Untold lives blog

54 posts categorized "Innovation"

30 March 2021

An Alternative to the Suez Canal?

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1868 created a new trade route between Europe and Asia as an alternative to the long sea journey around the Cape of Good Hope, but a different route had also been given serious consideration.

Isthmus of Suez and the River Euphrates in a detail from a map of ArabiaThe Isthmus of Suez and the River Euphrates in a detail from a map of Arabia by William Henry Plate (1847), IOR/X/3205, India Office Records, British Library
 

A survey of the Isthmus of Suez in 1798 had incorrectly shown the Red Sea to be 8.5m higher than the Mediterranean, an idea finally put to rest by a more accurate survey carried out by British army officer Captain Francis Rawdon Chesney in 1830.  Chesney’s recommendation however was for the establishment of a permanent steam-boat service on the Euphrates River as part of an overland route linking the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, and in 1834 the UK Parliament voted a grant of £20,000 towards determining the navigability of the Euphrates during the winter months.

Opening of report recommending the Euphrates Expedition by the UK Parliament’s Select Committee on Steam NavigationReport recommending the Euphrates Expedition by the UK Parliament’s Select Committee on Steam Navigation (1834), IOR/L/MAR/C/573, India Office Records, British Library

The crew of the Euphrates Expedition, commanded by Chesney, departed England on 31 January 1835.  Also on board, in pieces that could be assembled when needed, were the two iron steam vessels the expedition would use, named Tigris and Euphrates in honour of the rivers they would be traversing.  The expedition arrived at Sowedich [Samandağ, modern-day Turkey] in April and then travelled overland to Bir [Birecik, Turkey] on the Euphrates, where the steamers were assembled and the survey commenced.

Dimensions and crew of each of the steam vessels  from Chesney’s official report of the expeditionDimensions and crew of each of the steam vessels, from Chesney’s official report of the expedition (1850), IOL.1947.c.142, India Office Records, British Library

The expedition was not without problems, including an initial reluctance by the East India Company to be involved in a project which had been planned “without [their] participation or concurrence” (IOR/L/MAR/C/573, f. 29).  There were also various delays caused by vital passage or supplies being denied by Ottoman officials, despite permission having been obtained from the Government of the Ottoman Empire, which the British suspected to be intentional obstructionism with possible Russian influence.  But the most tragic setback came when the steamers were caught in a storm that, in the words of one of the officers, “came hurling on towards us with the most fearful rapidity” (IOR/L/MAR/C/574, ff. 183-85).  The crew of the Euphrates were able to secure her to the bank, but the Tigris was blown back into the centre of the river and sank within minutes, with the loss of 20 men.

Drawing of the Tigris immediately before her sinkingDrawing of the Tigris immediately before her sinking, by Captain James Bucknall Estcourt (1836)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The expedition was completed in June 1836 and the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society proclaimed it a success, stating that “everything which could reasonably have been looked for, has been accomplished” (The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 7 (1837), p. 411), while the Resident in the Persian Gulf wrote that the establishment of a permanent steam service on the Euphrates was “worthy of the deepest consideration” and suggested ways in which it could strengthen Britain’s already dominant position in the Gulf (IOR/L/MAR/C/574, ff. 342-44).  Further explorations were carried out in the 1840s, but in 1854 preparations began for the building of the Suez Canal and an official overland route between the Mediterranean and the Gulf never became a reality.

Matt Griffin
Content Specialist, Gulf History, British Library Qatar Foundation partnership

Further reading:
The Euphrates Expedition of 1836: Ingenuity and Tragedy in Mesopotamia
Papers of Edward Philips Charlewood, Officer on the Euphrates Expedition
Dr Johann Helfer and the curious case of an unexplained footnote

04 March 2021

The Garden of Aden: The Experimental Vegetable Garden at Aden

Ill-health plagued the East India Company Army in the 19th century.  Army rations consisted of bread and meat, supplemented by other items which the soldiers bought for themselves.  Despite the work of Dr James Lind on scurvy a century before, malnutrition was common in the army.  At Aden, this diet was even more unsuitable owing  to a lack of fresh water, which was needed to render the salt meat provided palatable.

