Zinc History Pt. III: Europe Learns How to Smelt

William Champion's zinc furnace

Over 500 years after metallic zinc distillation first began in India, and 150 years after the Chinese developed a method to smelt the gray metal, zinc distillation finally found its way to Europe.

Although calamine brass production had been well understood in the region since the first brass coins were produced during in ancient Greece and Rome, there is little evidence to indicate that zinc was recognized as a unique metal until about the 16th century.

Zinc Distillation and Europe

The Renaissance scientist Paracelsus is credited as the first European to identify zinc as a distinct metal when he described the appearance of pointed metal crystals in a German lead smelter as 'zincum' in 1526 (likely deriving the term from zinke; German for pointed).

Two works published by Georgius Agricola in 1546 and 1556, which outlined methods used for silver and lead refining in Germany's Harz mountains also made reference to a white metal that deposited on the walls of furnaces. However, it would still be another two centuries before efforts were made to produce zinc metal in the region.

Anton von Swab, a Swedish chemist, was successful in his attempts to extract zinc from calamine using distillation in 1742, while Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, working independently in Germany, isolated the element from various ores a few years later in 1746.

William Champion

It was during this same period that William Champion, the son of a brass maker and a metallurgist in his own right, developed a process to vertically distil zinc using clay retorts in a fashion similar to that applied in Zawar, India.

How Champion came up with his technique is a matter of debate, but, due to the similarities between his method and those used in India, it has been suggested that he may have learned of this technology from traders or travelers to south Asia.

Champion opened Europe's first zinc smelter in Bristol - the heart of England's brass-making region - in 1743.

His operation purportedly was able to smelt 400 kilograms of the base metal in 70 hours using six retorts.

Traders in Britain, who had prospered from a thriving trade that brought zinc from China to brass-makers in Bristol and Swansea through the 17th century, responded by dropping their prices 80 percent in an unsuccessful effort to force the Englishman to abandon efforts to smelt zinc locally.

Germany and Zinc

By 1798, Germany also had its first zinc smelter in Upper Silesia while Belgian Zinc Works commenced operations at La Vieille Montague in 1805. Within a matter of years, the Belgian smelter had become the world's largest producer of refined zinc.

Research into metallurgy was rapidly advancing the production technologies for many metals in the early 19th century. The most important development in the extraction of zinc was the realization that roasting of zinc sulfide (zinc blende) could produce zinc oxide for use in the retort process. The ability to convert zinc blende, a more readily available ore type, to oxide for distillation allowed production of the metal to expand significantly. This process of calcination is still used to pretreat zinc blende at modern zinc smelters.

Zinc Galvanization and Rise of Zinc Production

Greater availability of the metal also led to more commercial applications.

And, in 1805, the development of rolled zinc, led to commercialization of zinc roofing, gutters, downpipes and even trash cans.

Another area of research that was progressing at this time was related to zinc galvanization; An industry that, 200 years later, drives demand in the modern zinc metal market.

Stanislas Sorel, a French engineer, filed a patent for using molten zinc's natural ability to protect iron against corrosion in 1837. Similar patent applications spread to Britain where, by 1856, the galvanization industry was consuming 10,000 tons of zinc.

Hot-dip zinc galvanizing was first used by iron smelters to protect their products, but with Henry Bessemer's advances in steel-making, the explosive growth in steel production in the second half of the 19th century led to an even greater demand for the metal, which was now being used to coat steel telegraph wires and structural cables.

The Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883, is reported to have used roughly 15,000 miles of zinc-coated cable in its construction.

Read More

Zinc History Pt. I: Ancient Brass Making and Indian Zinc Production
Zinc History Pt. II: Early Chinese Zinc Smelting
Zinc History Pt. III: Europe (Finally) Learns How to Smelt Zinc
Zinc History Pt. IV: Zinc in the 20th Century


Evans, Charlotte. An Anecdotal History of the Galvanizing Industry. American Galvanizers Association. March 30 1992.
URL: http://www.galvanizeit.org/uploads/publications/History_of_Galvanizing_Industry.pdf