The specific vocation of mining engineering is, in fact, a relatively recent phenomenon. Up until the early 20th Century, “engineering” covered all the newly defined branches including civil, mechanical, electrical, geological, biomedical, petroleum, metallurgical and mining engineering. Formerly, mining engineering was an amalgam of what would now be known as mechanical and civil engineering. And indeed, this is one of the allures of the profession because it is a mix of so many other engineering directions.
As the business of resource exploitation through mining has become more sophisticated and professional, so too, has the profession of mining engineering matured. The modern mining engineer is now required to learn complicated computer algorithms to make sense of the voluminous data that results from multi-million dollar exploration drill programs.
From this data are built complex computer models of the rocks and minerals which are to be commercially exploited. Mining is a high risk business and it is the role of the mining engineer to remove or control as much of that risk as possible.
But it was not always so. Perhaps the earliest understanding we have of mining is the Biblical reference to the mines operated by King Solomon. The relationship between mining and he who is commonly held to be one of the richest potentates in human history is not an inconsequential one. Mining has been the source of wealth for all great empires and civilizations.
When civilizations fail and are replaced by new, more powerful ones, it is often due to the discovery of a new mineral source for silver and gold. This has held true through out history and just as the Macedonian mines fuelled the rise of Athens and the Spanish mines supported the strength of Rome so too did the Andean silver mines allow Spain to maintain its hegemony over other European states and the coal mines of Britain to allow its navy to rule the waves.
The earliest mines were exploited by slave labour and it was always an important functionary or political elite who was put in charge of the output of the mines. This makes mining sound like a nasty business and mining professionals as horrid creatures. But one must also remember that in pre-Christian times (and for some time after) all labour was provided by slaves and even the middle class wife was praised for her ability to extract the most labour from her household slaves.
Throughout history, then, the skills of mining professionals have been sought and well rewarded. Perhaps it is in the realm of “reward” that the profession of mining has fallen into its hardest times!