Army review on Woolwich Common 1841 showing soldiers, horses and cannons
Army review on Woolwich Common by the Queen, 1841 in The Records of the Woolwich District Volume II by William Vincent, (Woolwich: J. R. Jackson, [1888-90])

It was in these conditions that the Executive Engineer at Aden, Lieutenant John Adee Curtis, created an experimental vegetable garden in 1841.  Curtis’s aim for his garden was to supply the hospital and the troops stationed at Aden.  He calculated that, when it was fully productive, it would even be able to supply a small surplus which could be distributed to the prisoners who would tend the garden, helping to prevent scurvy in jails.  This would also cut down on labour costs, although Curtis claimed that ‘the garden has been almost entirely watered by the wastage which occurs in drawing water for the public works from the well situated at one angle of the enclosure’, reducing the work involved.

Water tanks at AdenWater tanks at Aden, mid 1870s. Photographer unknown, British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, T.11308/3 

The troops did not derive any benefit from its produce in the first year, as most of the vegetables were cut down and buried in the soil to rot, improving it for the following year.  However, between October 1841 and January 1842 the roads were closed and the hospitals lacked supplies.  During that time, the garden supplied them with 1943½ lbs of vegetables. 
In his letter asking for an extension of the scheme and the garden, which was 100 square feet, Curtis is enthusiastic about the future.  He does not mention what types of vegetables were grown, but he is confident that ‘with good seeds all Indian vegetables may be produced in Aden throughout the year’, and that in a few years, the soil may be improved enough to grow European vegetables.  Not all of his seeds germinated, but he attributes this to faulty seed, as he claims that all the plants which germinated produced vegetables.

The British also moved away from a reliance on salt and tinned meat at Aden, and negotiated for fresh meat.  This not just provided a healthier diet for those stationed at Aden, but also improved relations between the East India Company and the local citizens.

No more is heard of the experimental vegetable garden after 1842, but the military board’s continued funding of the garden in 1842 and the creation of another similar garden at Karachi a year or so later suggests that the project was continued for at least a short time.

Toy British soldiers dressed in red uniforms standing in a line
Toy British soldiers from Funny Books for Boys and Girls. Struwelpeter. Good-for-nothing Boys and Girls. Troublesome Children. King Nutcracker and Poor Reinhold (London: David Bogue, [1856]). Images Online

Anne Courtney
Gulf History Cataloguer

Further Reading:
The experimental vegetable garden at Aden appears in IOR/F/4/1930/82915 and IOR/F/4/1998/88694.

 

14 July 2020

Researching Women in Science in the Modern Manuscript Collections Part 1: 1601-1848

The British Library modern manuscript collections contain a substantial volume of papers that concern the history of science in Britain.  There is, however, a notable absence of women authors among these scientific manuscripts that date from the 17th to the 20th centuries.  Women had been excluded from formal scientific training until the birth of women’s colleges in the 19th century, but it is not the case that women did not make contributions to science before this.  Examining women’s contribution to science offers us an alternative history of science, one that encompasses more informal approaches, cross-disciplinary perspectives, and involves a concerted effort on behalf of women to carve out a space for themselves in an establishment that often suppressed or even appropriated their work.

Before the scientific revolution many women were practising medicine and herbalism in their homes and communities.  This tradition didn’t drop away immediately with the rise of modern medicine.  The Sloane manuscripts contain many medicinal recipes from the 17th and 18th centuries and many of these were authored by women.

Sloane MS 3849An example of a medicinal recipe in the Sloane Collection, 17th Century. Anonymous. Sloane MS 3849 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In aristocratic homes of the 17th and 18th centuries, women were more likely to be taught to read and write; their position in society meant that they could attain modern scientific publications and then engage in their own personal studies, translations and writings.  The British Library holds some manuscripts authored by the polymath, Margaret Cavendish.  Cavendish was tutored at home and pursued her own intellectual interests across subjects, writing a treatise on natural philosophy which was a field of early modern science.  Her achievements meant that she became the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society in May 1667.

Engraving of Margaret Cavendish (née Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle upon TyneMargaret Cavendish (née Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne, by William Greatbach, published 1846 - NPG D5346 © National Portrait Gallery, London National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

Another aristocrat with a formidable legacy is Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who educated herself through the household library.  Lady Montagu witnessed smallpox inoculation among groups of women during her travels in the Ottoman Empire.  Learning from these women, she brought the process to Britain, successfully inoculating her family and others.  She wrote in favour of inoculation in an article defending the process, and ultimately, the processes she learnt from women in Turkey and developed in Britain would be built upon by Edward Jenner in the development of the vaccine in 1796.  The British Library holds items of her prose and correspondence across collections, including in the Portland, Egerton and P.A. Taylor papers.

