Welcome to another edition of the Madness Worldbuilding series. Starting with 2016, we are finishing up the Metals of Antiquity, the first set of metals known to the world since Ancient times and remained the only known metals until the 1700’s. Today we look at a really important metal: Lead.
Unlike all the metals we’ve reviewed so far, this one has had continuous use since it was founded. Even today, we use or touch something that has Lead in it. This is an important metal for you to consider for your book, even though it is a common metal, it has many uses worth noting.
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Lead has the atomic number 82 with the symbol Pb. Pb is short for Plumbum. Plumbum is also the origin of the word Plumbing. This is likely due to the fact that the Ancient Roman culture use Lead for underwater piping.
Lead is the 37th most common element at 14ppm (parts per million), compared to Copper at 50ppm. It is a soft, but heavy metal, that has a bluish colour but will tarnish quickly in an oxygen environment with a shiny chrome surface. Lead also has the highest atomic number of all non-radioactive elements. It’s nucleus also has 82 protons each, which in quantum physics is consider a ‘Magic Number‘.
Lead is high density metal that is also ductile and malleable. It is a poor conductor of electricity with a high resistance to corrosion. It also has a fairly low melting point of 622.4 F (328 C), compared to Silver 1761 F (961 C). It’s resistance to corrosion makes it ideal to contain corrosive liquids (ie, sulfuric acid).
The high density of Lead makes it ideal for shielding against radiation, including X-Rays and Gamma Radiation. It is also good at deadening sounds. Lead makes for a poor support structure by itself, as it can suffer from metal fatigue (creeping). One can add Cadmium, Tin, and Tellurium to improve toughness.
Because of these traits, Lead had little impact on the Ancient world. It wasn’t until the time of Romans in the Age of Antiquity was there more widespread use. Due to its low melting point, it is believed that Lead and Tin were the first metals to be smelted. In fact, Lead and Tin were often thought to be the same metal. Romans referred to Lead as Plubum Nigrum (Black Lead) and Tin as Plumbum Candidum (Bright/White Lead). Even more interesting is that likely the Romans encountered another element known as Bismuth, but confused it for Black Lead as it is very similar in properties. Some even confused Antimony as being Lead.
Lead rarely appears as an element by itself, and is usually found in ores, such as Galena. Galena contains Silver, which is why it is most sought after, but of all ores, has the largest concentration of Lead. Other ores include, Anglesite and Cerussite.
Lead is heavy enough to sink to the core. Lead does bond with other elements to create minerals, that allow it to stay on the crust, even though it is generally deep underground where we find the highest concentrations. As such, most Lead is extracted from underground mines, but is often mixed with other minerals, and often the Lead mined is the byproduct of other elements sought after, such as Zinc or Silver. Other elements found in minerals with Lead are Copper, Arsenic, Tin, Anitmony, Gold, and Bismuth.
Lead is mined from rock, and put in a Mill to extract the metals and leave behind the useless rock. This is done by ‘floating‘, a special chemical that causes Lead to form in a bubble and float to the surface to be carried away. It’s only at this time that other minerals are separated from each other, then dried out.
Due to how common Lead is, major deposits are located Australia, China, Ireland, Mexico, Peru, Portugal, Russia, and the United States, with the largest production of Lead is Doe Run Company in Missouri. Today, 70% of all Lead mined is used in batteries, but only half of use of Lead comes from mining, the remaining coming from recycling.
At current rates of mining, it is estimated that we’ll run out of Lead in a little over 30 years. This may be offset, however, by continuous efforts of recycling Lead. Lead is also common in the universe.
Lead was used in many ways for other metals, starting with Molybdochalkos. It was a Lead/Copper Alloy. It was known about in the 10th century. For what purpose, it seems to have none.
Perhaps a more famous alloy of Lead is Solder (also known as Lead Solder, or Soft Solder). Solder is a fusible metal alloy to join together other metal components. Most Solders for electronics have a higher Tin amount than Lead, which increases tensile and sheer strength. Tensile is how much it resists being pulled apart, while Sheer refers to how much outside force is require to tear apart. The most common is 63/37 (Tin/Lead), which has a specific melting point of 361 F (183).
