In recognition of the Innovation 150 celebration, we take a look at some of the innovations that helped the Britannia Mine become the success that it was. For more stories about Canadian innovation from coast to coast, visit the Innovation 150 digital hub.
Innovation - a new idea, method, or device (Merriam-Webster).
For one reason or another, mining is not thought of as an innovative industry. This impression might rise from the fact that in the simplest sense, mining is still what it has always been – digging something deemed valuable out of the ground. This old style image of mining is further reinforced through the common imagery of miners as gruff old-timers working away with pick-axe and shovel. Adding to this image is the reality that millions of people around the world today continue to work by hand in small-scale mines in a practice often called artisanal mining.
Beyond these images however, is an industry that while in many ways is slow to experience large-scale, groundbreaking change, is also almost constantly undergoing innovative and inventive adaptations at a smaller scale.
The Britannia Mines were no exception to this rule of constant change. While the innovations developed at this operation did not directly reach beyond its own shores for the most part, the innovative process itself certainly did.
Perhaps the most profound innovations Britannia is known for are associated with the name A.C. Munro. Munro developed the Britannia Deep Cell flotation system – a unique approach to the mineral separation process known as froth flotation which was uniquely adapted to the challenges the Britannia ore bodies presented. But there is far more to mineral separation than flotation alone. Munro also brought his creativity to bear on other aspects of the milling process. Along with N. A. MacLeod, he co-developed an improved grinding circuit – the process by which the ore is broken down to a size small enough to allow flotation. One challenge Britannia faced with grinding the ore, however, was its toughness. Steel balls, which were used to grind the rock, wore down at a steady pace. Shipping in steel balls, however, proved costly. The solution was to produce their own. Munro developed Britannia’s foundry for producing steel balls from old railway rails. He held or co-held the patents for all of these innovations.
Patent diagrams for Munro's flotation cells.
Patent drawing for MacLeod and Munro's closed circuit grinding.
Patent drawing for Munro's ball forms.
A view inside Munro's electric furnace foundry.
Balls stacked up outside the Foundry, which once stood next to Mill 3.
The foundry and deep cell flotation are the more well-known examples of innovation at Britannia. Far more plentiful are the innovations which are not so well remembered. Perhaps their utility was short-lived, or little documentation of their development exists, but none-the-less, they too played roles in the success of the mining operations.
But not all innovative ideas were successful. Britannia also had its share of failures.
What both success and failure shared in common was a drive, a desire, and a creative thought process which drove people at Britannia to invent ways for the Mine to be a success.
So who were some of the people? What were the innovative ideas employed at Britannia?
Here are but a few examples.
A familiar name to historians of Britannia is J.W.D. Moodie – mine manager from 1911 to 1920. Moodie brought his expertise from mining operations in the southern United States and applied it to Britannia. This, combined with his willingness to adopt new technology allowed him to turn Britannia into a profitable operation.
For Moodie, one area of concern was efficiency, and rightly so for the Mine to succeed. The one area where his quest for greater efficiency did not work out was with the aerial tramway. The tram carried ore from the Mine to the Mill for processing in buckets suspended from a moving cable. Imagine a ski lift, but for bringing rock down rather than carrying skiers up the mountain. Moodie was determined that the buckets could be self-dumping. A result of this effort was the invention of a locking device which allowed for self dumping for the tramway buckets by G. Peterson. This device was patented in 1918.
Patent drawing for Peterson's tramway bucket locking device.
But the tram is not the only location where Moodie looked to improve efficiency. The dumping of ore cars also presented an opportunity for improvement. A car dumping device which is credited to Moodie involved picking up the entire car and turning it over endwise to empty its load.
Moodie's ore car dumping apparatus in action.
Many innovations are rather mundane in nature but still solve a real issue. Nowhere is this truer than with the small device patented by George Davidson in 1920. The device was for pulling rock-drills when stuck. What it provided was a simpler and easier method to dislodge a stuck drill which was specific to the drills in use at the time.