Add MS 61479
A poem manuscript by Lady Montagu addressing a woman advising her on retirement. Add MS 61479  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Several women working in science in the early 19th century similarly benefitted from educational opportunities available to them owing to their class and connections.  Mary Somerville was educated at home, had the benefit of access to books and a sympathetic uncle who worked with her to improve her studies.  Her formidable intellect meant she wrote and published on the subjects of maths, physics, and geology.  Somerville in turn tutored Ada Lovelace who worked with Charles Babbage on the first mechanical computer.  There are items of correspondence from both women in the Babbage Papers (Add MS 37182 - 37201).

Add MS 37192Letter from Ada Lovelace to Charles Babbage, 1843, Add MS 37192 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


The next blog in this series will examine women in science after the birth of women’s colleges and related archives in the collections.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
Devoney Looser, British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1620-1829 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2000)

Women in Science: archives and manuscripts, 1600 - present

23 April 2020

The rocky beginnings of Eddystone Lighthouse

Perched on the treacherous Eddystone Rocks 20 kilometres off Plymouth stands a lighthouse, the fourth to be built there. This extraordinary print measuring one metre is an etching of the first lighthouse by its designer, engineer Henry Winstanley.

Eddystone Lighthouse Edystone Light-house; etching, engraving and stipple by Henry Winstanley, 1699-1702. Shelfmark K.Top.11.114.a.2 TAB. Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Winstanley (c.1644-1703), of Littlebury near Saffron Walden, had shares in a ship which, like many others, was wrecked on these rocks. He submitted to London’s Trinity House a design for the first offshore lighthouse in the world. It was accepted and supported by the Admiralty – hence the dedication to the Lord High Admiral of England in the allegorical cartouche at top left.

Next to it is the fascinating history of building the lighthouse between 1696 and 1699. Work could only progress during summer, and even then was often halted for weeks because of storm-force winds and waves up to 200 feet high. The builders were often stranded and nearly ran out of provisions on several occasions. At this time the Nine Years’ War was being waged, and the description omits an incident from 1697 when the crew of a French privateer vessel destroyed what had been built of the lighthouse, captured Winstanley and his companions, and transported them to France. They were later released by the orders of King Louis XIV, who announced: ‘We are at war with England, not with humanity’.

Text in an open book at top right provides navigational information for ships. The key underneath describes various parts of the building. Galleries were used to retrieve goods from boats below by using cranes, and for signalling to ships. A bedroom/dining room above the kitchen in the cupola contained lockers for storing candles. Inside the lantern a large hanging lamp and sixty additional burning candles provided the light. On the outside, there were wooden ornamental candlesticks on iron supports, and Winstanley recommended propping ladders against them when cleaning the windows! He even thought of including a chute for rolling stones at intruders to defend the landing place.

According to the inscription at the bottom of the sheet, Winstanley sold the print and showed a model of his lighthouse to visitors at his ‘Waterworks’ – a Water Theatre at Piccadilly he invented for the entertainment of a paying public, with water displays and fireworks.

Eddystone lighthouse blog  Image 2Edystone Light-house; etching, engraving and stipple by Henry Winstanley, 1699-1702, later state; detail showing text added to the original print after Winstanley‘s death in 1703. Nouveau Theatre de la Grande Bretagne,  Supplement volume, Plate LIV, London, 1728. Shelfmark 191.g.10-14. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


A later version of the print was published in the Supplement volume of Nouveau Theatre de la Grande Bretagne (1728). Here the previously blank leaf of the book at top right carries an inscription, telling us that the lighthouse was destroyed in a storm on 27 November 1703. Winstanley, who was supervising repairs on the structure, was swept away by the sea and never found.

Volume IV of Nouveau Theatre contains a print of the second Eddystone lighthouse, designed by John Rudyerd and completed in 1709. This lighthouse also came to a sad end: it was destroyed by fire on 2 December 1755. One of the three lighthouse keepers, Henry Hall aged 94, died from ingesting molten lead from the burning roof of the lantern.

