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Shot Tower Historical State Park, Austinville, VA

gkat_122.pdf36° 52 8.52 N, 80° 52 14.27 W

The Science of the Simple

Some of the simplest things are full of interesting science. Take making lead shot. In 1782 a British man named William Watts patented a method of making lead shot that involved pouring molten lead through a copper sieve and letting it fall a long distance before being cooled in a pool of water.

He built a tower in Bristol, England, and went to work. His tower is long gone, but others around the world from Melbourne to Virginia are still standing, testaments to a really simple technology with lots of science behind it.

Of course, Watts was less concerned with the science than with the result. But if he’d asked, “How does this work?” the answers would have covered surface tension, intramolecular forces, and terminal velocity. But before getting into that, visit the shot tower still standing in the Shot Tower Historical State Park in Virginia.

That shot tower was built in 1807 and has an unusual design—the tower is almost 23 meters tall, with a hole cut into the ground that extends the distance the lead shot could drop by another 23 meters. At the bottom of the shaft was a kettle filled with water, which was accessed by a horizontal shaft that led from the bank of the nearby New River (also a handy water supply for refilling the kettle).

The tower stands in the state ...

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