Age of Invention: Old Coppernose

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about metallurgy, and about how new industries came to be introduced to a country like England. In 1560, for example, although England had deposits of copper, it primarily produced tin, lead, and iron. There had been some small-scale mining of the stuff — after all, it had been smelted since the Bronze Age, but there was nothing like the kind of mining and processing that took place in continental Europe.

It’s an especially interesting case of England’s technological backwardness, given that copper was a material of major strategic importance: a necessary ingredient for the casting of bronze cannon. And it was useful for other industries, especially when mixed with zinc to form brass. Brass was the material of choice for accurate navigational instruments, as well as for ordinary pots and kettles. Most importantly, brass wire was needed for wool cards, used to straighten the fibres ready for spinning into thread. A cheaper and more secure supply of copper might thus potentially make England’s principal export, woollen cloth, even more competitive — if only the English could also work out how to produce brass.

The opportunity to introduce a copper industry appeared in 1560, when German bankers became involved in restoring the gold and silver content of England’s currency. The expensive wars of Henry VIII and Edward VI in the 1540s had prompted debasements of the coinage, to the short-term benefit of the crown, but to the long-term cost of both crown and country. By the end of Henry VIII’s reign, the ostensibly silver coins were actually mostly made of copper (as the coins were used, Henry’s nose on the faces of the coins wore down, revealing the base metal underneath and earning him the nickname Old Coppernose). The debased money continued to circulate for over a decade, driving the good money out of circulation. People preferred to hoard the higher-value currency, to send it abroad to pay for imports, or even to melt it down for the bullion. The weakness of the pound was an especial problem for Thomas Gresham, Queen Elizabeth’s financier, in that government loans from bankers in London and Antwerp had to be repaid in currency that was assessed for its gold and silver content, rather than its face value. Ever short of cash, the government was constantly resorting to such loans, made more expensive by the lack of bullion.

Restoring the currency — calling in the debased coins, melting them down, and then re-minting them at a higher fineness — required expertise that the English did not have. From France, the mint hired Eloy Mestrelle to strike the new coins by machine rather than by hand. (He was likely available because the French authorities suspected him of counterfeiting — the first mention of him in English records is a pardon for forgery, a habit that apparently died hard as he was eventually hanged for the offence). And to do the refining, Gresham hired German metallurgists: Johannes Loner and Daniel Ulstätt got the job, taking payment in the form of the copper they extracted from the debased coinage (along with a little of the silver). It turned out to be a dangerous assignment: some of the copper may have been mixed with arsenic, which was released in fumes during the refining process, thus poisoning the workers. They were prescribed milk, to be drunk from human skulls, for which the government even gave permission to use the traitors’ heads that were displayed on spikes on London Bridge — but to little avail, unfortunately, as some of them still died.

Loner and Ulstätt’s payment in copper appears to be no accident. They were agents of the Augsburg banking firm of Haug, Langnauer and Company, who controlled the major copper mines in Tirol. Having obtained the English government as a client, they now proposed the creation of English copper mines. They saw a chance to use England as a source of cheap copper, with which they could supply the German brass industry. It turns out that the tale of the multinational firm seeking to take advantage of a developing country for its raw materials is an extremely old one: in the 1560s, the developing country was England.

Yet the investment did not quite go according to plan. Although the Germans possessed all of the metallurgical expertise, the English insisted that the endeavour be organised on their own terms: the Company of Mines Royal. Only a third of the company’s twenty-four shares were to be held by the Germans, with the rest purchased by England’s political and mercantile elite: people like William Cecil (the Secretary of State) and the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley (the queen’s crush). It was an attractive investment, protected from competition by a patent monopoly for mines of gold, silver, copper, and mercury in many of the relevant counties, as well as a life-time exemption for the investors from all taxes raised by parliament (in those days, parliament was pretty much only assembled to legitimise the raising of new taxes).

Physically, the company was a success. Based at Keswick, in Cumbria, in just a few years the Germans had mined about 300 tons of copper ore. But financially, there were problems. The English partners repeatedly refused to provide additional, much-needed capital, to the general annoyance of the German shareholders. They had not reckoned with English investor culture, where the expectation was for an up-front payment to yield large and quick profits — something totally inappropriate to a large-scale, long-term investment like mining. And there was a lack of domestic demand. Cannons might have been important to the Royal Navy, but such sales were sporadic. In fact, in exchange for granting the company’s patent, the queen automatically received a fifteenth of all the copper it produced. And as for making brass, that required zinc, which was only mined in Germany. The German mine managers at Keswick repeatedly refused to share the secrets of zinc mining and brass production with the English. After all, they wanted the copper to be exported raw, to feed their own industries in Germany. Yet the English authorities only occasionally allowed this — exporting copper was banned, given its military uses, so each export sale had to be approved by the queen. Frustrated in their designs, the German investors eventually just gave up.

Nonetheless, once German metallurgy had come to England, it had come to stay. Although Haug, Langnauer and Company pulled out of their investments, the Keswick manager, Daniel Höchstetter, remained. As did many of the other Germans who had come with him. And very soon the English obtained the secret to making brass, too. But more on that another time.

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