John Smeaton’s third lighthouse from 1759 had to be dismantled after 120 years because the rocks below cracked. The present one by James Douglass was completed on an adjacent rock in 1882. All four lighthouses have fulfilled their function of keeping ships safe and preserving precious lives.

Marianne Yule
Curator of Prints and Drawings, British Library Western Heritage Collections

Further reading:
Biographical entry for Henry Winstanley in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Eddystone Lighthouse 
Winstanley’s Light

 

09 March 2020

A Pioneer of Artificial Intelligence: Donald Michie

This post is part of a series highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2020. 

A reasonable claim could be made to the idea that Donald Michie (1923-2007) is the father of British research into artificial intelligence (AI).  Following a successful early career as a mammalian geneticist, Michie devoted his life to the development of computers which could perform complex, human-like tasks.

His initial interest was sparked during his wartime service as a cryptographer at Bletchley Park where he forged a friendship with Alan Turing, playing chess, discussing the potential of computers, and even (unsuccessfully) attempting to locate Turing’s hidden stockpiles of silver after the war.  The two gave considerable consideration to developing early computer programmes which could play chess.

Donald Michie in 1940s Donald Michie c. 1940s (Add MS 89072/1/5). Reproduced with permission of the estate of Donald Michie.

Michie’s interest in building machines capable of learning continued after the war.  In 1960, he developed a computer programme which could learn to play a perfect game of noughts and crosses.  Lacking a computer to test the programme, MENACE (Machine Educable Noughts and Crosses Engine) was built from matchboxes and coloured beads which corresponded to all potential possibilities in a game, winning Michie a bet in the process.

In 1965, Michie established the forerunner to the University of Edinburgh’s Department for Artificial Intelligence and was at the forefront of international research into the field for decades thereafter.  Working at Edinburgh, Michie and his team developed and built a pair of machines, affectionately known as Freddy I and Freddy II.  These machines were capable of learning to identify the parts of and assemble model toys, such as a car or a boat, integrating perception and action into one machine.

Michie’s importance was most evident from his prominent role in the Lighthill Report and Debate in 1972-73.  James Lighthill’s 1972 Report for the Science Research Council suggested that research into AI had overpromised and underdelivered on its capabilities to that point.  A televised debate in 1973 saw Lighthill opposite Michie and two fellow researchers into AI: James McCarthy and Richard Gregory.

Michie, McCarthy and Gregory were not successful.  The outcome of Lighthill’s intervention became known as the AI Winter.  Funding for research into AI was slashed across the UK (and, shortly after, in the USA).  However, Edinburgh retained its research into AI, albeit with a departmental restructure in 1974.  Michie continued his research at the University for a further decade before moving on to co-found the Turing Institute in Glasgow as Director of Research.

Following his retirement from university teaching, Michie dedicated his work to developing a chat-bot to beat the Turing Test: could a computer programme convince a human it was a human?  He named his chat-bot Sophie, complete with humorous backstory and familial relations (apparently ‘Southern California Trash’ was an apt accent for her given her personality).

Donald Michie in 1980s Donald Michie c. 1980s (Add MS 88958/5/4). Reproduced with permission of the estate of Donald Michie.

The Donald Michie Papers at the British Library comprise three separate tranches of material gifted to the library in 2004 and 2008.  They consist of correspondence, notes, notebooks, offprints and photographs and are available to researchers through the British Library’s Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 88958, Add MS 88975 and Add MS 89072.

Matt Wright
PhD student at the University of Leeds and the British Library. He is on an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership researching the Donald Michie Archive, exploring his work as a geneticist and artificial intelligence researcher in post-war Britain.

Science week logo

Further Reading:
Michie, D., Donald Michie on Machine Intelligence, Biology and more, ed. by Ashwin Srinivasan, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
van Emden, M., ‘I Remember Donald Michie (1923 – 2007)’, A Programmer’s Place, 2009.

A longer version of this post can be found on our Science blog.


 

13 June 2019

Hidden Worlds in the Laboratory Notebooks of Anne McLaren

Building on a recent Science blog post, this post focuses on a lab notebook belonging to developmental biologist Dr Anne McLaren (1927-2007). What hidden connections does this lab notebook contain and why might it interest scientists and non-scientists alike?

Title page of MacLaren's notebookFigure 1. Title page of the notebook (Add MS 83844). Copyright © Estate of Anne McLaren.

