Posts

Figure 5. Iron works in the Georg Fischer Iron Library

“Get thee to a Nunnery” : Finding the History of Metallurgy in a Monastery

Although the history of Canadian metallurgy is of national significance, our collection in this area is rather small. Before, I could decide what to collect, I needed to gain a better understanding of the subject. Therefore in June 2015, I travelled to the Georg Fischer Iron Library in the small town of Schlatt, Switzerland where I spent three weeks as a Scholar-in-Residence. I researched the history of metallurgy, and the technology transfer between Europe and Canada.

Figure 1. The Klostergut Paradies nunnery

Figure 1. The Klostergut Paradies nunnery near the town of Schlatt, Switzerland.

The Iron Library holds the world’s largest collection of books on mining and metallurgy. It is located in Klostergut Paradies, an old nunnery, established by Poor Clares in 1253 (Figures 1). In 1918 Georg Fischer AG (GF), a large manufacturer of iron, steel, and plastics purchased the monastery with its agricultural lands to grow food for the company’s workers. Inside, Fischer discovered a large library of books related to mining and metallurgy, and rather than dismount it, the company decided to invest in the collection. Today, the Iron Library’s holdings are unmatched by any others in the world (Figure 2). Surrounded by towns with rich metallurgical history, the Iron Library provides a perfect environment to study the field.

Figure 2. The Iron Library Rare Books Collection

Figure 2. The Iron Library Rare Books Collection

I had an ambitious research plan for my three-week stay. I started by consulting monographs related to the history of metallurgy in general, and the European history of metallurgy. This allowed me to place developments in Canada in a broader cultural and technological context. Next, I reviewed Georg Fischer’s archival resources to identify links with Canadian companies. Indeed the archival collection proved very interesting. It contained files on Fischer turbines supplied for Alcan’s Kitimat-Kemano projects (Figure 3), Hydro-Quebec’s Bersimis stations, and Ontario Hydro’s Sir Adam Beck No. 2. I was surprised to discover that in 1956, Professor Gerard Letendre, who according to Canadian scholarship advised Premier Duplessis against investing in steel industry in Quebec, solicited GF’s capital for a metallurgical research centre in Canada. The documents also show that, when in 1956 Gordon MacMillan, Vice-President of the Canadian Car Company asked for a tour of GF’s plants, the head of GF bluntly refused suggesting in a less than polite manner that he felt: “inclined to consider the contemplated visit devoid of the benefit (…) and think it better for [MacMillan] to cancel your coming to Schaffhausen.”

 

Figure 3. A Pelton turbine for Alcan’s Kitimat-Kemano project in British Columbia

Figure 3. A Pelton turbine for Alcan’s Kitimat-Kemano project in British Columbia

Lastly, I consulted unique manuscripts and publications dating from the fifteenth to the eighteen century containing drawings, engravings, and woodcuts, such as Jean François Morand’s L’art d’exploiter les mines and Jacob Leupold’s Theatrum Machinarum. Images that I found challenged my assumptions on the roles of women in mining and metallurgy (Figure 4), a subject that I now need to study in more detail.

Figure 4. (A) Women working in a coal mine, 1700s (B) An ivory miniature showing women forging Damascus steel

Figure 4. (A) Women working in a coal mine, 1700s (B) An ivory miniature showing women forging Damascus steel

 

I toured a GF’s iron plant in Singen, Germany and a plastics plant in Schaffhausen, Switzerland; met with GF staff and visiting scholars from as far as Nepal and Japan. Yet, in its serendipitous way, the research at the Iron Library revealed an unexpected story of ‘collecting and connecting.’ The library contained a collection of polonica, metallurgy literature published in Poland between the 1960s and the early 1980s. How did the Iron Library come to acquire such a collection? As archival correspondence revealed, in the early 1960s the Library approached the Mining and Metallurgy Academy in Krakow asking for help in acquiring publications produced in then communist Poland, which were not available abroad. One of the professors, Dr. Jerzy Piaskowski, who had a private collection on history of metallurgy, enthusiastically agreed to supply the books and magazines in exchange for material published in the Western Europe.

… in its serendipitous way, the research at the Iron Library revealed an unexpected story of ‘collecting and connecting’.

At the time, as Piaskowski explained in one of his letters, this was the only way that books from the West could make it to a scholar from the Eastern Block. Dr. Piaskowski produced handwritten bibliographies, which he mailed to the Iron Library. The Iron Library staff would make a selection and mail it back to Dr. Piaskowski. He then purchased the books and sent them to the Library with a list of publications that he wished to receive in return, of the value equivalent to his shipment. This cooperation lasted for almost two decades. At one point, in the mid-1960s, the Library invited Dr. Piaskowski for a visit. He diplomatically ̶ as not to offend any potential censors and jeopardize his future contacts with the Library ̶ replied that it was impossible for him to travel outside of Poland. As the staff at the Iron Library changed and the collecting policies become more practical in the early 1980s, the new Librarian suggested in one of the last letters to Dr. Piaskowski that books in Polish were not useful for the Library’s clientele. “Perhaps, now there are no people who can read my papers”- replied Dr. Piaskowski – “but there will be in future.” I wish, I could tell him that he was right.

Figure 5. Iron works in the Georg Fischer Iron Library

Figure 5. Iron works in the Georg Fischer Iron Library

Resources:

Iron Library Online Catalogue

Acknowledgements:

I would like to thank the Georg Fischer Iron Library Foundation for their generous support of the Scholar-in-Residence programme. Many thanks to the wonderful library staff Franziska, Florian, and Uta, for making my stay truly special.