<p>Quarry workers in Wales catch a ride on a Blondin up from the floor of the pit.</p>
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Quarry workers in Wales catch a ride on a Blondin up from the floor of the pit.

Inspiring heights

How a tightrope walker changed the way quarries carried loads between perilous locations.

Before modern-day quarries conceived of loaders to carry tonnes of crushed rock from place to place, there was the Blondin. This high-wire contraption was a type of aerial ropeway used in open-pit slate quarries in Wales to lift and transport wagonloads of rock, typically from one hard-to-reach area to another. It operated by suspending a cable over an open quarry and attaching a crane pulley, which could be run back and forth across the cable. The pulley would be run out to the rock pile, lowered so the rock could be loaded, and then lifted and run to where the rock needed to be dropped off.

The first recorded use of a Blondin in the quarry industry was at Penrhyn Quarry, where the invention was installed in 1913. Penrhyn was based around a large pit some 120 metres deep and worked in a series of terraces. Quarry operators at Penrhyn employed a variety of means to transport slate from the terraces to the processing mills. Since many of the terraces were connected via inclines, Blondins were developed to connect the more remote terraces directly to the mills.

But where did the name come from?

Well, that would be from Charles “The Great” Blondin, a famous French tightrope walker from the 19th century, whose death-defying feats inspired the quarry industry to adopt its own specific technique. Known for his grace and agility, Blondin owed much of his celebrity to crossing over Niagara Falls at the US-Canadian border on a tightrope 340 metres long and eight centimetres in diameter, suspended 50 metres above the water. He first accomplished the feat in 1859, but he made many subsequent trips, sometimes blindfolded and at other times pushing a wheelbarrow. He once crossed on stilts and again with his manager on his back. On another occasion he even sat down midway across the tightrope suspended above the gorge, cooked an omelette and ate it. Perhaps surprisingly, Blondin died of diabetes at the ripe age of 73 at his home in London, England. His legacy was so synonymous with tightrope walking that many performers after him used his name to describe their own acts. In fact, just before the presidential election of 1864, Abraham Lincoln compared himself to “Blondin on the tightrope, with all that was valuable to America in the wheelbarrow he was pushing before him.”