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No. 1262:
Eighteenth-Century Environmental Disaster

Today, an 18th-century environmental disaster. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Historian Morton Briggs tells how rains swept the tip of Brittany in the late summer of 1773. Terrible storms on August 19th and 20th, and then more heavy rain in the weeks that followed. Rains washed through local lead mines and leached contaminants out of the tailings. Then they found their way into the Aulne River. The river overflowed and flooded the surrounding farmlands.

After the flood, fish died and plants that'd survived the flood withered as though they'd been burned. Great bald patches of lead-poisoned land still mark the region today. Many of those farms lay on the large estate of the Countess Nevet de Coigny. The following year brought letters from her tenants: "We can't pay the rent. Help us to fix the damage."

The countess had married into the aristocratic Coigny family when she was young. When she was thirty, her husband got himself killed in a foolish duel. He left her widowed with three children. Now she ruled the huge land-holdings of the estate, and she wasn't about to take a loss of revenue lying down. First she wrote the French minister of finance seeking reparations. When the minister brushed her off, she took the mine owners to court.

She knew the lawsuit would be long and complex. The mine owners in Paris hired the noted scientist, Duhamel, as an expert witness. They threw money (but not themselves) into the fray. Soon mine operators in Brittany were asking the mine owners to pay closer attention. For the countess really did have a strong case.

She won her suit in 1776. She and her tenants were awarded a little over 4000 livres. That was around one twentieth of the mine owners' annual profits. It was a victory, but a modest one, and it was soon forgotten.

The literature of the late 18th century was just creating a new and romantic view of nature. Writers like Sir Walter Scott sang the beauty of nature's wild forces. Initially, that vision lived in a world apart. It only gradually became clear that the engines of modern life were making raw nature look very good by comparison.

Denis Diderot issued the last volumes of his great encyclopaedia of the arts and sciences the year the countess won her case. That great set of books expressed the Rationalist theme of scientific detachment. Diderot still treated technology though it were a thing apart from the society it served. But in those days no one brought environmental worries to any discussions of technology. So, when all was said and done, the countess had only won her case. She had not, by any means, put us on our guard against other environmental threats.

The faint odor of mine tailings still hangs over those bare patches of ground in Brittany. We've all but forgotten the countess and the lead mines. They're only ghosts that watch us struggle with the same issues -- two centuries later.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Briggs, J. M., Pollution in Poullaouen. Technology and Culture, Vol. 38, No. 3, July 1997, pp. 635-654.