Why The Machines That Dig Tunnels Are Always Named After Women

Why The Machines That Dig Tunnels Are Always Named After Women

Tunnel Boring Machines, or TBMs, are some of the most fascinating manufacturers of our infrastructure: Two-ton primary-coloured cylinders with jagged teeth that chomp through the Earth. And every single one of them has a traditionally female name.

From Big Bertha in Seattle to Mum Chung in San Francisco, to Lady Bird in DC, TBMs are all women.

According to a Los Angeles Times article, miners in the 16th century prayed to Saint Barbara to protect them from the many dangers underground. Saint Barbara — who may have been a real person during the 3rd century in Turkey or Lebanon — was a martyr who was imprisoned in a tower by her tyrannical father Dioscorus. She secretly studied to become a Christian against his wishes until all hell broke loose, according to Catholic.org:

Dioscorus was enraged by her action and by her conversion. So he himself denounced her before the civil tribunal. She was horribly tortured, and at last was beheaded. Her own father, merciless to the last, acted as her executioner. God, however, speedily punished her persecutors. While her soul was being borne by angels to Paradise, a flash of lightning struck Dioscorus, and he was hurried before the judgment seat of God.

So wait, how does that connect to mining exactly? Back in the 1500s, miners used gun powder to bust open their mines, so Saint Barbara's masterful summoning of a very specific and very powerful lightning strike was a lot like those mining explosions, therefore making her the patron saint of mining and geology (and also artillery). And now the TBMs travelling below US cities right now have replaced those explosions — making them into a bunch of modern-day Saint Barbaras.

Why The Machines That Dig Tunnels Are Always Named After Women

A shrine to St. Barbara in a German mine, AP Photo/Christof Stache, File

If you want to help Los Angeles name their new TBM that's building a subway extension, there's a contest underway. My favourite so far is Harriet, because it is indeed an underground railroad.

[LA Times]

Top image: Big Bertha via Washington State Department of Transportation