Today (21 October) marks a lesser-celebrated anniversary, the 205th, of Nelson's triumph at Trafalgar.
Lord Nelson's innovative combat tactics and his fleet's discipline are often cited as the twin towers of success at the most remarkable sea battle in history.
There is a quiet hero in this tale, however, whose name is often overlooked. Hailing from Wales, flexible yet resilient with a lustrous orangey sheen. No, it's not Gavin Henson. It's copper.
Element number 29, copper, was one of the first elements to be discovered and used by mankind. 10,000 years ago people in the Middle East were using tools and making jewellery from copper, and a few thousand years later smelting it had become a central pillar of civilisation. When alloying was invented, copper and zinc were combined into one of the most popular alloys in history: bronze. More recently copper found use in art, architecture, economy and science, and it's the latter point we'll look at here.
Using copper to coat the bottom of a boat was suggested in the early 18th century, but a trial on the HMS Alarm in 1761 wasn't entirely successful. While the copper prevented weed growth and other sea damage, the copper bolts reacted with the iron bolts holding the ship together, rendering both almost useless. This electrolysis reaction was not understood or even anticipated, and the man to discover it would be born too late to help.
Sir Humphry Davy - chemist and physicist extraordinaire - was a force to be reckoned with in 18th and 19th century science. He discovered many minerals and elements, electrolysis (thereby discovering even more elements) and invented the Davy lamp, which provided for miners' safety for years to come.
Davy investigated copper's properties by leaving copper bars in the sea to examine its effect on the metal and its alloys. Copper would quickly corrode on its own, lessening its hull-protecting powers, but Davy noticed that a combination of cast iron and copper gave minimal corrosion.
Back in the late 1770s, however, the Admiralty were faced with an expensive proposition: coppering Britain's entire fleet. This was initially rejected, as the cost was enormous, but as the country's war with America intensified, and it entered into new conflict with France, Spain and the Netherlands, there was little choice. In July 1779 the order was given that each ship up to 44-gun size was to be coppered when next in dry dock, and eventually practicalities meant this order was expanded to every ship in the fleet.
As luck would have it, a Welsh mine in Anglesey had just begun a huge operation and the price of copper plummeted. The Parys Mountain mine was the source of a huge amount of copper, which was brought for smelting through Swansea, whose copper was known as the purest in the world. The town was nicknamed "Copperopolis" for a time, later exporting its metal around the world. The whole British fleet was outfitted with Swansea copper, which for the remaining years of the war kept it shipshape with little maintenance or cleaning.
By the end of the war with America in 1783 (the signing of the Treaty of Paris), the damage to the ships' iron bolts was in some cases irreparable. Bronze was found to be a suitable replacement and, again at huge cost, the Admiralty set about a rebolting project for the entire fleet. This took a few years but set up the British fleet as the most resilient, the fastest and most technologically advanced in the world. The ships could stay at sea for longer, turn faster and required less mainentance than any other nation's.
The 19th century began with the series of wars with Emperor Napoleon that changed the fate of Europe forever, and paved the way for Britain's own empire that at its peak spanned a quarter of the globe. A defining moment in those battles was 205 years ago today, the legendary Battle of Trafalgar, in which Lord Horatio Nelson led his fleet in a bold and surprising two-line attack against Vice Admiral Villeneuve.
The two nimble columns of the British fleet were able to outmaneouvre the cumbersome line of the Coalition ships. Despite being outmanned and outgunned, the battle was an overwhelming success for Nelson's fleet, culminating in the utter defeat of the French with minimal losses on the British side - with the notable exception of the Admiral Lord Nelson himself.
Wellington would soon defeat Napoleon at the equally famous Battle of Waterloo, but today, 21 October, we remember the courageous tactics of Nelson, his bold sacrifice, the completion of the action by Admiral Collingwood, and that oft-forgotten element of success: copper.