For a time, 50/50 Solder was used for plumping up to the 1980’s, as it was believed little Lead could get into the water itself. It has been since replaced by either silver, antimony, or copper, with the portion of Tin increased, due to Lead contamination.
Type Metal is another interesting alloy, used by Johannes Gutenberg, for typeface for the printing press. Mostly he used Lead, as it was easy to come by, but the metal was too soft, and would change shape as it cooled. He then added Tin and Antimony to improve the equality of the type metal. Type Metal was later used for Linotype printing.
Other alloys tend to use a small amount of Lead, such as Machinery Tools used to cut shapes in metals, and Babbitt alloys, which were used for coating. There are many type of alloys where Lead is added in (too many to list).
One might first think Pencils, as that uses Lead. However, it is not Lead Lead, but rather it is Graphite. Pencil Lead got its name from an older term of graphite: Plumbago, or Lead like. The name stuck even through it is not actually Lead.
Lead is ideal in many applications for its density and low melting point. It is used either as pure lead or alloyed with tin and antimony. One such applications is the use of bullets and shot for firearms. Lead is easy to melt and cast into the shape you want with minimum equipment. As mentioned in my Silver article, I mentioned that one could use Lead on a kitchen stove top to make bullets. It is also ideal to use Lead as it is more dense and far more inexpensive than other metals.
However, due to environmental concerns of lead, the use of lead shotgun pellets (shot) has been restricted in some countries and banned in others for use of hunting.
Lead has also been used for as ammunition for slings.
Because of its anti-corrosion properties, Lead can be found in many water related activities. Such as Ballast Keels. A keel is used to weight down a boat when lift is created from the wind. Without a keel, a boat could easily capsize. The Keel can be made of a dense material, such as Lead, that can also take up less space to easily move through water.
Weight Belts for Scuba Diving are used for much the same reason. Weight Belts will counteract the natural buoyancy of a diver (and their equipment). While it may lack the weight-to-volume ratio of many heavy metals, it is the low cost with the anti-corrosion properties which makes Lead so ideal.
Lead-Acid batteries is the most common usage for Lead today. Invented 1859 by Gaston Planté, it has low energy-to-weight ratio, but high power-to-weight ratio. For this reason, Lead-Acid batteries are idea for the high current requirement of automobile starter motors.
Lead-Acid batteries are also used for stationary use such as backup power supplies for telephone and computer centers, as well as grid energy storage and off-grid household electric power systems. They can also be found in emergency lighting in case of power failure.
- Golf carts, electric scooters, electric wheelchairs, electrified bikes
- Diesel-Electric motors on Submarines when submerged
- Emergency power on Nuclear Submarines
- Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS)
Lead is used in the manufacturing of Potash glass known as Lead-Glass (often referred to as Lead Crystals), or historically referred to as Flint Glass. It contained about 18 – 40% (by weight) of Lead(II) Oxide. The use of Lead improved the appearance of the glass and made it easier to melt. It was first designed in 1674.
The use of Lead has a refraction rate (typically measured between 1 and 2) of 1.62, where normal glass (also called soda-lime glass) has a refraction of 1.46. For point of reference, water refraction is 1.33 and Diamonds are 2.42. Refraction measure how light bends through the material.
This tells us how much energy can pass through the the object, with higher numbers indicating a lower amount of energy. Not just a reduction of light passing through the Lead-Glass compared to normal glass, but also a reduction of radiation.
The use of Lead Crystal for drinking won’t pose a health risk if they are thoroughly washed out and not used to store liquids for more than several hours. It should be noted that the use of Lead Crystal as a storage container can contaminate food and beverages.
There is some historical evidence to suggest that the use of lead crystal decanters to store fortified wines and whiskey lead to an association of gout among the upper classes of Europe and America.
Benjamin Franklin invented the Glass Armonica using Lead Glass. Some have speculated that the use of the instrument caused the practitioners Lead poisoning, but not evidence has been shown to support that. The instrument itself was believe to cause the listener insanity.
Paint and Cosmetics
A well known use of Lead, likely in your parents or grandparents time, was that of Lead Paint. While now being phased out due to health risks of Lead Poisoning, it can be found in industrial use. The primary chemical used was Lead Chromate, which can also be found in traditional oil paints.
