EDITOR: | July 17th, 2014 | 5 Comments

Graphite: it’s no one-year wonder, as history shows

| July 17, 2014 | 5 Comments

hague_graphiteA 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”.

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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  • vacuum

    Interesting article. In a way like the visiiscitudes of Arizona realty. … By the way, just beginning now the politically left type of person is beginning to talk about graphene. There’s talk of graphene in Seattle coffee shops. They missed it before because it is part of the natural resources sector, and these types of people hate gold or anything manly. But now they are talking about it but from a technologoy standpoint. They always like to think of themselves as smarter than everyone else and also very techie. They like tech only because they hate God, and guns and gold. … Won’t be too long before they realize graphene comes from carbon, and carbon is what they have blamed for all the world’s problems. They are going to be in a real corundum [sic]. But since their moral conscience never is integrated, they just won’t call it carbon, but instead graphite. They will tout a graphite revolution, not a carbon one. And because they are talking about graphite, instead of carbon, in connection with graphene, this should help the graphite miners gain a wider audience. People will think graphite miners and graphene are contiguous.

    ps. check out Geodex’s (GXM.v) webpage. It appears that Robin has caught the ear of the board with his articles over the years!!

    July 16, 2014 - 4:35 AM

    • Fred

      It may not be in our lifetimes, but carbon will eventually be heralded as the savior of mankind. The global warming/climate change (Was there ever a time on earth when the climate didn’t change?) people didn’t do their homework. They forgot about ice aces. During the last million years, 90% of the time the earth has been in an ice age. Geologists view current times as just a brief warm spot before the next installment. Very many geologists think we are chronologically closer to the next ice age, than the last one. Main stream geologists are predicting the next ice age as starting as soon as 500 years from now. History has recorded episodes of mini ice ages, when temperatures dropped and crops failed globally. But, as a whole, glaciers have been melting ever since the last ice age, 15,000 years ago.

      But we know what causes ice ages, right? Not really. There’s a prevalent theory concerning the earth’s place in space, relative to the sun. Most deep thought on the matter considers this to be necessary, but not sufficient, to cause ice ages. The statistical correlation is strong, but not as strong as it should be. There clearly are other factors, and the serious scientists don’t dispute this, but can’t agree upon what these other factors are. So we can’t predict much based upon theories. So we look backwards for trends. And, looking at previous trends in ice ages, I wouldn’t worry too much about global warming.

      July 17, 2014 - 11:44 AM

  • Sharron

    A little history from my part of the woods is in 1889 graphite was discovered on the shore of Whitefish Lake, Renfrew County. This later became Ontario`s richest graphite mine, the Black Donald Mine. The graphite mine location is now under the waters of Black Donald Lake. People may visit the town site by scuba diving.

    July 17, 2014 - 8:10 AM

  • Paul

    Does Massachusetts host the first graphite mine to be operated by the new arrivals?

    Tantiusques – “The graphite or blacklead deposit near by was valued by the Indians for face paint, and by the white men for pencils and other uses. John Winthrop, Jr., was “granted the hill at Tantousq” in 1644, and began to exploit the mine in 1968.” Massachusetts Bay Colony Tercentenary Commission

    July 17, 2014 - 9:22 AM

    • Paul

      That should say “…began to exploit the mine in 1658.” He did not wait 324 years to begin operations.

      July 17, 2014 - 9:25 AM

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