Prehistory and early history
Metallic lead beads dating back to 7000–6500 BCE
have been found in Asia Minor
and may represent the first example of metal smelting
At that time lead had few (if any) applications due to its softness and dull appearance.
The major reason for the spread of lead production was its association with silver, which may be obtained by burning galena (a common lead mineral).
The Ancient Egyptians
were the first to use lead minerals in cosmetics, an application that spread to Ancient Greece
the Egyptians may have used lead for sinkers in fishing nets, glazes
, and for ornaments.
Various civilizations of the Fertile Crescent
used lead as a writing material, as currency, and for construction.
Lead was used in the Ancient Chinese
royal court as a stimulant
and as a contraceptive
the Indus Valley civilization
and the Mesoamericans
used it for making amulets; and the eastern and southern African peoples used lead in wire drawing
Ancient Greek lead sling bullets with a winged thunderbolt molded on one side and the inscription "ΔΕΞΑΙ" ("take that" or "catch") on the other side
Marie-Lan Nguyen, public domain
Because silver was extensively used as a decorative material and an exchange medium, lead deposits came to be worked in Asia Minor since 3000 BCE; later, lead deposits were developed throughout Mediterranea.
territorial expansion in Europe and across the Mediterranean, and its development of mining, led to it becoming the greatest producer of lead during the classical era
, with an estimated annual output peaking at 80,000 tonnes. Like their predecessors, the Romans obtained lead mostly as a by-product of silver smelting.
This metal was by far the most used material in classical antiquity, and it is appropriate to refer to the (Roman) Lead Age. Lead was to the Romans what plastic is to us.
Heinz Eschnauer and Markus Stoeppler
"Wine—An enological specimen bank", 1992
Lead was used for making water pipes
; the Latin
word for the metal, plumbum
, is the origin of the English word "plumbing
". Its ease of working and resistance to corrosion
ensured its widespread use in other applications including pharmaceuticals, roofing, currency, and warfare.
Writers of the time recommended lead (or lead-coated) vessels for the preparation of sweeteners and preservatives
added to wine and food. The lead conferred an agreeable taste due to the formation of "sugar of lead" (lead(II) acetate), whereas copper or bronze
vessels could impart a bitter flavor through verdigris
The Roman author Vitruvius
reported the health dangers of lead
and modern writers have suggested that lead poisoning played a major role in the decline of the Roman Empire.[m]
Other researchers have criticized such claims, pointing out, for instance, that not all abdominal pain is caused by lead poisoning.
According to archaeological research, Roman lead pipes
increased lead levels in tap water but such an effect was "unlikely to have been truly harmful".
When lead poisoning did occur, victims were called "saturnine", dark and cynical, after the ghoulish father of the gods, Saturn
. By association, lead was considered the father of all metals.
Its status in Roman society was low as it was readily available
Confusion with tin and antimony
During the classical era (and even up to the 17th century), tin was often not distinguished from lead: Romans called lead plumbum nigrum
("black lead"), and tin plumbum candidum
("bright lead"). The association of lead and tin can be seen in other languages: the word olovo
translates to "lead", but in Russian
) means "tin".
To add to the confusion, lead bore a close relation to antimony: both elements commonly occur as sulfides (galena and stibnite
), often together. Pliny incorrectly wrote that stibnite would give lead on heating, instead of antimony.
In countries such as Turkey and India, the originally Persian name surma
came to refer to either antimony sulfide or lead sulfide,
and in some languages, such as Russian, gave its name to antimony (сурьма).
Middle Ages and the Renaissance
Lead mining in Western Europe declined after the fall of the Western Roman Empire
, with Arabian Iberia
being the only region having a significant output.
The largest production of lead occurred in South and East Asia, especially China and India, where lead mining grew strongly.
Elizabeth I of England
was commonly depicted with a whitened face. Lead in face whiteners is thought to have contributed to her death.
Nicholas Hilliard, public domain
In Europe, lead production only began to revive in the 11th and 12th centuries, when it was again used for roofing and piping. Starting in the 13th century, lead was used to create stained glass
In the European
traditions of alchemy
, lead was considered an impure base metal
which, by the separation, purification and balancing of its constituent essences, could be transformed to pure and incorruptible gold.
