The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents


Chapter 13 - The Board of Mines

Swedenborg's repeated petitions to the Board of Mines for the recognition of his appointment by the late king finally brought a meager result; - in March, 1723, they invited him to attend the meetings. The Diet was now in session and Swedenborg, himself a member of the Diet as he was now a nobleman, threatened to bring the matter of his exclusion from the Board to the notice of the Riksdag. When the members of the Board of Mines became aware of this, they relented and a few days later recognized him as Extraordinary Assessor ["Assessor" meant official or administrator], with a voice and a seat in the proceedings. He was still without a salary but with the promise of being appointed to fill the next regular vacancy.

This was still the situation a year later when a letter from Erik Benzelius at Upsala brought the news that a vacancy existed in the faculty of mathematics owing to the death of Nils Celsius, professor of astronomy, and suggesting Swedenborg's nomination for the post. Nowhere was Swedenborg's learning and genius so well known and appreciated as at the University. In a sense, he had been one of the founders of their Literary Society since the time he corresponded with them from England, a connection that never had been broken. His unpublished manuscripts were submitted to the Society and read and discussed at its meetings, and his published works were reviewed in its "Proceedings."[139a] At this time he was sending them installments of a treatise On Copper. The professorship offered an adequate salary, and Benzelius and Anna would of course be delighted to have Emanuel with them in Upsala. The fact that Swedenborg nevertheless felt that he must decline the post is evidence of how much his heart was set upon his chosen profession of metallurgy. There are many fine men at the University who can fill the chair in mathematics, he replied. His own -interest, at present, was centered on geometry, metallurgy and chemistry, not on teaching. "To abandon that with which I intend to perform good service would be indefensible," he explains.

Besides, I have not the gift of teaching, as you know, my brother, on account of my natural difficulty in speaking. I therefore hope that the University does not nominate me. In the first place this would retard' the proposition now before His Majesty to secure me a salary on the Board which I intend, by persistence, sometime to achieve. Besides this I no longer find my bent or liking inclined towards an academic career, even should a salary of 1,500 riksdalers be granted me . . . Therefore, in case anyone in the Consistory should suggest me, I should consider it a great favor if you, my brother, would give a decided "No," for an answer, but withal an expression of thanks that they hold me worthy of it.[140]

In July he was granted a master of mines salary of 800 dalers in silver which later was raised to 1,200 dalers, the salary of a regular official. An old Swedish adage had come true, "He who waits for something good, never waits too long!"

Thus terminated the period of leisure which Swedenborg had enjoyed for studies, travels, and publications. He had reached the age of thirty-five when he took his seat with the rest of the members on the Board of Mines. To his credit were scores of pamphlets testifying to his lively interest in everything from the moon to sixpence - descriptions of machines, calculations on longitude, systems of finance, inventions of stoves, and speculations about the structure of the universe. This phase of his career was now over. No more pamphlets flowed from his pen for the next ten years, although he was engaged in intense studies and voluminous writing which would come to fruition at a later date. Even petitions to the Riksdag ceased to appear.

He now entered upon the official life which was to be his for the next twenty-five years.[141] Until he was almost sixty, but with considerable intervals of leave, Swedenborg was to tread the mill that all men tread, shouldering his share of the burden of the day, doing as he was told, carrying out the orders of his collaborators, and so developing the judgment that comes only of labor among other men and with the discipline of work. It was with deep satisfaction, no doubt, that he was now able to apply one of those "Rules of Life" which he is known to have treasured: "Discharge with fidelity the functions of thy employment and make thyself in all things useful to society."

The building which housed the mining department is still standing, and we may mount the porticoed steps between the substantial classic pillars and, in imagination, arrive with him, at about nine o'clock in the morning, seeing Swedenborg, as it were, in his working clothes and as he was known to his associates. These diplomats, agents, mineworkers, proprietors, woodcutters, copper forgers, were men who knew little and cared less about cosmological theories and anatomical speculations, but who paid strict attention to reports on forest conservation, hoisting machines, blast furnaces, and the market value of sulphur.

