Miners first used black powder or gunpowder (a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate) to speed up the process of chipping and hammering through rock to get to quartz veins. Holes were labouriously drilled into the rock using hand steels, a method of hammering steel rods by hand. When the holes were deep enough they were lined with tin or clay so that the black powder wouldn’t get damp, which would prevent it from firing. The hole was then filled with black powder, plugged with wood or more clay, and fitted with a fuse. One miner or blaster – in larger mines this was a specialized job – would light the fuses and run quickly out of harm’s way!

Once air drills were invented they made the drilling process much easier and quicker. Air drills use compressed air to power the drill bit cutting into the rock. After dynamite was invented in 1867, it began to be used more often in larger mining operations. Dynamite is made from nitroglycerin or ammonium nitrate, diatomaceous earth and sodium carbonate. This is ten times more effective than black powder. Dynamite came prepackaged in long narrow tubes. It was more dangerous to make, transport, store and use than black powder, but also much more effective for blasting rock.

Explosives were manufactured in Nova Scotia at a plant in Waverly.
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Dian Day, Susan Sellers, Rita Wilson
19th Century
Waverley, Nova Scotia, CANADA
Nova Scotia, CANADA
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