Today, the timber square set. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Off in the mountains of
Western Montana is the town of Philipsburg. And I
want to tell you how it got its name. That story
might well begin in Agricola's sixteenth-century
treatise on metallurgy, De Re Metallica.
Book V of Agricola tells how to do underground
mining, and it's pretty complete. When you dig for
ore you have to shore up the tun-nels so they won't
cave in. Agricola describes techniques,
well-developed by 1550, for setting support timbers
Three hundred years later, in 1859, silver was
discovered in Virginia City Nevada. Those Nevada
veins were called the Comstock Lode. It was a
remarkable find; but the veins were so large that
the mined-out tunnels were sometimes dozens of feet
wide. They could no longer be shored up by the
techniques of Agricola.
After a year, tunnels were caving in with such
regularity that miners wouldn't stay on the job.
Finally, trustees of one mine heard about a very
bright young German-Jewish mining engineer, Philipp
Deidesheimer, in California.
At nineteen, Deidesheimer had emigrated to join the
California gold rush. He was now 28, and a highly
respected mining expert. So he was called over to
But, after several weeks, Deidesheimer was no
closer to a solu-tion than anyone else. Tunnels
kept caving in around the pine col-umns that shored
up the brittle quartz substrate. Then, one night at
a party, his host, a beekeeper, showed him his
Deidesheimer, his problem simmering on a backburner
of his mind, suddenly saw those hives with a new
set of eyes. Their cellular structure was
remarkably strong and light. Why not, he thought,
why not! He rushed from the party to his office.
Three days later, he took a radically new structure
down into the mines.
Do you remember building with Lincoln Logs when you
were a kid? Well, that's how he made the bracing.
He used a timber frame of in-terlocking cubical
elements, four to six feet on a side. The
excavation itself could wander wherever it wanted
to. Deidesheimer simply filled it up with a beehive
that was cubical instead of hexago-nal. He called
it the square set.
He didn't think to patent his timber square set. If
he had, it might've made him rich. For had made the
first leap forward in shoring up excavations since
Agricola. It's the only structure described in
detail in my Encyclopaedia Britannica
article on mining.
Philipp Deidesheimer went on to other projects.
When a new town sprouted up around his mining work
in Montana, the citizens named the town
Philipsburg, after him. He speculated, got rich
several times, lost his shirt just as often, and he
died poor in 1916.
But his finest legacy was that wonderful insight --
that leap-of-the-mind one summer's night in Nevada.
Deidesheimer's greatest legacy was not a town --
not a fortune. It was a really good idea.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
R. Sagan, One Night of Brilliant Work. American
Heritage of Invention and Technology, Summer
1987, p. 64.
G. Agricola, De Re Metallica (H.C. and
L.H. Hoover, eds.). New York: Dover Publications
For more on Philipsburg, see http://philipsburgmt.com/
This episode is a greatly revised version of
Typical timber square set bracing
as illustrated in a nineteenth-century magazine
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.