Then, as now, a great portion of Sweden's wealth was in its mining industry. From earliest times this was under the special control of the Crown which, then as now, received a large part of its revenue from iron and copper, and for this the Bergskollegium, "College (or Board) of Mines," was directly responsible to His Royal Majesty.

The seven men who comprised the Board met every week day and commenced their proceedings by calling the roll. If any member was absent the reason was noted. Prolonged leave of absence was granted only by royal decree. The presiding officer bore the title of President, two senior members were Councilors, and there were four Assessors. Each of these had a seat and vote on the board, in order of seniority, so that the oldest assessor was entitled to a councillorship when one became vacant.

During the years of Swedenborg's attendance the sessions of the College usually commenced in September and continued uninterruptedly until the middle of July, with a recess of one or two weeks at Christmas and Easter. During the summer months some of the assessors were frequently engaged on inspection tours of the mining districts. The post was by no means a sinecure.

As careful minutes of every session were kept it is possible by a study of these records to reconstruct Swedenborg's part in the affairs of the Board and thus bring him a little nearer to our own times, but this means examining over a hundred volumes of hand-written records, page by page, and going through information, at first appearance exceedingly dry and unprofitable.

The functions of the Board were administrative and technical. The majority of mines were owned by families or jointly by small partnerships. As all were competitors, each guarded jealously its secret processes of production and the only unified control lay in the Board of Mines, which was thus the guardian of the country's chief treasure. 1 decisions were recorded and so, during the course of time, a large body of laws had accumulated and were constantly being added to. o enforce these laws the Board appointed Masters of Mines and, rider these, Bailiffs for each of the four districts - the Great Copper Mountain, in Dalecarlia, and the districts of Nerike, Vermland and Vestmanland. There were district courts to settle their differences, the supreme court being, of course, the Board itself seated in Stockholm. Each assessor gave his views on these legal cases.[142]

The Board decreed what metals were to be mined and how much could betaken out of the mines. It settled disputes involving such matters as those between partners or joint owners of forges and smelteries. It watched the standard of iron, sending out its officials for inspection. The task of seeing that the government got its ten percent of all the iron produced fell also within the responsibility of the Board. Besides this it had to examine candidates for inferior positions. It was also incumbent upon the Board to study methods for improving the Swedish mining industry. It regulated prices and controlled taxes on metals, a very important function. It gave permission for the opening of new mines and the establishment of new forges. Every additional building, even of a shack, was passed upon by this Board and the introduction of any new machinery came under its supervision. The Board decided where charcoal was to be taken, who was to be permitted the coaling of a certain district and who forbidden. Tax-free enterprises were often in dispute with government interests and all such cases required voluminous discussion which often dragged on for years. The slightest disturbance affecting a miner was brought before the Board and its officers. If one servant of a smelter quarreled with another the case was not tried by a civil court but by a mining court. In all such matters Swedenborg participated and in more than one instance a suit of his own came up for settlement.

A watchful eye was kept on the quality of iron produced and particularly on that exported to foreign countries. The testing of iron bars, to see whether they were red-short or cold-short - brittle because of a too high sulphur or phosphorus content - and therefore unacceptable, was a "side job" often relegated to our assessor.

One of his most valuable contributions was undoubtedly the carrying out of commissions to the various mining districts during the summer often in company with his brother-in-law, Lars Benzelstjerna, now residing in Stockholm and one of the members of the College. Seven such commissions are on record, with reports often running into several hundred pages. Minute receipts and lists of expenditures were handed in. By studying these reports we can follow Swedenborg day by day, driving for miles through interminable forests, on horseback or in a carriage, stopping at farms and inns for food, visiting charcoal burners in their lonely huts or holding meetings with local agents and owners in a country schoolhouse, settling difficulties between workmen, making recommendations for new appointments, explaining mining statutes to the people, taking an interest in the establishment of orphanages for the children of miners. We can even picture him risking his life in steep descents into the gloomy subterranean caverns from which the rich treasures of the earth were drawn. Imperfect shafts led down into the echoing hollows where rude ladders had to be scaled, past buckets ascending full of lumps of ore, and buckets descending empty, on the squeaking lines, a dangerous feat for one not daily accustomed to such work.

