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Deidesheimer's Square Set Timbering: open source in a different age

Virginia City, Nevada, once the richest place on earth

Billions of dollars of silver and gold were extracted from its Comstock mines, a feat made possible by a revolutionary wooden framing system devised -- and open sourced -- by Philip Deidesheimer in 1861.

Deidesheimer's system of heavy timber "cubes" enabled skilled miners to open three-dimensional cavities of any size underground. Before the Comstock, ore veins had been relatively narrow, as the name vein implies, and easily braced with simple shoring and beams. But this proved insufficient for the wide ore bodies of the Comstock -- by late 1860 the Ophir mine was 180 feet deep with a vein 45 feet wide.

Knowing that trying the standard bracing of the time would lead to only cave-ins and death, the Ophir mine sent for Philip Deidesheimer and hired him as superintendent. For six weeks Deidesheimer worked on the bracing problem before coming up with the answer. He devised "square sets" of timbers, which could follow the ore bodies along their long width or height. These cubes of timber four by five or six feet in size would provide shoring in all directions.

The new system proved itself by February of 1861 when the Ophir had mined out a stope 65 feet wide. Deidesheimer sent out his carpenters to show the other mines how to construct his system of "square sets" timbers. Soon all of the mines on the Comstock were using it.

Deidesheimer could have made a fortune by patenting his innovation, but refused. His sole concern was the safety of the miners. Whole mountainsides along the Sierra were cut down to brace the Comstock mines. Virginia City to this day is still braced up by these long dead timbers in a dark underground forest.

Deidesheimer's system was inspired by the structure of the honeycomb. How many other inventions and patents have honeybees inspired? What royalties might they claim?

Today, Viriginia City is a tourist town and a monument to the boom and bust cycles of global capitalism.