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The Leaning Tower of Nevyansk and ‘Old Sable’ (Russia Wrought) Iron

The following is an article written by Lloyd, having visited Russia this past Summer.

Lloyd 1st

At the start of August, I was lucky enough to be invited to visit Russia by a Structural Engineer who I have spoken with for the past 4years. Given the language barrier, visiting sites of interest came to be good ice breakers during the week!

One particular place has stuck with me and that is the town of Nevyansk in the Sverdlovsk Oblast, highlighted in the map above. During the back end of the 17th Century, Peter The Great pushed for Iron production in the Ural Mountains (known for being rich of precious ore and stones) which kicked started what has been called the “golden age for Russian Iron” – Nevyansk being the first, and then largest production town in this era.

In 1702, the town, with its surrounding plants and factories, were town handed over to the Demidov family. To which 28 years, a tower was commissioned close to the towns’ reservoir. The purpose of the tower was for administration and also development in iron production (in a secret laboratory!).

Seemed appropriate to me, a developing town getting a name for itself across Europe and Asia for its’ high quality and quantity of Iron production – it needed a central base. Although, mystery lies in the second phase of the tower construction. 

Lloyd 2nd

To this day, it is still unclear why this second phase was constructed. As you can see from the photo above, the “Lean” in the “Leaning Tower of Nevyansk” comes from subsidence in the first phase. The second, renaissance-style phase is constructed slightly more vertically from the tower below.

There are many myths that come with how or why this subsidence came about. One is that the prison cellar to the tower was used to forge counterfeit coins, and on alert of a government inspection, the entire cellar was flooded, which over time drained washing parts of the sub-grade away creating the lean. Another is Nikita Demidov was such a fan of Italian Architecture (…I’ll give you one guess), he commissioned the tower to have a purpose lean, to which the second phase was then built vertical-at-best in effort to counteract any further settlements.

I’d discovered a number of Structural and Architectural wonders during my tour (that I could write pages about), so here is a brief list;

  • One side of the towers wall construction was over 1.0m thick (with an entrance to the secret laboratory (calm down, I’m getting to that) within.
  • Early use Iron rod ties through the entire width of the tower with visible spreader plates outside – can be seen around the first phase permiter.
  • The first recorded use of a composite beam/flitch plate can be found on the top floor - two standard wrought Iron joists with an ‘Old Sable’ Iron joist between.
  • Benjamin Franklin designed the first lightning rod in 1752 – the Towers’ lightning rod was built in 1732.
  • The first section of the second phase contains a ‘whispering hall’ – the exact same symmetrical dome as that in St. Pauls Cathedral, London.
  • Nikita Demidov eventually sold the tower and its surrounding mines (including 25 silver mines) to an American buyer, who accepted the price made, but demanded a full breakdown of where is money was going. The entire tower including all its assets (except one item) was priced at 4207rubels – the British made clock (designers unknown) that still runs today: 5000rubels.

It is a shame that the designers of the tower are also not known, though I am sure they were well respected for this remarkable tower – or drowned in the cellar.

The main point I have wanted to share with you, having read this far, is the global influence this town and its’ factories had on construction methods in the 18th century onwards. 

Lloyd 3rd

Here is the only original iron door that leads to the secret laboratory between the first and ‘second’ floor. It was in this lab that the Wrought Iron ‘Old Sable’ was developed.

This advancement in Iron production from this small town had word spread of its quality across all of Europe and Asia - the ‘Old Sable’ (marked with a small Sable) has been used to construct: the roof of the White House, Washington;  the internal frame of the Statue of Liberty, New York; the roof tiles of the Palace of Westminster, London and the Eiffel Tower, Paris.