Three decades after his father’s death, James Cannon still repeats one of the old man’s favorite axioms.
“My father used to say to me, there are only two basic industries,” said Cannon, who lives in Mt. Lebanon. “Farming and mining – everything derives from that.”
It’s probably a fitting way to remember Robert Cannon, an engineer and prolific inventor who was inducted into the National Mining Hall of Fame last month for lifetime achievement in the industry.
Like his father, James Cannon – who settled in the Pittsburgh area for a job years ago – isn’t originally from the region. But they count Col. John Canon, the eponymous founder of the Washington County borough, among their direct ancestors.
James Cannon and his son, who’s also named James, traveled to the Leadville, Colo., National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum for the induction there on Sept. 14. One of the four other people who were honored during the ceremony was Mary Harris Jones, an activist and labor organizer better known as Mother Jones.
Nominees must have “had a significant and lasting impact on the mining industry and have propelled the industry in a positive manner,” said Francine Webber, events manager for the organization.
James Cannon Sr. nominated his father, who died in 1985, for the award.
A biography prepared by the NMHFM said one of Robert Cannon’s most famous innovations was a technique known as raise drilling.
He conceived of the new method while visiting Michigan’s Homer-Wauseca iron mining complex in 1962, when someone asked him for advice on putting out a subterranean fire. He suggested drilling into a level of the mine from above, and then replacing the bit with a larger one before pulling the bit back up to enlarge the hole. The dirt from the digging was used to put out the mine fire.
It also saved untold numbers of workers known as raise miners from injury and death. They’d previously had to dig into dense shelves of ore from below, four or five feet at a time, and setting off a dynamite charge before repeating that sequence.
“About a third of the time, a rock would fall and hit the guy, and either hurt him or kill him,” said the inventor’s son. “It was the most dangerous job in mining, because of what you had to do.”
Robert Cannon was born in 1916. He started working in the industry in his 20s after studying engineering at the University of Minnesota. He wound up putting that career on hold when the United States entered World War II, when he piloted a B-24 Liberator over Europe. His actions during a mission over Germany won him a Distinguished Flying Cross.
He returned to engineering following the war, moving to Panama with his family, which later moved to Venezuela.
“I learned to read and write in Spanish before I learned to read and write in English,” James Cannon said.
By the time Robert Cannon came up with the idea for the raise drill, he’d moved his family back to the United States.
He and his friend Richard Robbins worked together to license the machine, which is still used in metal mines today. Another of his inventions, the underground blast drill, is also commonly used.
James Cannon said people still remembered his father when he started working with the industry through his own company, International Marketing Association.
“I had a big help in getting into the mining industry, because when I first started calling the mines, inevitably, a senior guy at the mine would say, ‘Are you related to Bob Cannon?’” he said.