McLaren’s research on mice has contributed to many fields, including in vitro fertilization (IVF) and stem cell research. Laying the groundwork for such contributions, McLaren’s lesser-known research project from 1952-1959 explored the genetic effects that a mother’s uterus—not just the material contained in the egg—had on the development of an embryo. To study this, she and her then-husband Dr Donald Michie took two strains of mice, one genetically disposed to have 5 lumbar vertebrae (C3H) and the other to have 6 (C57), and developed a technique of transferring fertilized embryos from a donor of one strain to a surrogate mouse from the other strain. Surprisingly, the transferred babies predominantly took after their surrogate mother in number of lumbar vertebrae—and even today, the mechanisms by which this effect functions are not fully understood.

One notebook, Add MS 83844, contains most of the raw results from this embryo transfer research; however, it also contains a hidden connection. In the summer of 1958, while these experiments were underway, McLaren worked with Dr John Biggers (1923-2018) to culture 249 fertilized embryos for 48 hours in vitro (in glass) before transplanting them into surrogate mice. After 19 days of gestation, these transplants resulted in the birth of two mice, which McLaren called “bottled babies” and were the first mammals cultured outside of a uterine environment pre-implantation (McLaren and Biggers).

Add MS 83844 makes no mention of its relationship to this landmark discovery, and yet, without the embryo transfer work it documents, the bottled babies would not have been. Similarly, McLaren’s later work shows how she continued to use the processes developed during the transplant and in vitro experiments, such as in her experiments with chimeras, or mice made from mixing two different 8-cell eggs before implantation. The notebooks therefore provide unique insight into the interconnected nature of scientific exploration.

Open notebook displaying experiment notations

Figure 2. Two pages from the notebook showing experiment notations, vertebrae counts, and various stains. (Add MS 83844). Copyright © Estate of Anne McLaren.

The notebook also showcases for scientific and non-scientific readers alike the human, material, and even quotidian processes that scientific advancement relies on. Just a quick browse of the pages emphasizes the years of painstaking work required to arrive at a breakthrough like the IVF mice, as well as showing some of the ways that McLaren systematically managed the dense information produced over those years (lumbar vertebrae counts appear in the notebooks in pink ink, for example, to make them stand out). Each page contains detailed observations, small corrections, and sometimes even notes like this, which records a short tale of an escaped mouse.

Detail from notebook recording a mouse as 'escaped, prob lost'Figure 3. Detail from the notebook recording a mouse as 'Escaped, prob. lost.' (Add MS 83844).Copyright © Estate of Anne McLaren.

In addition to the written material, the pages bear traces of marks, spills, and stains that result from the unpredictable realities of laboratory work. Collectively, this notebook’s mosaic of material traces helps document scientific processes in ways that can be overlooked when looking at polished published papers.

Bridget Moynihan

PhD student, University of Edinburgh

As a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, Bridget Moynihan’s research focuses on archival ephemera and digital humanities. These same interests led Bridget to undertake a British Library internship, researching the notebooks of Dr. Anne McLaren.

Further reading:

McLaren, A. and Biggers, JD. “Successful Development and Birth of Mice Cultivated in vitro as Early Embryos.” Nature 182, 1958: 877-878.

11 June 2019

Writing with quills

Where there’s a quill, there’s a way of telling how old it is; although not infallible it can give an idea.  The clue is by the way it is dressed – how the feathers are cut and shaped.  What many people do not realise is that there are left and right-handed quills depending on which side of the bird’s body the pinions come from.  The last quill in the image below is a left-handed one.

 

QuillsQuills  17thC   17th/18thC  18thC  18th/19thC    19thC
Photos courtesy of Museum of Writing Research Collection-University of London

It’s a feather!  So what?  You can pick them up all over the place.  Maybe, but those feathers charted the course of history and literature for about 1,800 years, when they competed with and eventually lost out to the steel nib.  Many scholars are almost certain now that it was the Romans who changed the feather from an instrument of flight to an instrument of writing with the goose as the main victim.  However, we have to wait half a millennium until we get visual evidence for the quill and that is from a mosaic in the church of San Vitale, Ravenna dating from around 547 AD.

