Friday, September 10, 2010

There's Graphite in Them Thar Hills

I love research. Oh, have I said that before? You never know what fascinating tidbit you’re going to stumble upon. It doesn’t matter that experts in the subject have known the matter for years. When I find something I never heard about, I feel like I’ve been given a present, just for me.

This week my present was the history of graphite mining: you know, the stuff in the middle of pencils? I was researching the industries of the Lakes District, where my next book will be set, and graphite mining was one of the industries. It turns out that the mineral, which the British called wad, was also used to line the inside of molds for creating cannon and musket balls. The mold had to be relined frequently. As you can imagine, between the various wars and pirate chasing and just everyday hunting, England used a lot of lead balls. Then too, as pencils became more popular, the mineral was used to make them too. Given all this, the prices for wad soared.

Luckily, it was easy to mine. Unlike in other places around the world, where graphite is often in the form of flakes or shales, England’s Lakes District boasts a very pure form of graphite that comes in chunks. Once a vein is located, the miners merely had to walk up and grab the mineral by the handfuls. Some boasted that they could get as much as a thousand pounds (as in money, not weight) in a half hour.

As when anything becomes precious, wad soon required additional security. Miners were watched by security guards and overseers who regularly made them empty their pockets or even strip down to their skins at the end of a shift to make sure they weren’t carrying away the profits. Thieves snuck in at night, and sometimes were bold enough to threaten a mine in broad daylight. A whole army of smugglers worked at ferrying the material overland. One of the most famous was a woman called Black Sal. In 1752, Parliament made a law that stealing or receiving stolen wad was punishable by whipping and a year’s hard labor or being transported for seven years.

Wad was so precious, in fact, that Napoleon asked one of his experts to figure out a way to make it without getting it from England (bit hard to do with a war on). The expert figured out a way to water down wad with clay, a process that spread and so severely undercut the need for pure graphite that the mines in the Lakes District all shut down before 1900.

So that was my present this week. Be sure to come back next week because there will be a bunch of presents. It’s Nineteenteen’s third birthday, and Marissa and I will be celebrating. Please join us!

1 comment:

Marissa Doyle said...

Wow--patting down the miners just as they do today with a different form of carbon--diamonds!

I loved visiting the Lake District (way too many years ago). It's gorgeous.