Monday, 28 June 2010

Prague - the one that got away

For some reason I passed up the opportunity to purchase this display item from Hardtmuth; perhaps next time.

The ones that got away


Monday, 21 June 2010

Pencil Heroes #1 : Nicolas-Jacques Conté (1755-1805)

The first of my heroes is Nicolas Conté, the man who can truly be said to be the inventor of the modern lead pencil. Prior to Conté’s time pencils had almost all been made from lumps of pure graphite, mined from the Borrowdale mine in England and sawed into strips that were then encased in wood. In 1794 all this changed when Conté, already a famous inventor and scientist was charged by his patron, Carnot, to invent a substitute for the now expensive and difficult to come by pure English graphite. It took him just 8 days to produce a workable lead. In just over a week he had invented what was to become known as the Conté process: a way to make pencil leads from powdered graphite and clay that us still, essentially, used today

Previous attempts to use graphite in powdered form (perhaps from material extracted from low quality ore in poorer mines, or in an attempt to use the waste products generated by sawing and cutting) had always foundered but Conté worked out how to mix graphite in powdered form with clay, and bake it, in such a way that not only did he produce a usable lead, but was able to make leads in varying degrees of hardness.

Nicholas Conté was, however more than just a pencil maker. He was a painter, chemist, physicist and engineer: a scientist of some repute. His reputation as an expert in balloon warfare ensured his inclusion in the party of some 200 academics and scientists to accompany Napoleon on his expedition to Egypt in 1798. On this expedition Napoleon and his forces conquered Egypt, uncovered the sphinx (which was previously almost buried under the desert) and discovered and deciphered the Rosetta Stone. Conté himself set up workshops outside Cairo where he manufactured saltpetre, bugles and, most impressively, machine tools for use in the factories set up by the invading French.When Conté demonstrated his hot air balloons to the astonished Egyptians they concluded that he was in league with the devil.

As well as his process for mixing leads, Conté is also generally credited with inventing the machinery needed to make round leads, and he can truly be said to be the creator of the pencil. Indeed, for about 100 years, pencils in France were known as the crayons Conté and of course pencils continue to be made with the Conté brand name to this day.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Grafo Conqueror

Grafo is a little-known Czech brand. This pencil dates from 1918-1989 when the country Czechoslovakia existed.

I am struck the by the typography: not CONQUEROR but CON-QUE-ROR.  Presumably this is meant to be reminiscent of the well-known KOH-I-NOOR pencils.

Monday, 7 June 2010

New Czech Pencils

I found one good stationery shop in Prague, where I bought all of these new pencils.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Virginia Woolf goes Pencil Hunting

Virginia Woolf - by CHRISTIAAN TONNIS  
No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one; moments when we are set upon having an object, an excuse for walking half across London between tea and dinner. As the foxhunter hunts in order to preserve the breed of foxes, and the golfer plays in order that open spaces may be preserved from the builders, so when the desire comes upon us to go street rambling the pencil does for a pretext, and getting up we say: "Really I must buy a pencil," as if under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest pleasure of town life in winter--rambling the streets of London.
Well, I don't think we can let that first sentence go without contradiction, but in all other respects compelling. The rest of the essay is here .

Many a pencil hunting outing of mine is brought to mind - the narrow streets above Wall Street in Manhattan where still some small independent stationers exist; the flea markets of North Paris; the Old Town in Prague, the magnificent stationery stores of Tokyo.

London is missing a stationery shop - a real, serious one.