achievement.”  The real history and contributions of the engineering profession throughout history became clear to Hoover the more he became involved with translating Agricola’s work.

March 9, 1914 Mining and Metallurgical Society of America, at The Biltmore.


In his June 30, 1914 acceptance speech of the first gold medal awarded by the Mining and Metallurgical Society of America for their translation of Agricola, Herbert Hoover provided a brief account of both the history and lasting contributions of the mining profession.  Beginning with Vulcan on Mount Olympus, Hoover describes how Themistocles and Thucydides were miners. deremetallica-medal-box The miners of Laurium, Hoover noted, funded the creation of the Athenian fleet in the Battle of Salamis.  Claiming the Book of Jeremiah contained scores of technical references and metaphors that only a miner by profession would know, Hoover also asserted that it was the miners of Northern Europe who broke down “the universal tyranny of feudalism” by demanding and being granted “the free government of their own communities and industry: they had established their own officials and courts.  The free mining cities of Saxony and Bohemia, the self-governing communities of Cornwell, Devon, the Forests of Dean and Mendip, and the High Peak of Derbyshire had blazed the way to representative government long before the Mother of Parliaments sat at Westminster.  They even led the way for the free merchant cities of the Baltic and England, and soon after the arrival of the Normans, we find in English history references to the ‘miner’s right’ to their ‘ancient liberties’ and ‘customs,’ terms resonant of independence.”


In translating De Re Metallica, the Hoovers discovered they were part of an ancient and proud profession, rich in history and steeped with professional ideals that contribute to the betterment of individuals, communities, and nations.  It was through the preservation and wider access to ancient records and recognition of the rich history of the profession that provided the greatest satisfaction for both Herbert and Lou Hoover.


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