Patent drawing for Davidson's drill-pulling device.
A visit to the Britannia Machine Shop is a step back in time, especially for those who worked in these belt driven shops of the past. How the shop worked is one motor drove a series of shafts connected by belts. At the other end of the system, the machines were connected to these shafts by belts as well. By engaging and disengaging the belts, the machines were turned on and off, as well as controlling their speeds. But any change required loosening, moving, and re-tightening a belt. In November 1952, Robert Russell was granted a patent for a belt tightening device which made sped up the completing of any of these processes.
Patent drawing for Russell's belt tightening device.
One of the challenges faced in any heavy-duty operation is wear and tear on equipment. One area which faced challenges in this regard was the main ore haulage train. The issue this train faced was with stops and starts for loading and unloading the cars, it would make 50 separate stops per trip. Each of these stops put strain on various parts of the cars, which resulted in cars facing parts failures in as little as six to eight months. The problem was with springs which acted as dampeners. Britannia adapted the then new use of rubber shock absorbers in other equipment to the train, resulting in improvements in the lifespan of the cars.
Efficiency in the Mine was as important as it was in the Mill. The Mine was continuously testing and developing ways to improve the operational efficiency. In 1931, this led to the development of the Britannia Method – a modification of the Latouche Method – by C.V. Brennon. This method brought two important advances – reduced cost and increased safety. It also brought flexibility and control to the operations. Also of significance, it saw the first introduction of longer blast holes to the Mine – the blast holes were up to 22 feet deep, and undercuts (the open area below an ore body) were up to 200 feet wide. This was the precursor to long-hole drilling, introduced in the 1930s.
Britannia was an early adopter of the use of diamond drills for blast-hole drilling. With their introduction also came changes in mining methods which can collectively be referred to as long-hole methods, as these blast holes were up to 100 feet deep. The horizontal ring method involved drilling all the blast holes horizontally. The holes were drilled from a movable rig that travelled down an incline shaft called a slot. The slots were located at the four corners of the ore body being worked, or stope. All holes could be drilled in an ore body before blasting, if desired. When blasting was performed, an entire roof section was dropped at a time into the open undercut beneath. While diamond drills were more expensive to operate than traditional rock drills, this cost was offset by improvements in efficiency and safety.
Drawing of the Horizontal Ring Drilling Method, from 'Blast-Hole Drilling', by C.P. Browning, Britannia Mining and Smelting Company General Manager. Published in Western Miner, July 1945.
Many of the innovative ideas developed at Britannia were adaptations of existing ideas to the unique requirements of this mine. When it came to the copper launders, design of a smaller system than in use at other locations which was constructed entirely of cedar is what proved to be ideal. In these wooden tanks, copper-bearing mine waters flowed, where they reacted with iron scraps. The result was copper depositing onto the scraps. A report from 1935 stated annual production from the launders at 1.2 million pounds.
While the ore was moved via gravity as much as possible (which had its own series of innovations to mining methods), the ore still had to eventually be loaded onto trains for extraction from the Mine. Loading the trains involved starting and stopping the the train to move each car under an ore chute. This was time consuming and hard on the trains. A solution implemented in one of the haulage lines in the 1930s resolved this issue. The solution - a chute control system that allowed the train to remain in motion as it passed under the chute.
Grizzlies acted as catchers of oversized rock as it passed down from a blasted area to the haulage trains below. The challenge - grates which are strong enough to withstand the abuse of rock falling upon them. The solution - to create the bars which the grate is made of by bolting three railway rails together.
A grizzly. Broken rock pours down over the grates from above. Oversized rock is captured, removed, and broken down further.
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© 2021 Britannia Mine Museum.
The Museum is a premier, non-profit organization dedicated to presenting mining's relevance today and towards a sustainable future. We would like to acknowledge that the land on which we gather is the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the sovereign Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) First Nation.