Another use was in cosmetics, mostly for the colour white. White in European culture as far back as the Romans, was seen as a colour of youth. The use of white cosmetics would make one ‘appear’ younger. It was also used by Japanese Geisha. This would often lead to Lead poisoning.
Lead paint was also used in children’s toys.
Mentioned above is Solder, though many countries are phasing out Lead-based Solder to reduce environmental hazards.
Lead, Silver, and Copper are used in what is known as the Oddy Test. Used by museums to detect what sort of chemicals different types of structure emit, that could destroy artifacts and paintings. Each metal is used to detect a different type of corrosion. Lead will help detect organic acids, aldehydes, and acidic gases.
Lead, or Lead-bismuth alloy, can be used as coolant for nuclear reactors. This is due to its low melting point, but also its structure at the atomic level, which makes the act of fusion very difficult with Lead. This requires a rather lengthy discussion on fusion to explain why this works.
Once used to add weight to Tennis rackets
Added to Brass for Machine Tools to reduce wear.
Used in Stained Glass to hold the glass in place.
Sheet-lead is used as sound deadening layer of walls/floors/ceilings, to reduce airborne and mechanically produce sounds in recording studios.
Organs primary metal used for its pipes are Lead. It can either be pure Lead, or a combination of other metals such as Tin, Zinc, Copper, Aluminum, Gold, Silver, Brass, and Iron.
Lead is still used in roofing, cladding, flashing, gutters, and gutter joints.
Lead is still used for statues and sculptures.
Used as weights added to car tires, though this is being phased out in favor of Zinc.
210Pb has a half-life of 22.2 years, which is used in environmental dating of less than 100 years. Common Lead is considered stable and doesn’t have a half-life.
Lead is used in ceremaic glazes for the colours red and yellow.
Lead is often mixed into Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) for coating electrical cords.
Lead can be found in the wick of candles, to ensure a longer and more even burn. Due to health concerns, Zinc is a common replacement.
Lead has a naturally sweet taste, and was used by the Romans as a sweetener.
Lead was used in fuels for vehicles to prevent knocking, or premature explosion when fuel entered a cylinder. This unfortunately had the effect of introducing Lead to the atmosphere, which lead to a lot of sickness.
Prior to the 1950’s, Lead was used in pesticides.
Here is a list by chemical name:
- lead acetate: insecticides; waterproofing; varnishes; dyeing of cloth; production of gold; hair dye
- lead antimonate: staining of glass, porcelain and other ceramics
- lead azide: used as a “primer” for high explosives
- lead chromate: industrial paints (use restricted by law)
- lead fluoride: used to make lasers; specialized optical glasses
- lead iodide: photography; cloud seeding to produce rain
- lead naphthenate: wood preservative; insecticide; additive for lubricating oil; paint and varnish drier
- lead phosphite: used to screen out ultraviolet radiation in plastics and paints
- lead stearate: used to make soaps, greases, waxes, and paints; lubricant; drier for paints and varnishes
- lead telluride: used to make semiconductors, photoconductors, and other electronic equipment
As you can see, Lead is in about everything we use.
It seems that many metals are dangerous in inhale/ingest, as we saw with our last article on Mercury. Lead is no different. Unlike Mercury, the removal of Lead exposure won’t take away symptoms, and a little bit can do damage.
Lead poisoning goes by many names. Plumbish, Colica Pictorum, Saturnism (as Alchemists linked Lead to Saturn), Devon Colic, and Painter’s Colic. No matter the name, once Lead is introduced into the body, it will interfere with body processes and is toxic to most organs, including bones and nervous system.
When it comes to Poisoning, or Toxicity, it is entirely dependent on how much you receive from exposure and how long it has been in your blood stream. Lead Poisoning can be short term (acute) to long term (chronic). Exposure is measured through the blood, but can be measured through the urine. Even a low amount of lead introduced into the body can have harmful health effects, though the standard is above 10 micorgrams per deciliter of blood. Although, someone affected with Lead may not be aware of it, as early symptoms can be confused with other things.