Swedenborg's contemporary, Carl Linnaeus, while visiting the Great Copper Mine at Fahlun, was struck with the appalling aspects of this pit. An extract from his account will give us some idea of the mines of those days, which were so very different from our own.

From this mine arose a continual smoke, and the whole effect of it gave one the idea that the descriptions of hell, which the theologians use to make an impression upon the mind of the man to be saved, is taken from this or similar pits. Never could any poet describe the kingdom of the underworld, never could any theologian describe a hell, more horrible than pits like these.

From its mouth goes up a poisonous, corrosive, sulphurous smoke, which poisons the air round about so that one gets there not without pain. The smoke eats into the earth so that no plants can grow thereabout. Below the surface are innumerable dark cells, never seen by the sun, filled with the smell of smoke and dust and heat to a depth of 450 yards, under the hard heavy earth. In these cells over 1200 sun-shy workers go about, doomed to mine work, black as very devils, on all sides surrounded with darkness and soot, smoke and smell. The walls are dark with soot, and the floor is slippery from wet stones, the passages are narrow as if dug by moles, and the roofs drip corrosive, vitriolic water. Cave-ins are continually dreaded. What awful anxiety grips one at the lowly portal of this underground kingdom, I know not, or what incredible longing to ascend! There the condemned souls work, naked to the waist, their mouths tied around with a woolen rag, so that the smoke and dust will not seep in too much. No room here for taking a clean breath. The sweat runs from their bodies like water from a bag. How easy to take a wrong step, and plunge into the bottomless chasm below! How easily a little stone may fall upon your head! How easily might you be overtaken with a fainting spell as you cling to the swaying ladders, two or three fastened together!

But, however black and horrible it is, there never are lacking laborers and men with zeal and enthusiasm seeking work there to win their dearly bought bread. The anxiety of being at such a great depth, the darkness and the danger, raised the hair on my head and I wished for nothing more ardently than to stand again n the earth.[143]

Thus did the "Flower King" describe the realms of Pluto, so great `a contrast to his own world of light and life, in words that well might have suited Persephone herself for picturing the kingdom of her dread abductor! Fahlun, however, also held, things of a more delightful nature, for it was here, at "Sweden" the ancestral home of the Swedenborg family, some thirty miles from the city, that Linnaeus found his fairest flower - eighteen-year-old Sara Elisabet Moreaus, the daughter of Johan Moreaus, who had been Emanuel's tutor. She was, as Linnaeus put it, "a girl with whom one longs to live and die." (Appendix B.)

In 1724, Swedenborg became involved in a lawsuit with his maternal aunt, Brita Behm, proprietor of four fifths of .the Axmar iron works. The case was referred for settlement to the Board of Mines and because it is a good illustration of the procedure of that body a short account of it seems appropriate here. It sheds light on the assessor's disposition, as well as on that of his aunt.[144]

The arrangements for Swedenborg to take over his share of the joint ownership from his near relatives having been completed, Swedenborg paid a visit to Axmar during the summer. The plant had been utterly destroyed by the Russians in 1721, and Swedenborg had contributed 2,000 dalers in copper toward the building of a new furnace, which was more than his share of the costs. The houses, meadows, etc. had been divided between the two owners, each of the two managers occupying certain specified rooms in the mansion house.

After his return to Stockholm, Swedenborg received a letter from his manager, Johan Lindbohm, complaining that Madam Behm's manager, Wahlström, contrary to all reason and mining custom, shut him off from the joint use of the smelting furnace. He was unable to heat the furnace for his own smelting without losing a great deal of charcoal - it took ten or twelve days - which occasioned an unwarranted waste of materials.

