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.

1 comment:

Gunther said...

Thank you for celebrating that hero – your post includes several details that were new to me. You wrote: "Conté is also generally credited with inventing the machinery needed to make round leads". May I ask to which specific details you are referring to? As far as I know, the matrix/nozzle that shapes the lead was introduced by Johann Faber However, it would be very difficult for me to find the source for it ;-)