Age of Invention: Pb & Fray

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I’ve recently become quite hooked on a new video game called Dawn of Man. In it, you manage a Stone Age settlement, gathering berries, hunting mammoth, and chipping flint, while developing through all the early stages of humanity — the advent of farming, smelting metals, domesticating animals, inventing the wheel, hauling monoliths, and so on, through to the age of iron. It’s a lot of fun. What makes it really stand out, however, is the complex, often brutal interaction with the environment. Be careful not to over-hunt. Don’t sow just one kind of crop lest there be a blight. Make sure you leave a few trees lest you run out of timber.

Most significantly of all, make sure you are able to tap enough of the kind of resource that’s constantly, steadily depleting. In many cases, you can just stock things up, and not have to worry too much about it. Stone, in the game at least, seems to come under this category. It’s rarely used, unless you want to build something new, and it can always be recycled. On the opposite end of the spectrum, food of course is constantly being consumed or wasted, and needs to be replaced. But most resources fall somewhere in between, and their status changes along with habits or technology. To begin with, for example, a few animal skins are always needed to repair tents and other structures. But eventually, as tents are upgraded to huts, the resources with a “leaky bucket” problem — those that erode or are spoiled by use, exerting a constant drain on the stock — turn out to be things like timber and straw.

The leaky bucket phenomenon is interesting to me because I’ve lately been researching the evolution of England’s metal industries. Like so many other fields, such as shipbuilding and navigation, the mining and processing of various metals underwent major transformation over the course of the late sixteenth century. For copper and brass, in the 1560s the industry achieved new scale due to the importation of German mining expertise. (Eventually, after a few ups and downs, Britain in the early nineteenth century produced half the world’s copper.) For iron, too, the introduction from France of blast furnaces to the Weald of Sussex and Kent — initially in the 1490s, and especially from the 1540s — transformed the industry. In the first half of the sixteenth century, England typically imported three quarters of its iron from Spain. By 1590, it had not only quintupled its consumption of iron but was also almost entirely self-sufficient.

In both these cases, the industries were stimulated by the introduction of centuries-old European techniques. England was simply on the periphery, with new metallurgical techniques largely emanating from Germany. In the case of copper, Germans were poached directly. As for iron, the blast furnace had gradually made its way westward to Liège, and from thence to the Pays de Bray region of Normandy. When economic conditions for smelters there deteriorated in the sixteenth century, they simply hopped north of the Channel to exploit the near-identical geography of Sussex.

But there was a curious exception to this trend: lead. In the early sixteenth century, England was a minor producer of the stuff. It was widespread and cheap enough to be used for roofing buildings (unlike much of the rest of Europe, where copper was preferred), but the country never produced more than a few hundred tons per year. It didn’t really need to. Like stone in Dawn of Man, you could amass a stockpile and not worry too much about any leaky bucket problems. The lead in roofs could always be recycled, and hardly any more was needed for pipes or cisterns. The vast majority of the demand came from Germany, and then the New World, where it was used to extract silver from copper ore. Even this dissipated in the mid-sixteenth century, when the New World silver mines began to switch to using mercury instead.

Yet by 1600, England was producing about 3,000 tons of lead a year, up from just 300 in the 1560s. By 1700, it was producing two thirds of Europe’s lead — a whopping 20,000 tons a year. How?

Unlike copper or iron, there is no evidence that lead mining or processing techniques were imported. If anything, they seem to have emerged from the Mendips, in Somerset, where production costs fell with the introduction of furnace smelting in the 1540s. As well as raising the extraction rates from the ore coming up from the mines, the new furnaces allowed previously unusable ores — found in the easily-accessible waste tips of old mining camps — to be smelted after some simple sifting. Unfortunately, we don’t have a clear idea of who was responsible for the innovation.

Yet the source of England’s supremacy was really, at first, religious. Following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in the 1530s, the melting down of their roofs dumped some 12,000 tons of lead onto England’s markets — at least a year’s worth of Europe’s entire output. Although the immediate effect was to annihilate England’s own lead industry, the medium-term effect was to send the other European producers into disarray. By the 1580s, once the stockpile had depleted, England’s lead producers were among the only ones left standing. The sale of monastic lead ensured that the English retained a foothold in foreign markets, while the cost-saving innovations then gave them the competitive edge. These factors explain, at least, England’s eventual hold over the European lead market.

But there was yet another phenomenon responsible for the industry’s massively increased scale: the development of hand-held firearms. Gunpowder technology was of course centuries old, but cannon had largely fired balls made of stone or cast iron. Muskets and pistols, however, used bullets made of lead. With the proliferation of the weapons over the course of the seventeenth century, lead thus acquired a major leaky bucket problem. Bullets were too costly to recycle, leading to an estimated fifth of Europe’s annual production of lead disappearing every year — a wastage that only increased as armies grew, weapons’ rate of fire improved, and the continent experienced extraordinary violence. Europe lost an estimated fifth of its population to the Thirty Years’ War, and England itself succumbed to civil strife.

England’s lead industry thus had to drastically increase its production just to maintain Europe’s stock of lead, let alone increase it. It was from soldiers entering the fray, to trade bullets across sodden fields, that it owed its extraordinary success.

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