Graphite: it’s no one-year wonder, as history shows
A scan back over the past 100 years might be in order for some of today’s mainstream media commentators and reporters on the subject of graphite. Graphene is the new black to them — until the next thing comes along. Fifty or so years ago, it was graphite as the answer to aircraft weight problems, 40 years ago it was the graphite fishing rod. And we mustn’t forget the dream of the “all-British pencil”.
But, as we will see, graphite has been on the technology breakthrough trail for many decades, graphene just being the latest wrinkle.
What with graphene and all, you could be be forgiven for believing from the coverage of graphite in the mainstream media is that the latter is something that has just emerged from the shadows. Of course that is not the case.
In fact, graphite has a rich and prolific history. We won’t go back to 1761 when Kaspar Faber sold his first pencil containing graphite, but just the past century will do. Here are just a few snapshots:
1918: The Wall Street Journal reported that “just over the border in Canada is the little town of Hague” which was home to extensive graphite mines. The Dixon Company’s drawing pencil, the El Dorado, had become a big earner during the First World War when all pencils from Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including the famed Kohr-i-noor model from Vienna, were unavailable. A year earlier the US Geological Service had produced a pamphlet on graphite showing that the biggest American graphite mines were located in three Alabama counties, while miners were also up and running in New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Rhode Island. New York also had the largest artificial graphite industry at Niagara Falls where graphite was made in electric furnaces.
1921: The Los Angeles Times reported on the growth of graphite operations in Los Angeles County. It had all came about thanks to two horses that wandered off in the night when, in 1913, A.R. Plumb and George A. Skinner were camping. It was their hunt up the San Francisquito Canyon that lead to the graphite discovery, upon which they had founded a company. The resource contained 1 million tons of graphite with graphite grading between 17% and 45%. The paper said the graphite was used for lubricants, lead pencils, and “polish for gunpowder, electrodes and brushes”.
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1924: The Times of India reported discoveries of high grade graphite in Madagascar. But the newspaper was even more excited two years later when graphite was found just 60 miles from Nairobi in Kenya. The newspaper’s Nairobi correspondent said this, along with the ready availability in Kenya of cedar wood, for the development of an “all-British pencil” to compete with foreign-made ones. (Will someone now start the hunt to rediscover these graphite deposites?)
1969: Again, it was the Los Angeles Times in the forefront of graphite news, reporting that the US Air Force was investigating the use of graphite and boron composites (40% lighter than aluminium, said the paper) for use in engine casings, fan blades, flaps, stabilisers and speed brakes. The USAF had let contracts worth $12 million to Northrop, General Dynamics and Pratt & Whitney, to research the prospects of graphite.
1975: The latest thing: the new graphite fishing rods.You could buy a glass rod for $25, but the new-fangled ones set anglers back $125 or more. The company making them said the graphite rods vibrated less than the glass ones, allowing more accurate casting (and being able to throw the line further). It wasn’t long, either, before Dunlop was marketing a graphite tennis racket.
Sure, graphene is big. But it’s not the first graphite excitement the world has seen (and surely won’t be the last).
Footnote: Just 13 years before Ponzi schemes got their name, the graphite industry was at it. Well, actually, it wasn’t: it was a company pretending to a graphite enterprise (although it seems to illustrate that graphite was as much of a lure back then as it is now for the leap-before-they-look type of investor).
In 1907, the officers of the United States Graphite Company based in Philadelphia had an idea that would serve Bernard Madoff well a century later. They issued, over a period of time, $410,000 worth of stock in $1 shares. The first and then ensuring investors were paid generous dividends, eight in all, each one financed by money supplied by the latest wave of new shareholders. There was, of course, no graphite business. (And we must be fair to one Charles Ponzi, whose name became attached to the simple but illegal concept; Ponzi, unlike Madoff and the U.S. Graphite Company boys, did actually have a business when he started up in 1920 whereby he arbitraged between international reply coupons and postage stamps. The problem for Charlie is that it got out of hand, and it was easier after a time just to adopt the Madoff model). But the graphite people ended up the same: their names on the police blotter.
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