Exposure to adults may include: headache, abdominal pain, memory loss, kidney failure, male reproductive problems, and weakness, pain, or tingling in the extremities.
Early symptom for adults may include: depression, loss of appetite, intermittent abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, and muscle pain. Other symptoms can include Malaise, fatigue, and insomnia.
High Lead poisoning may include: delayed reaction time, irritability, anemia, wrist/foot drop (where you are unable to extend your wrist and foot and it just hangs there), brain swelling, delirium, coma, and seizures.
Lead in children is absorbed at a faster rate than adults, which means it takes less Lead for children to receive the effects of poison. Children exposed to Lead can interfere with the development of their nervous system, which can lead to learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. Common symptoms are: loss of appetite, abdominal pain, vomiting, weight loss, constipation, anemia, kidney failure, irritability, and lethargy. Fetus development with mother exposed to lead can lead to premature birth or low birth weight.
Exposure can come in many forms, but it is mainly obtained through manufacturing that involves Lead in any way. Worse is that parents can bring home lead from their workplace on their clothing and cause exposure to their children.
Lead Paint is another means of exposure, especially with children eating of paint chips (known as pica). However, the removal of Lead Paints presents a hazard, it is often best to paint over Lead Paint to seal in the contamination.
There is also a cause for concern of Lead contamination in soil. The more Lead is process/smelted and used in say Gasoline, the more contamination that is found in soil. As such, eating of food grown in Lead contaminated soil can lead to Lead poisoning. There is some work being done in using Bioremediation, to basically introduce bacteria that will consume the Lead contamination.
Drinking water is another source of exposure to Lead, as many pipes still use Lead or Lead solder. While there has been a move to replace the use of Lead for pipes, there are still many system that use Lead Pipes, as was discovered in a 2004 report in The Washington Post, with high levels of Lead in Washington, D.C.
Prehistory (2.5 million years ago to 3600BC)
14,000 – 13,000BC is believed to be the oldest uses of Galena at a burial site in El Mirón cave in Spain
7000BC – 6500 BC is believed to be when Lead was first discovered and smelted, Çatal Höyük site in Anatolia (Turkey) where Lead beads were found. Similar beads were found in Yarim Tepe, Iraq, dating back to the same time period.
5000BC – Kohl was used by the Ancient Egyptians as makeup and paint. Kohl made use of Galena, which contains about 86% lead.
4000 – 3000BC – Egyptian Pharaohs used Lead to glaze pottery.
3800BC – Lead statue built at a Temple of Osiris on the site of Abydos.
Ancient Age (3600BC to 800BC)
2600BC – 2400BC – Lead was used as small votive axes in tombs and coffins were made of Lead as well.
2500BC – Ancient Egyptians began to use Lead Fishing hooks.
2000BC – Ancient Chinese made coins out of Lead.
2000BC – Assyrian Code of Laws show that Lead was used as a currency.
1400BC – 1050BC – Lead in the form of animal heads was a common form of exchange.
2000BC – Phoenicians mined Lead in Spain, until it was taken over by the Ancient Romans after the fall of Carthage.
1700BC – Recipe for Lead Glaze appears on Babylonian tablet.
1550BC – Ebers papyrus, an Egyptian medical treatise, mentions the use of Lead as a medicine, by laying it on a wound.
1400BC – While there is debate who first invented glass, it is believed that the Mesopotamia culture was first to use Lead in their glass.
1200BC – Ancient Egyptians began to use Lead Sinkers.
1000BC – Use of Lead piping used by the Persians.
Age of Antiquity (800BC to 500AD)
As far back as 800BC, inscriptions on the wall surrounding Nimrud made mention of Lead.
600BC, a red sealing-wax cake found in the Burnt Palance at Nimrud, contains 10% Lead Oxide.
Taken from an ice core in Greenland, between 500BC to 300AD, there was a measurable increase of Lead content in the air. This was likely due to the industrialization of the Greek and Roman culture, who were the first to have a widespread use of Lead.
During this time period, the Roman Aqueducts was built, which used Lead plating with concrete, and used Lead pipes.
220BC – 206BC – Lead Glass is developed in China. It was cast to imitate jade. It is believed this technology was brought along the Silk Road by glass workers in the Middle East.