St Matthew writing with a quillSt. Matthew writing with the quill arrowed. The Church of St. Vitale, Ravenna. Photo courtesy of Alan Cole

The quill continued to flourish with almost twenty-four million being imported into London alone in 1831, despite the plentiful supply of steel nibs that had been introduced about eight years earlier.  Quills were used in every walk of life including, of course, by authors and poets.  Among these was Alfred, Lord Tennyson who, whilst living on the Isle of Wight in the mid-1850s, bent the end of his quill and threw it down in disgust.  It was picked up by a local farmer, William Thomas, in whose family it was kept until its donation to the Museum of Writing.

Quill belonging to TennysonThe quill belonging to Alfred, Lord Tennyson showing its bent nib. Photo courtesy of Museum of Writing Research Collection-University of London


Alan Cole
Honorary Consultant, Museum of Writing Research Collection

Come and see Tennyson’s quill in our exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark 

Exhibition poster for Writing - Making Your Mark

 

28 May 2019

The history of the pencil

The British Library exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark tells the story of how writing flows through the last 5000 years of human history.  Visitors might easily pass by three little pieces of lead in one of the cases.   They are the predecessors of the pencil, one of the favourite writing tools of the last couple of centuries, used by generations of schoolchildren, note-takers, artists and, of course, librarians.

Leads for writing
Three lengths of lead drawn to a point for writing and drawing either specifically for that purpose or taken from stained glass windows and adapted.  Photo courtesy of Museum of Writing Research Collection - University of London

From earlier times, and in particular the Middle Ages, lumps of lead have been used for drawing or planning manuscripts.  Lead leaves a dense silvery line that can be overwritten in ink or paint.

The word ‘pencil’ comes from Old French pincel, and Latin penicillus or a "little tail" , and originally referred to an artist's fine brush of camel hair in the Middle Ages, although the use of a form of brush for drawing goes back to the early petrograph or cave paintings.  From that the stylus developed, sometimes being made of lead, hence our erroneous term for the writing core of a pencil. 

Representation of Philosophy with a brush and a pot in the History of Alexander the Great Representation of Philosophy with a brush and a pot in the History of Alexander the Great (England, 11th century) Royal MS 13 A I, f. 1v Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Silverpoint is a drawing technique that dates back to the late Gothic/early Renaissance period.  It was used by artists including Jan van Eyck, Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer and Raphael.  Silverpoint is one variety of metalpoint, where a wire is drawn across the surface of the paper leaving a feint silver line, although lighter than a lead.  Using a stylus or silverpoint, it is not very easy to erase a sentence or even one character. This changed with the widespread use of graphite.

Pencil sketch for a painted initial in an 11th-century Gospel Book from Flanders Pencil sketch for a painted initial in an 11th-century Gospel Book from Flanders Stowe MS 3, f. 11v Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The modern pencil was invented in 1795 by Nicholas-Jacques Conte, a scientist serving in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte.  Conte’s original process for manufacturing pencils involved roasting a mixture of water, clay and graphite in a kiln at 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit before encasing the resulting soft solid in a wooden surround.  The shape of that surround can be square, polygonal or round, depending on the pencil’s intended use.  The hardness or softness of the final pencil ‘lead’ can be determined by adjusting the relative fractions of clay and graphite in the roasting mixture.

Oldest known pencil in the worldThe oldest known pencil in the world, found in timbered house built in 1630.  Image courtesy: Faber-Castell

Graphite was first discovered in Europe, in Bavaria at the start of the 15th century; although the Aztecs had used it as a marker several hundred years earlier.  The purest deposits of lump graphite were found in Borrowdale near Keswick in the Lake District in 1564, which spawned a smuggling industry and associated black economy in the area.  Appreciated for leaving a darker mark than lead, the mineral proved so soft and brittle that it required a holder.  Originally, graphite sticks were wrapped in string.  Later, the graphite was inserted into hollowed-out wooden sticks and, thus, the wood-cased pencil was born.  During the 19th century a major pencil manufacturing industry developed around Keswick in order to exploit the high quality of the graphite.  The first factory opened in 1832 under the name of Banks, Son & Co, now the Derwent Cumberland Pencil Company.  Cumberland pencils were those of the highest quality because the graphite left no dust and marked the paper clearly.

Alan E. Cole
Hon Consultant, Museum of Writing Research Collection, University of London.

Come and see some of the first pencils and pens together with some brilliant examples of their use by everyday people as well as some famous hands of science, exploration and history in our exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark

Exhibition poster for Writing - Making Your Mark

 

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