Become a fan of h2g2
Picture this: you're driving on I-95 through Philadelphia. On your right is the picturesque Delaware River1. On your left is South Philadelphia. Just before you reach Queen Village, between Washington Avenue and Christian Street, you look up – way up – and spy a curious, tapering tower. It's old, it's made of brick, and it's 142 (!) feet high2. At its base is a neighbourhood indoor basketball court.
What in blazes is it?
That, my friends, is the first – or maybe the second – shot tower in the US.
What's a shot tower? Well, we'll tell you. After all, a story involving dropping molten lead from great heights must have some entertainment value.
In the beginning – the 18th Century, that is – many people had guns. Sensible persons used these guns solely for obtaining food by shooting animals, and for protecting themselves against animals that wished to use them for food. Any other use of a firearm was clearly illegitimate. However, this need for firearms in the obtaining of dinner, or in warding off mountain lions, bears, and wolves led even North American pacifists such as Quakers or Mennonites to have arsenals in their homes.
These guns were pistols or muskets, loaded by pouring powder down a barrel, then using a ramrod to shove in a wad of paper and a round lead shot.
Round. Shot. Not a bullet, mind you. The round part was important. Shot that was not round was dangerous stuff. It could seriously interfere with the purpose of the exercise, to the extent of destroying the firearm – and, possibly, doing the holder of said firearm a mischief.
Shot was usually made by pouring molten lead into a mould, rather in the same way Austrian and German children pour tin figures on New Year's Eve. Once the lead had cooled, the ball might have to be filed to remove any extra lead that formed a ring where the two halves of the mould met. This made making shot harder than it needed to be, but irregular shot was dangerous, as we've said. Then an Englishman had a better idea. Three cheers for Bristol.
What William Watts Knew
All great inventors start with a discovery. William Watts' discovery was that molten metal would form a perfect sphere if it fell far enough. In free fall, all external forces are effectively removed, and surface tension moulds the shot into the shape with the least surface area: a sphere. So the solution to making perfectly round musket balls was to drop molten lead from a sufficient height to let it get round. Then, if you put some water at the bottom, it would cool off. If you passed the lead through a mesh on the way down, you could get the right sizes. Pretty clever.
Watts patented his idea in 1782. The same year, he extended the height of his house in Bristol, England. So Bristol had the first shot tower. The idea caught on, and soon there were shot towers as far away as North America and Australia. The Philadelphia shot tower was built in 1808, about the same time as the one in Virginia, which is why there is some debate about which one was the first.
Here is a list of some of the shot towers still in existence, though only one of them is still in use:
Cheese Lane Shot Tower in Bristol. Built to replace the original Watts tower.
Chester Shot Tower in Broughton, UK. It's by the Shropshire Union Canal.
Clifton Hill Shot Tower in Melbourne, Australia. A late one, built in 1882. It's 160 feet (49m) tall.
Daugavpils Shot Factory Tower, Daugavpils, Latvia. 40 metres tall, and it's still in operation. Tourists are allowed to visit.
Drochtersen Shot Tower, Drochtersen, Germany. 42(!)-metre-tall tower in Lower Saxony. Belongs to the Jagd-Schrot und Hagel-Fabrik Häntler und Natermann. They don't make shot any more, not even for shooting Wolpertinger3.
Jackson Ferry Shot Tower in Wythe County, Virginia, USA. This is the one that disputes its status as 'first in the US' with the tower in Philadelphia.
Remington Shot Tower, Bridgeport, Connecticut, USA and Winchester Shot Tower, New Haven, Connecticut, USA. Well, these two gun firms would have to have their own shot towers, now, wouldn't they?
Shot towers were a boon to the ordinary farmer or settler, as those bullet moulds were expensive, raising the price of ready-made shot. On the US frontier – in the wilds of Kentucky or the Ohio Territory – making shot by hand was a tedious and, as mentioned, possibly hazardous undertaking.
Quakers and Guns4
The South Philadelphia shot tower is called the Sparks Shot Tower, after Thomas Sparks, one of the men who first built it. Sparks' partner, John Bishop, is not mentioned. We wonder why? Oh, that's an interesting story, too.
Back in the early 1800s, plumbers Thomas Sparks and John Bishop were having a discussion on the scandalously high prices of lead shot. The occasion for this discussion was a hunting expedition: they were shooting water fowl in the South Philly swamps – South Philly had more swamps than Italian restaurants in those days.
The reason for the high price of shot was a trade embargo, so it would be a good thing if the US could make its own shot. Together with their plumbing partner, James Clement, the men built the shot tower out of good Philadelphia brick. The tower was so well-made that the United States Lighthouse Board used it as a model for lighthouses.
The shot produced at the Sparks Shot Tower went a long way towards putting roast duck on Philadelphia tables. But in 1812, the US went to war against the British5. Obviously, the shot tower was going to be getting a lot of military contract business. This created a moral dilemma for John Bishop, a Quaker, who felt that while shooting ducks was perfectly all right, shooting British people wasn't6. So Bishop sold up his interest in the shot tower for conscience's sake.
The Sparks family continued to run the shot tower until 1903. By that time, other methods of manufacture had replaced the good, old-fashioned trick of dropping hot lead from the top of a tower to get a round ball. Besides, guns were using pointier bullets these days.
In 1913, the City of Philadelphia bought the shot tower and its land to make a park for the immigrants who were moving into the area. Today, the Sparks Shot Tower stands as a reminder of the past – a not-so-little oddity viewed from the road, or a city street. The entrance to the tower is sealed off, and nobody goes there any more.
Best to look up and keep moving in the direction of a good Italian restaurant.