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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2707

The Shot Tower: a flawless monument to British ingenuity

Hemantha Abeywardena writes from London…

In the past few months, according to my own impromptu statistics, a bank holiday, more often than not, has been a complete washout, characterised by gloom and misery, much to dismay of millions of inhabitants of the British isles, who just wanted to pursue something that interest them on the day.

Against all odd, however, the bank holiday on Monday this week was a rare exception: breathtakingly beautiful, sunny, warm with a cool breeze that almost enchanted you and simultaneously resonated with the chirps of hundreds of excited birds.

The spring, most beautiful season of the year, has finally arrived here.

On Monday, I managed to walk through a wooded park in West London and spotted a tall tower by its lustrous top in the morning sunlight and commanding presence in the distance - a shot tower.

Its location by a stream, the height, the structure – a wide base that narrows down in proportion to the height – and of course, the purpose reflect something that may not be as clear as the beam of rays that it reflects at the top, for a casual walker; get closer and what you see at its core is the human ingenuity, at its best – and in this case, at its loftiest.

Built in the mid-eighteenth century, the shot tower used to produce lead shots for guns.

With a continent perpetually at war, the need of mass production of the shots on a greater scale may have been felt as never before at the time.

The sheer ingenuity of the process stems not just from what it produced on mass scale; it’s the simplicity of the innovation behind it and how someone came up with it in the first place.

In order to produce the lead shots, the lead blocks were taken to the top of the tower and then melted by heating.

The molten lead is later poured through a copper sieve, directed towards a container of water at the base of the tower. That was it!

I programmed to simulate a lead lump changing its shape on its downward path – from an ellipse to a sphere – having been subjected to two natural forces, over the image of this wonderful tower.

Of course, there was a bit of physics to it, but not rocket science. As the lead lumps of predetermined size, by the holes in the copper sieve, fall through the air by the force of gravity, the forces of surface tension of molten lead shapes up the shots into perfect spheres – before they hit the water at the base.

As the process continued, the workers at the bottom of the tower were busy extracting perfect lead spheres from water, addressing an urgent need of the time – the thirst for ammunition for fighting – or defending against – wars.

The need of water to cool down explicitly explains the choice of location – by a fast flowing stream. The isolation of the shot tower, way away from the human habitation, may be due to safety concerns.

What fascinated me – and of course, all those who stated at the structure at its base in the picturesque location – was how someone came up with such an ingenious, yet simple intuitive idea.

Our history is punctuated by the instances of arrival of earth-shattering ideas from thin air or perhaps, from aether.

The celebrated Greek scientist Archimedes ran along the streets in birthday suit when he hit upon the idea of buoyancy. Kekule, the German organic chemist, saw a chain of snakes holding each other’s head while dozing off by fire, before coming up with the structure of benzene, to name, but a few.

In this context, the architect of the shot tower may have come up with the idea by accident. Some believe, as legend has it, the man behind it got the idea when he saw molten lead from a roof on fire in a church in Bristol turning into perfect spheres during freefall.

Casual observations don’t always turn into great ideas, though; as Louis Pasteiur, the French biologist, put it, ‘chance favours the prepared mind.’ In this context, the gentleman, who was instrumental in building these purposeful, magnificent structures, may have been a genius in the making.

Of course, these towers no longer are in use for producing lead shots; there are much more sophisticated ways of doing it.

They, however, still stand as the perfect monuments to British ingenuity for generations to come in spreading out inspiration cloaked up in architectural elegance.

- Asian Tribune -

The Shot Tower: a flawless monument to British ingenuity
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