Swedenborg at once wrote a friendly note to his aunt, making various suggestions, hoping later to talk it over and arrive at an amicable agreement when she came back to Stockholm. He closed with the remark that he had never known Aunt Brita to do anything but what was just and reasonable. He was soon disillusioned, however, for shortly after he felt compelled to bring the matter up before the Board of Mines, calling attention to the persistent injustice done to him contrary to all regulations, in denying him his right to one fifth of a joint smelting operation, which militated against his aunt's interests as well as his own. .

In answer to a letter from the Board, Brita Behm's manager explained that he was acting on orders from his principal. He nevertheless earnestly requested to be spared from having anything in common with Assessor Swedenborg's servant.

Swedenborg in his reply stated, among other things, that if he was shut out of the joint smelting operation he would claim compensation for the loss in ore and charcoal. This was granted to him, to the great chagrin of Aunt Brita.

In her reply to the charges Madam Behm accuses Swedenborg of knowing, in his conscience, that Lindbohm is a man with whom no one can have any dealings, an inveterate troublemaker. On one occasion he had knocked down one of her servants and used abusive language and threats. He was disorderly and violent. Is she doing anyone an injustice, she asks, if she seeks to avoid such a man as this, leaving him, nevertheless, all reasonable advantages, such as contributing four fifths of the charcoal for the warming up of the furnace? Her servants threaten to leave if they have to work with Lindbohm, fearing that he might murder them. No blessing from God can come so long as they have to work in his company.

To this Swedenborg replied that it does not answer the main point at issue, for Lindbohm's personal character has nothing to do with the matter. A case cannot be won by blaming a person. He had constantly been seeking for unity, and was never met with anything but suspicion and unfriendliness. "In return for my polite letter, an answer comes back with expressions which I had not expected from so just a lady." Lindbohm is a man of sixty years, Swedenborg contends, a man of good understanding, an experienced technician, an excellent bookkeeper and a very capable manager of furnaces and forges; somewhat hasty, perhaps, against those who wish to do him injustice, but highly recommended and now, for the first time, denounced. Had he simply given way in everything, he would have en praised. There are mining districts where twenty or thirty proprietors own a single smelting house, and no one ever has heard of any e of them refusing to smelt jointly. "Were I to mention such a thing to an iron-worker he would regard it as the most absurd thing ever heard of in all his days."

Brita Behm in irritation retorted that it isn't against sticks and tones, or soulless elements that she is complaining to the judge, but against capricious, self-willed human beings. The case was finally 'settled by the Board of Mines on February 25 - with the recognition, however, that it was contrary to customary procedure - by Madam Behm being permitted to carry on the first four smeltings, using her own materials, but leaving the furnace heated and ready for the fifth smelting, which was to be done by Swedenborg's man, he likewise to use his own materials and to leave the furnace warmed up. As for the two incompatible managers, "if in carrying on the work, either one offers 'insult to the other, by word or by deed, they were to be subjected to a fine of 100 dalers in silver."

Unexpectedly, and evidently much to Swedenborg's chagrin, Madam Behm reopened the case almost immediately in a new suit, this time before the district court, suing Swedenborg for failing to complete the division of the estate. Swedenborg seems to have suspected that this idea did not originate in Aunt Brita's own brain for she, he says, "is good-natured and intelligent." It was probably instigated by some person of a legal turn of mind. There is no documentary indication that Swedenborg suspected Lars Benzelstjerna, his brother-in-law and partner on the mining board, but whether or not he had any such suspicion, he received a peculiar confirmation of it twenty years later. The case ran on for some time, but eventually a complete agreement and reconciliation was arrived at with Madam Behm and the case - one of the few litigations in which Swedenborg ever was involved - was withdrawn from the court, confirming him in his good opinion of his aunt.[145]

About this time Swedenborg again became interested in the models of Polhem's machines which had occupied his attention some years -previously. They were kept in one of the rooms of the Bergskollegium building and here, with the assistance of two young aspirants to the Board, he inspected the models and reported that they had to be repaired and supplied with missing parts, for which 50 dalers in silver would be required, including the repair of the windows, which were in a sad condition, letting in the snow in winter and the rain in summer, so that the models were being ruined by constant change from damp to dry. These models of Polhem's machines, preserved for posterity through Swedenborg's solicitude; now form the nucleus to the valuable historical collections on display in the present Museum of Technology in Stockholm, and in the Mining Museum at Fahlun.

