the shot tower

In downtown Baltimore just north of Little Italy where President Street turns into the Jones Falls Expressway at East Fayette, there is the structure originally named the Phoenix Shot Tower. Constructed in 1828, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence (Charles Carroll) laid the cornerstone. The Shot Tower, made of one million bricks, at 234 feet, was the tallest building in this country until the completion of Trinity Church in New York City in 1846 and remained the tallest free standing masonry building in the country until the Washington Monument was finished in Washington, DC in 1884.

For 64 years, measured amounts of molten lead were dropped from the top of the tower into a vat of cold water at the bottom. The surface tension of the falling lead shaped it into perfect spheres that, once solidified, were sold in 25 lb. bags as shot for rifles, pistols, and even cannons. 100,000 bags a year. 160 million pounds of shot over the manufacturing life of the tower.

Here’s how the physics of it worked: surface tension’s all about cohesion. Molecules of one liquid (the molten lead in this case) are attracted to like molecules (the rest of the amount of dropped lead), and the molecules on the surface of the liquid, falling over 200 feet through the tower—the molecules on the outside, exposed to the air—are more attracted to the rest of the lead than to the air. Add to that the fact that the surface area of a sphere is the smallest possible, in relation to volume, and so it is, given the opportunity, lead draws in upon itself, like drawn to like, minimizing exposure to unlike—until quenched in cold water—frozen, in spherical, drawn-in-upon-itself form.

The naturalness with which a faith community draws like to like, draws in upon itself, defining itself against what surrounds it, is surface tension. But as children of God, we live—are supposed to live—are called to live—with the tension inherent to the presence of the God who hovers over the surface of the depths—calling us beyond the easy appeal of like to like—calling us to the counter-intuitive discipline of embracing unlike—embracing otherness—calling us to resist natural surface tension.

All too often, we shy away from the blunt and explicit challenge of our faith with which we are called to confront both ourselves and our culture: God wants you to resist who you are. God wants you to be other than how you are. God wants you to incarnate—to manifest the otherness—the Holy Otherness—of God.

Now that’s some depth tension!


3 thoughts on “the shot tower

  1. very loosely associated bit of trivia–the site of the shot tower is also the site of the First Baptist Church of Baltimore Town–a meeting house, dwelling for the pastor, and school house were erected on this site in 1773. There’s a marker mounted on the shot tower about this.

  2. Understanding even basic physics is a challenge, but it does seem that the laws of physics are fairly absolute, aren’t they? Thinking about the “physics” of faith community, those natural tendencies that we are called to resist…well, it’s like going against the laws of physics, sort of anti-physics. Some have heard my story of how I came to conclude that faith is counter-intuitive after hearing Greg’s story about tubing in rapids. When I bought my car, it was my first car with antilock brakes. The dealer explained in detail how they worked, and urged me to read the manual so I would know what to expect, which I did. The first time they engaged, when I tried to slow down on a snowy road to make a turn, I was alarmed by the bumping and noise . My intuition told me something was terribly wrong, and I took my foot off of the brake pedal. The turn was aborted. Nothing bad happened, I just didn’t go where I wanted to go. So I had been told what to do, I had read what to do, but it wasn’t until I took the car out on a snowy road and practiced, to get the feel of it, that I was able to counter-intuitively trust the brakes, resist the urge to take my foot off of the pedal. I think faith is like that. For me it takes thought (preaching, teaching, contemplation?) and practice (application, discipline?). Following our natural tendencies, most of the time, nothing bad happens, but nothing good happens either.

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