Despite its low profile today, Jáchymov, a small spa town in the mountains of Bohemia in northwest Czech Republic, has an illustrious history. For more than four centuries, its mines were central to scientific discoveries made, and research done, by Georgius Agricola, Marie Curie and J. Robert Oppenheimer, including the discoveries of several minerals and elements.
Rich silver deposits were discovered in the town in 1512 and over the ensuing decades thousands arrived to exploit them, with the town’s population jumping to 18,200 in 1534, up from 5,000 in 1520. It was christened Joachimsthal (meaning “St. Joachim’s Valley”) in 1520 by its rich owners, the Counts of Schlick.
The Schlicks quickly became one of Europe’s richest families, and started minting coins out of the area’s silver called thaler – the origin of the word dollar. Coins were shipped to Leipzig, an important trading hub, and were accepted across Europe.
At its height, between 10,000 and 15,000 miners worked at more than 900 mines in the camp. Extremely rich ore containing up to 60 per cent silver was processed by hand, and pieces of pure silver were also common; the largest was 280 kilograms.
Renowned artists and scientists flocked to the town as mining operations boomed. Among them was Georgius Agricola, “the father of mineralogy.” It was here that he discovered and documented bismuth, antimony and zinc, and started research for his enormous treatise on mining and mineralogy, De Re Metallica.
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