Bizarre History of Graphite and Its Uses

The beginnings of graphite are lost in time. We suspect it started being used in the early 16th century and there are many anecdotal legends of its discovery. Later, in Napoleon’s time, the modern pencil with graded darkness came into being. That is a tale of war and intrigue. In between those two eras, graphite, or black wad, as it was then called, was the subject of high adventure in the English Lake District. By the 1700s, Borrowdale housed the only major graphite mine in the world.

Ruins of Borrowdale Graphite Mine – Image:

It was a couple of centuries since graphite had first been discovered there. It was initially used for marking and writing in a crude way. Basic pencils were invented and were quite the rage with artists, because you could write and draw without soiling your hands with ink.

Graphite FindID 773522
“A chunk of what appears to be graphite, probably the soft and pure type found naturally occurring in the UK in Borrowdale, Cumbria” – Image: Wikimedia Commons

It was soon discovered that graphite was a great lubricant and molding material. It allowed the manufacture of superior cannon balls and bullets, and that’s when things got interesting. Queen Elizabeth I brought in German miners to set up operations in Borrowdale and graphite became one of the most expensive substances in the world.

Gilberts Level, Borrowdale Graphite Mine – Image:

As with diamond or gold mines even today, workers in the Borrowdale mines were thoroughly searched when leaving their shift to prevent theft. The mined graphite was transported to London under armed guard for auctioning, guards provided by the Queen. And when there was a glut and graphite prices threatened to go down, the mines were flooded to protect the merchandise and prevent further extraction.

Back then, the graphite was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s money per ton. So naturally, many thieves big and small operated in the Borrowdale region over the years. Some of their tales survive in records. The Dandy Wad-Stealer, was one such character; That must be an interesting story we may never know. There was also Black Sal, a woman who might have met her end chased-down by hounds during one of her heists. A man called William Hetherington pretended to dig a copper mine on his property but had a secret door which led him into the graphite deposits under his neighbor’s land.

Much of this was clandestine thievery and organised smuggling, but it also sometimes got heated. Gunfire was exchanged between royal guards and armed thieves on more than one occasion.

In time, an alternative means of moulding metal in sand reduced the demand for pure Borrowdale wad. In France, a new technique of pencil making made high quality pure graphite unnecessary. But for a while there, swords and guns clashed over the humble stick of graphite, and brave and greedy graphite bandits roamed free and rich across the English countryside, their hands stained in black.

Watch Inky Memo reviews of graphite pencils we love on the links below,

  1. Apsara Platinum Extra Dark Pencil –
  2. Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 –
  3. Faber-Castell Black Matt 1111 Drawing Pencils –
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