200BC – Greek botanist Nicander makes note of colic and paralysis in lead-poisoned people.
160BC – Cato gives directions for reducing grapes, possibly for making sweetening ingredients known as Defrutum, carenum, or sapa. It require use of a Lead vessel. The use of Lead as a vessel likely made grape concentrate sweater.
100BC – Ships in the Mediterranean began to use Anchors made of Lead.
100AD – Greek physician Discorides writes that lead makes the mind “give way”.
Middle Ages (500AD – 1500AD)
Silver during this time was scarce, so during this time, Pewter (50/50 Tin/Lead) was used instead for ‘silverware’ utensils. Lead containers were still used to serve drinks, and the use of Lead powder was still used as a sweetener.
Like other elements after the fall of Rome, there wasn’t much in the way of obtaining Lead. By the 11th and 12th Century, there was great demand for Lead for roofs and plumbing of cathedrals and other buildings. After the Bubonic Plague, there was increased need of it, doubling in production from 1300’s to 1500’s.
675AD – First use of Lead in conjunction of stained glass, creating ornate designs.
938AD – Discovery of a large deposit of Silver, Lead, and Copper in Rammelsburg (located in modern day Germany). There was so much ore here, that it remained in operation until 1988, celebrating its 1050th anniversary.
Renaissance (1400 – 1700)
15th Century began to see a rise in ornamental lead drain leaders, the type of thing that take water from the roof and drains it to the ground.
1533 – 1603 – Queen Elizabeth I of England was known to use Lead based white makeup for the guise of appearing young.
1554 – Burchard Kranich built the first smelting mill, replacing the old method of bole hills for processing Lead. At first this was a failure, but was improved in 1577.
1674 – George Ravenscroft invented Lead Glass.
1656 – German physician, Samuel Stockhausen recognized dust and fumes of items containing lead compounds to be a cause of sickness, especially of miners, smelter workers, potters, and anyone else exposed to the metal on a daily basis.
1690 – Rumors that Lead mining began in 1621 in Virginia, the first discovery of lead in the New World was found by French Trappers.
1696 – German physician, Eberhard Gockel discovered that lead-contaminated wine was the cause of an epidemic of colic. He noted monks who didn’t drink wine weren’t sick, and those monks who did drink the wine, were sick. Because of this, Eberhard Ludwig, Duke of Wurttemberg banned the use of Lead to sweeten wine.
Industrial Revolution (1700 – 1900)
18th century began to see a more widespread lead poisoning. One such reason was the drinking of rum, which was made in stills with Lead components. It was a leading cause of death amongst slaves and sailors in the colonial West Indies, and was noted in Boston.
1715 – First mention of Devonshire colic, which were symptoms suffered by people of Devon who drank apple cider made in presses that were lined with Lead. This had been a problem for nearly 100 years, with no explanation until this time of what was causing it.
1730 – France introduced rolling Lead sheets. For a time, this was the only element where rolling of sheets were done.
1762 – Benjamin Franklin invented a radically new musical instrument, based on seeing a demonstration of someone play with water filled wine glasses. Working with glassblower Charles James, they invented the Glass Armonica and was played for an audience by Marianne Davies.
19th Century saw the introduction of Lead Paint. It was ideal product, but it was also dangerous. By the 20th Century, Europe had an understanding of its dangers, but still used it with restrictions.
1827 – Ludwig van Beethoven dies. Much controversy surrounding his death, but a sample of his hair revealed that he had high levels of Lead. This likely was due to Lead being illegally added to wine in the 18th and early 19th century as a sweetener, which Beethoven was a heavy wine drinker.
1820 – Thomas Burr created a vertical hydraulic press for creating pipes. Lead, due to its low melting point was ideal for making pipes.
1839 – Tanquerel des Planches writers a paper on Lead Poisoning after studying 1217 cases in Paris. This work was so well done, that little has been added to the knowledge of symptoms of Lead Poisoning.
1859 – Gaston Planté invents the Lead-Acid Battery.
1881 – US became the leading Lead producer in the world.
1883 – Parliament passed the Factory Act, which had an effect of Lead Poisoning. Required factories to conform to prescribed standards.