During the period, lead was used increasingly for adulterating
wine. The use of such wine was forbidden for use in Christian rites by a papal bull
in 1498, but it continued to be imbibed and resulted in mass poisonings up to the late 18th century.
Lead was a key material in parts of the printing press
, which was invented around 1440; lead dust was commonly inhaled by print workers, causing lead poisoning.
Firearms were invented at around the same time, and lead, despite being more expensive than iron, became the chief material for making bullets. It was less damaging to iron gun barrels, had a higher density (which allowed for better retention of velocity), and its lower melting point made the production of bullets easier as they could be made using a wood fire.
Lead, in the form of Venetian ceruse
, was extensively used in cosmetics by Western European aristocracy as whitened faces were regarded as a sign of modesty.
This practice later expanded to white wigs and eyeliners, and only faded out with the French Revolution
in the late 18th century. A similar fashion appeared in Japan in the 18th century with the emergence of the geishas
, a practice that continued long into the 20th century. The white faces of women "came to represent their feminine virtue as Japanese women",
with lead commonly used in the whitener.
Outside Europe and Asia
In the New World
, lead was produced soon after the arrival of European settlers. The earliest recorded lead production dates to 1621 in the English Colony of Virginia
, fourteen years after its foundation.
In Australia, the first mine opened by colonists on the continent was a lead mine, in 1841.
In Africa, lead mining and smelting were known in the Benue Trough
and the lower Congo Basin
, where lead was used for trade with Europeans and as a currency by the 17th century,
well before the scramble for Africa
John Barber and Henry Howe, public domain
In the second half of the 18th century, Britain, and later continental Europe and the United States, experienced the Industrial Revolution
. This was the first time during which production rates exceeded those of Rome.
Britain was the leading producer, losing this status by the mid-19th century with the depletion of its mines and the development of lead mining in Germany, Spain, and the United States.
By 1900, the United States was the leader in global lead production, and other non-European nations—Canada, Mexico, and Australia—had begun significant production; production outside Europe exceeded that within.
A great share of the demand for lead came from plumbing and painting—lead paints
were in regular use.
At this time, more (working class) people were exposed to the metal and lead poisoning cases escalated. This led to research into the effects of lead intake. Lead was proven to be more dangerous in its fume form than as a solid metal. Lead poisoning and gout
were linked. The effects of chronic ingestion of lead, including mental disorders, were also studied in the 19th century. The first laws aimed at decreasing lead poisoning in factories were enacted during the 1870s and 1880s in the United Kingdom.
Promotional poster for Dutch Boy
lead paint, United States, 1912
Dutch Boy paints, public domain
Further evidence of the threat that lead posed to humans was discovered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mechanisms of harm were better understood, lead blindness was documented, and the element was phased out of public use in the United States and Europe. The United Kingdom introduced mandatory factory inspections in 1878 and appointed the first Medical Inspector of Factories in 1898; as a result, a 25-fold decrease in lead poisoning incidents from 1900 to 1944 was reported.
The last major human exposure to lead was the addition of tetraethyllead to gasoline as an antiknock agent
, a practice that originated in the United States in 1921. It was phased out in the United States and the European Union
Most European countries banned lead paint—commonly used because of its opacity and water resistance
—for interiors by 1930.
In the 1970s, the United States and Western European countries introduced legislation to reduce lead air pollution.
The impact was significant: the share of people in the United States with elevated blood lead levels
fell from 77.8% in 1976–1980 to 2.2% in 1991–1994.
The main product made of lead by the end of the 20th century was the lead–acid battery
which posed no direct threat to humans. From 1960 to 1990, lead output in the Western Bloc
grew by a third.
The share of the world's lead production by the Eastern Bloc
increased from 10% to 30%, from 1950 to 1990, with the Soviet Union
being the world's largest producer during the mid-1970s and the 1980s, and China starting major lead production in the late 20th century.
Unlike the European communist countries, China was largely unindustrialized by the mid-20th century; in 2004, China surpassed Australia as the largest producer of lead.
As was the case during European industrialization, lead has had a negative effect on health in China.