Tag Archives: Mining

Jew of the Week: Joachim Gans

First Jew (and Scientist) in America

Illustration of Joachim Gans and Thomas Hariot in America’s First Science Lab (Credit: National Park Service)

Joachim Chaim Gans (later known as Dougham or Yougham Gannes) was born in the thriving Jewish community of 16th-century Prague, then the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia. Nothing is known of his early life. Historical records show that Gans was invited to England in 1581 to demonstrate his mining and smelting techniques. Gans had invented a new, cheaper method for purifying copper, reducing the length of the process from sixteen or eighteen weeks to just four. He also developed new ways of producing sulfuric acid, vitriol, and other compounds, most notably saltpeter (for gunpowder). “Master Yougham” was soon a respected scientist in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. When Sir Walter Raleigh was given a royal charter to explore the New World in 1584, he hired Gans as the expedition’s chief metallurgist. Gans’ primary objective was discovering valuable metals in the New World, and to determine whether further exploration and settlement was worthwhile. Gans set forth on the voyage, and in 1585, was one of the founders of Roanoke, England’s first colony in America. Amazingly, archaeologists have uncovered Gans’ original laboratory, filled with mining tools and scientific instruments. His team (together with Thomas Hariot) discovered many new plants, mapped the surrounding landscape, and even identified sassafras as a treatment for syphilis. Most importantly, Gans determined that the New World contains ample amounts of iron and copper, and perhaps silver and gold, too, convincing the queen that the continent was worth investing in. Gans himself is credited with being the first Jew to set foot in North America, as well as its first technologist or materials scientist. His lab has been called “America’s First Science Center” and “the Birthplace of American Science”. Unfortunately, the first colony didn’t last long, and 104 of the original 108 settlers, including Gans, returned to England a year later. Gans settled in Bristol and continued his work for the Royal Mining Company. When it became known that he spoke Hebrew and Yiddish, the town reverend asked Gans if he denied “Jesus Christ to be the son of God.” Gans replied: “What needeth the almighty God to have a son? Is He not almighty?” Gans was subsequently arrested for blasphemy. He was sent to London to be tried by the Queen’s Privy Council. What happened after this is unclear. There are no further records of Gans. Many historians hold that he was spared the death penalty because of his tremendous contributions to England, and was instead deported. There is mention of a “Joachim Gantz” buying a large estate 80 kilometres north of Prague in 1596, not far from a mine. It is quite likely that he lived out the rest of his life quietly in his homeland. Scholars believe Joachim Gans is the basis for the character Joabin, the wise scientist and “good Jew” of Sir Francis Bacon’s famous 1627 novel New Atlantis. Last Friday, the state of North Carolina (where Roanoke was located) officially honoured Gans in a ceremony, and will soon erect a commemorative highway marker for him near Fort Raleigh.

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Words of the Week

Happiness is not a life without pain, but rather a life in which the pain is traded for a worthy price.
– Orson Scott Card

Jews of the Week: the Guggenheims

Meyer Guggenheim, with (top to bottom) Daniel, Solomon, Simon, and Benjamin

Meyer Guggenheim (1828-1905) was born in Switzerland to a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish family. At 19, he set out on his own and journeyed to the United States. After working in various shops in Philadelphia, Guggenheim opened up his own company, importing Swiss embroidery. Business went well, and he soon searched for new opportunities. In 1881, Guggenheim invested $5000 in two Colorado silver mines, and quickly realized their incredible potential. He sold all his other ventures and put all of his money into mining and smelting. With the help of his seven sons, Guggenheim quickly expanded across the US. By 1901, the family controlled the largest metal-processing plants in the US, and also owned mines in Mexico, Bolivia, Chile, and the Congo. In 1922, various disputes led to the Guggenheims being kicked out of their largest company by its own board. Soon, they sold off all of their mines. The family would invest elsewhere, and the fortune vacillated over the decades. In 1999, it ceased to be a strictly family affair with the opening of Guggenheim Partners. Today, the firm has 2300 employees, and controls $260 billion in assets worldwide (including the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, purchased for a record $2.15 billion in cash).

After the elder Guggenheim’s passing, his son Daniel Guggenheim (1856-1930) took over the business. By 1918, he raised the family fortune to as much as $300 million, making them among the wealthiest people in the world, as well as among the most generous philanthropists. Daniel’s son was a World War I pilot, inspiring Daniel to invest considerably in aviation technology. To this day, the most prestigious prize in aeronautics is the Daniel Guggenheim Medal. Another son, Solomon Guggenheim (1861-1949), was a patron of the arts and an avid collector. He established New York’s world-famous Guggenheim Museum. Meanwhile, Simon Guggenheim (1867-1941) served as a US senator. He established a fund in honour of his deceased son that has granted over 15,000 scholarships to date, totalling over $250 million! His $80,000 donation (equivalent to $2.5 million today) to a Colorado school was, at the time, the largest private grant ever made to a state institution. Benjamin Guggenheim (1865-1912) worked for the family business out of Paris, and in 1912 boarded the Titanic to head back home. When the iceberg hit, he was offered a place among the first women being evacuated, but rejected, saying “No woman shall remain unsaved because I was a coward.” One survivor reported that “after having helped the rescue of women and children, [he] got dressed, a rose at his buttonhole, to die.” His body was never recovered.

Words of the Week

We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.
– Plato