Post-Industrial (1900 – 1945)
1909 – France, Belgium, and Austria banned the use of Lead paint.
1920 – Lead-Acid batteries first introduced for automobiles.
1922 – League of Nations banned the use of Lead Paint.
1923 – First use of Tetraethyllead used in Gasoline to act as an antiknocking agent. This caused widespread lead poisoning symptoms to appear among the population.
After World War I, the demand for lead increased along with the need of automobiles. Lead was also used as lining for gas tanks as well.
Atomic Age (1945 – 1980)
The use of Lead-Acid batteries for various vehicle, including jeeps, submarines, and some planes really made a difference in WW2. While it wasn’t one thing that helped win the war for the Allies, Lead certain had a role.
1971 – New laws in US lead to banning of Lead Paint. It would initially be phased out, with a final ban in 1978.
1973 – EPA issued regulation calling for a gradual reduction in lead.
1975 – US automakers following EPA regulation equipped cars with a catalytic converter, to help reduce pollution.
1986 – EPA amended the Safe Drinking Water Act, to prohibit the repair or installation of Lead pipes if water from those pipes would be used in human consumption.
Information Age (1990 – Present)
1994 – Darmstadtium, or element 110, was discovered by bombarding Lead nuclei with Nickel nuclei using an ion accelerator.
1996 – The discover of element 112 on the periodic table, named Cupernicium. It was created by blasting a Zinc nuclei at a Lead nuclei.
2010 – Study reveals possible link between the rise and fall of lead products and crime rates. Likely not the only source of the falling crime rates, but may be a contributor.
As mentioned before, at current rates, it appears we’ll run out mineable Lead in the next 30 years. As abundant as it once was, it seems we have found most of it. Likely a mine will be discovered that may help our needs, but our world is using more and more lead each year, even though the majority of its use is for batteries.
However, the future of Lead will like revolve around batteries, trying to make them ore efficent. As we also see with the discovery of new elements, it may be possible that Lead can lead to new discoveries, and perhaps those new discoveries can help deal with some of the health effects of lead, or maybe not. Wishful thinking.
While our planet may be running low on Lead, there may be more found within our solar system. It is a fairly common element, when compared to many other heavy metals. It certainly helps that Lead is about 95% recyclable, so that will help our needs of it over time.
There is space travel to consider. Good chance that as we will use Lead in someway. Back when I tried to get into game development, I once helped on a project to make a Battlestar Galactica Mod for Crysis. I did research on the hull of Galactica to understand how it was able to withstand radiation attacks. I concluded that the hull was either made of Lead or Tungsten, or some alloy that included those metals. I suggested an alloy, because in the reimagined series, there were 1200 Battlestars, and Tungsten is rather rare.
In space, there is radiation, and as we know from X-Ray technology, Lead is used to protect against radiation. It only seems fitting that Lead would be used to protect against radiation in space, especially for when ships are mass produced. Likely, Lead will be used in an alloy, as Lead is a soft metal and cannot handle the vibrations that occur when launching from a planet.
There are also likely to be new alloys of Lead that will improve our lives in other ways.
Finally here at the end. This was a fun article to write, and took me a lot less time than it did for me to write about Mercury.
While Lead is toxic to humans, it is a metal that has other uses that will keep it’s place in our society for a long time to come. From what I can determine, the more industrial a society becomes, the more it will use Lead. That’s also assuming that society is unaware of the health effects of Lead.
Romans were really the first to use Lead, mostly because they had an abundance of it. They also used it as a sweetener, and for pipping. With the fall of Rome, we didn’t see as high production of Lead until the Industrial Revolution.
As Writers for your stories, Lead is going to be used somewhere. While it is a soft metal to be used as weapons or armour, it will still be useful, as likely your civilization has a lot of it. Especially with its low melting point, it will be easy to work with. As your society becomes more industrious, the more likely they will use Lead more often. Just remember, more than likely, they won’t know it is bad for them.
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As always, these articles only give you an introduction to these various elements to Worldbuilding, and I recommend you do your own research with my article as a starting point. As this is one of seven metals known in the ancient age, you will need to consider where its place is, and how your society uses it.