Sorry, questioner, but I could find no connection to 18th century Britain. This was a difficult expression to find ‘any’ etymology on. All sources agree that it arrived in the first half of the 20th century (with a spread from about 1910 to 1930), but gave nothing beyond that and the definition. Finally found something, but sounds a bit fishy, which relates the phrase to horse racing. That wisdom was offered at the 2001 INC Magazine conference for INC 500 (their version of ‘Fortune 500’) companies (an annual event) held at Churchill Downs (Kentucky derby site in Louisville) as was reported in their magazine (see below).
American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms
GET THE LEAD OUT also GET THE LEAD OUT OF ONE’S FEET OR PANTS. Hurry up, move faster. For example, ‘Get the lead out of your pants, kids, or we’ll be late,’ or,’ even more figuratively, ‘Arthur is the slowest talker – he can’t seem to get the lead out and make his point.’ This expression implies that lead, the heaviest of the base metals, is preventing one from moving [Slang; first half of 1900’s]
Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang
GET THE LEAD OUT/OUT OF ONE’S PANTS! exclamation [1910s – still in use] hurry up! stop dawdling! get on with it! [Standard English ‘lead’ weighs one down]
Dictionary of American Slang
GET THE LEAD OUT verb phrase (Variations: ‘of’ one’s ass or ‘of’ one’s pants or ‘of’ one’s ‘feet’ may be added) by 1920’s to stop loafing; + GET ONE’S ASS IN GEAR, HUSTLE, often an irritated command: ‘Get the lead out and start writing.’
THE Alternate Usage English Dictionary
GET THE LEAD OUT: ‘is short for ‘Get the lead out of your ass/britches/butt/feet/
pants,’ which is long for "Move!" These expressions originated in
the U.S. circa 1930.
The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang
GET THE LEAD OUT [OF (ONE’S) PANTS [or (‘vulgar”) ASS] to become active; get moving; hurry.––also use allusively Also variations [Most of the pre-1933 quotes refer to WW I.]
1919 ‘Lost Squadron 5’ by Kauffman: ‘Come on, move it! Git the lead out of it! Don’ stand theah like a flock of dam’ sheep!
1926, ‘Saturday Evening Post’ (Oct. 23) 134: ‘Take the lead out of your shoes! A little speed!
1926, ‘What Price Glory?’ (film) [Scenario] by Donahue: ‘Get the lead out of your pants.’
INC MAGAZINE: September 1, 2001
Highlights from our annual Inc 500 conference
The festivities included a visit to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, where some of the most intensely competitive people in business learned a thing or two about competition. They were told, for example, about putting lead weights on jockeys to equalize the load carried by each horse in a race. The phrase GET THE LEAD OUT refers to the onetime practice of dumping the weights on the backstretch, thus reducing the horse's load and giving it an advantage. Now jockeys are weighed at the conclusion of each race to make sure they still have their weights. At the conclusion of this year's black-tie award ceremony, which closed the conference, no CEOs were weighed.
Fell free to skip the following note (if your attention span is too short and/or you are not interested in interesting etymological detail) - some souls have complained in the past. Just want those to know that they are not being forced to read this, or anything!)
Note: In a so-called HANDICAP RACE, in order to equalize chances of winning, an artificial disadvantage is imposed on a supposedly superior contestant or an artificial advantage is given to one supposedly inferior. These may take the form of points, strokes, weight to be carried, or distance from the target or goal, in order to equalize chances of winning and may be based on such factors as age, previous performance, etc. In handicap horse racing, in particular, horses are allotted lead weights, which depend upon the type of event (equal weight, weight-for-age, . . .) and which are decided upon by folks called ‘handicappers.’ A weight-for-age race is a race where weights are allotted to each horse according to its age under some standard weight-for-age established scale. In a steeplechase, or hurdle race, a weight of 28 pounds (13 kg) called a WELTERWEIGHT is assigned to each horse in addition to the poundage assigned based on the age of the horse (a race in which a horse wears welterweights is sometimes called a ‘welter.’ A rider of such a race who is a little chubbier than your average skinny jockey is also called a ‘welterweight.’ And, if you’re wondering where this is all going, the term eventually spilled over into boxing to characterize a boxer who was a bit chubbier than the lightweights. A welterweight boxer is intermediate between a lightweight and a middleweight and may weigh up to 147 pounds (67 kg) – always wondered where that term came from! And, oh yes, back to horse racing. Tossing your lead weights to the ground before reaching the finish line is the probably the purported provenance of that proffered pithy prose – GET THE LEAD OUT!
There is an odor about this Churchill Downs derivation. Although it sounds good, I would view the authenticity of INC’s claim with some skepticism. Groups (e.g. horse racing, military, . . . ) often love to claim ownership of such items – in fact, I’m surprised I didn’t see any military claims on ‘get the lead out.’ Bogus etymologies are made up to sound reasonable – that’s their job. I find it odd that none of the reliable sources I checked out could come up with this story, if it WAS (O’Connor – if not undeniable contrary to fact, use was), in fact, actually authentic. They are usually not shy about including even a pretty good unauthenticated story, if is popular, or if there is a chance that it might be true (with appropriate caveats, of course).
Any further thoughts or knowledge on this one would be appreciated.
Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, Colorado – U.S.A.)
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)