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
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
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
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
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