History Undusted: Plumbago vs. Graphite

Pencil, Carpenter'sMy husband and I had a discussion tonight (as one does) about which came first – Plumbago, or Graphite.  Being the curious types, I had to find out before he went to bed (me, being the night owl).  Here’s the low-down:

The English term Plumbago came into the language via Latin for a type of black lead ore.  In the 1500s, a large deposit of this ore was found in Cumbria, England; this particular vein was so compact and pure that it could be sawn into sticks, and it holds the record to this day of being the only large-scale solid ore deposit.  It wasn’t long before its value was recognised, and subsequently monopolised by the English Crown.  Long live the king and all that.  When the Crown had enough to last them awhile, they would flood the mines to prevent theft.  How clever is that?  Right.  The English folk have long been resourceful blokes, and they smuggled “lead” (carbon) out for pencil production and a bit of dosh on the side.  I wonder how they drained the flooded mine shafts?

It was used as a strategic secret by the British to make smoother cannon balls:  They would take the native ore, in its powdery form, and smooth it along the insides of their cannon ball moulds, allowing them to slip the molten hot ball out of the form intact.  It gave them a great advantage over conventional (enemy) artillery as it was more aerodynamic, and could inflict more damage more accurately.  During the Battle of Trafalgar, so many French bodies were stacked on their decks that, when seen by the British officers boarding the conquered ships, it shocked even war-hardened military men.  But I digress.

In 1789 a German mineralogist, Abraham Gottlob Werner, coined the term Graphit, from the Greek word graphein, meaning “write”, because it was at length used in pencils.  The first sticks of lead were wrapped in strips of leather to support the soft lead.  England held the monopoly on that until a way was found by the Germans (as early as the mid-1660s) to reconstitute powdered lead.  The German word made it into English around 1796.

So there you have it:  Plumbago wins by a long shot over (the bow of) Graphite.

If you’re interested in seeing how pencils are made, click here for a 10-minute YouTube video.

Originally posted 31

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4 Comments

Filed under Etymology, History, History Undusted, Military History, Research, Science & Technology

4 responses to “History Undusted: Plumbago vs. Graphite

  1. Interesting bit of information. I like plumbago more than graphite.

  2. Was something accidentally edited out? Graphite is a form of carbon that was erroneously called “black lead” and is used in the cores of pencils. Actual lead is not used in pencil cores, but the post never mentions “carbon” and reads as if “black lead” is indeed a form of lead (as in “smuggled lead out” and “sticks of lead were wrapped in strips of leather to support the soft lead”).

    The first paragraph in
    http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2010/11/why-pencil-lead-is-called-lead/
    seems to be about the same graphite deposit discussed in the post, tho I do not know English place names well enough to be sure.

    • I didn’t edit anything out; most people know graphite by the generic term of “lead” even though no lead was harmed in the making of pencils. Carbon is what is still used today; there’s a short video link at the end of the article, for those interested in watching the whole modern process.
      Thank you for the link – it adds a few interesting tidbits of history.

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