Swedenborg's part in the administrative business of the Board of Mines is contained in their volumes of daily protocol, which the present writer has had the privilege of examining for the thirty years of Swedenborg's connection. Everything in which he was actively involved was extracted. It is, of course, too detailed a subject to be treated here at length, but a few examples may be mentioned, such as his report on a case in which the crown had been defrauded of royalties, the question being to determine who was the informer entitled to a reward. In a criminal case against a miner who was found guilty of appropriating copper ore, Swedenborg shows himself a merciful judge who regarded not only the evidence but also the intention of the culprit. In another case a widow petitions for permission to forge more iron than the ordinance allowed, and here Swedenborg is forced to admit, however regretfully, that although she owned a sufficiency of ore and charcoal, she was not entitled to forge a larger amount of iron without appeal to the Diet. In another case a man was accused of selling iron that did not measure up to legal standards; the examiners, Swedenborg and his associate, after testing it, condemned and confiscated the iron. The inspecting of one of the mines in Fahlun was attended with great difficulty and danger for Wallerius and Swedenborg. They warned the Board against blasting out supporting pillars in the copper mine: "These pillars are situated in the center of the mine and have been very carefully kept from being disturbed, since moving them by blasting and shaking would be very dangerous."

A pathetic case and one that appealed to Swedenborg's compassion is that of a minor employee, the copyist Johan Duseen, who was accused of drunkenness and of uttering threats against officials of the Board. The fiscal advocate made every effort to have the accused punished and dismissed. But Swedenborg, who was appointed as attorney for the defense, by skillful marshalling of arguments and by the testimony of many witnesses, proved that the drunkenness resulted in part from a mental weakness which, being inherited, could hardly be overcome. Swedenborg considered it impossible to say whether the man's weakness of mind was caused by his drunkenness or his drunkenness by his weakness of mind.

To dismiss him from his office and take away his salary, for this I see no reason. His negligence comes from his sickness and such a course would put him in a miserable condition both as to soul and body . . . Yet, since it is clear that he is not always in possession of his mind, but is sometimes bewildered and dizzy, and that thus it comes about that he cannot withhold himself from drink, whereby the king's service is the loser . . . I find it reasonable that Duseen should refrain from his office and give up a part of his salary to the one who fills this place in his stead.

This was a conclusion in which the Board concurred.

The value of such material lies mostly in the revelation that it affords of Swedenborg's development.[146] The drill involved in his official business must have taught him much. He met and worked with all kinds of people, learned to collect information, and to sift t for essential facts; he cultivated further his faculty of exact observation; he got experience in traveling and reporting-all capabilities essential for his later life.

One of the most important features of this body of testimony is that it shows us how intimate was Swedenborg's knowledge of the men with whom he was in daily contact. The names of many officials, such as Leyel, Swab, Cederstedt, Ribbing, with whose characters Swedenborg was very well acquainted, recur later in his writings in astounding ways. These men, who are mentioned and intimately described in his diaries, mean to us little or nothing until we realize he closeness of Swedenborg's connection with them while they lived and worked together in the business of mining regulation.

It is especially interesting to see Swedenborg as a man of law, a dispenser of justice, because it must have been the weighing and balancing of facts and opinions which developed that wonderful instrument - his mind. Not by dreaming and musing, not by mystical speculations, but by a practical life among the problems of human beings, the exercise of justice with judgment, was this mind built up. Swedenborg was a servant who for thirty years attended to his duties as an everyday worker in a government office. When the facts of his life are analyzed in their true chronological order we find in all his experiences a remarkable sequence and progression.

to Chapter 14