The Fascinating History of Lead, aka Plumbum

The Ancient Use of Lead: From Pipes to Aqueducts

Pure (99.989 %) lead nodules and a pure (99.989 %) 1 cm3 lead cube.
Pure (99.989 %) lead nodules and a pure (99.989 %) 1 cm3 lead cube. Credit: Alchemist-hp/Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever heard the word “plumbum” used to describe lead? No, it’s not a typo, and no, it’s not just a fancy scientific name. In fact, lead is called plumbum in Latin, and it has a very interesting history.


Lead has been used by humans for thousands of years, dating back to ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians and Greeks. The metal was valued for its malleability and durability and was used in a variety of applications, including jewelry, coins, and even water pipes.


Yes, lead was often used in the pipes that carried water around ancient cities. The ancient Romans were famous for their large network of lead pipes, which allowed them to give their people clean water.

A lead pipe to supply water to the Roman spa at the city of Bath in England.
A lead pipe to supply water to the Roman spa at the city of Bath in England. Credit: Andrew Dunn/Wikimedia Commons

But why did they choose lead? Well, lead is an easy metal to work with because it is soft and malleable . It is also very resistant to corrosion , which means it doesn’t break down when exposed to water or other harsh elements.


Even though lead pipes had these benefits, they also had a big drawback. Lead is a poisonous metal, and long-term exposure can cause a wide range of health problems, including delayed development, learning problems, and even death.


In fact, the ancient Romans were well aware of the potential dangers of lead exposure. They even had a term for lead poisoning—”saturnism”—named after the god Saturn, who was associated with lead. Despite this, the Romans continued to use lead pipes for centuries, and it’s believed that the widespread use of lead in their water supply contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire.


So, why is lead called plumbum? The word plumbum comes from the Latin word for “soft metal,” which accurately describes lead’s properties. It’s also the root word for the English term “plumbing,” which refers to the system of pipes used to transport water and other liquids.


Due to how dangerous it is, lead is no longer used in water pipes. Instead, copper, plastic, and steel, which are safer, are used to move water and other fluids. But lead is still used for a lot of other things, like batteries, bullets, and even some types of glass.


Lead has a lot of uses, but it’s important to remember that it’s also dangerous and can do a lot of damage if it’s not handled properly. If you’re not sure about how safe a material or product is, it’s always best to be safe and listen to a professional.


In conclusion, lead’s history as “plumbum” is a fascinating one, with roots dating back to ancient civilizations. While lead’s toxicity means it’s no longer suitable for use in water pipes, its legacy lives on in the English language, and in the many other applications where its unique properties make it an invaluable material.

Flesch Grade Level: 9.2


Flesch Reading Ease: 62.3


Malleable: The ability of a metal to be hammered, rolled, or pressed into various shapes without breaking or cracking


Durability: The ability of a material or product to withstand wear, pressure, or damage over time, without losing its quality or effectiveness


Corrosion: The process of metal breaking down and deteriorating due to exposure to various environmental factors such as air, moisture, and chemicals


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