The Pencil and the French Revolution

Nicolas-jacques_conte

We trace the importance of a humble, everyday device that was vital for the French Revolution.

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Music credit Joseph Haydn Cello Concerto in D, 3rd movement

In the 1790’s, after the beheading of King Louis XVI during the French Revolution, the French Revolutionary army had begun to expand French control to the Low Countries, Italy, and the Rhineland.

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However, though the army was characterized by its revolutionary fervor, it initially experienced mixed results. France’s enemies, fearing the revolution would soon be exported to their empires, included Prussia, Austria, Sardinia, Naples, Spain and Great Britain and enjoyed superior military numbers. France thus found herself under attack on all fronts and when an armed revolt broke out in La Vendée, a fiercely Catholic region of France, it seemed that the fall of the young republic was imminent.

Poorly disciplined and, just as importantly, poorly equipped, the French Revolutionary army needed rearranging. So, in early 1793 a man named Lazare Carnot, a prominent mathematician and physicist, was promoted to the Committee of Public Safety. Carnot, who was an exceptional talent for organization and for enforcing discipline, set about reorganizing the disheveled Armies. Realizing that no amount of reform and discipline was going to offset the massive numerical superiority enjoyed by France’s enemies, Carnot introduced conscription, known as the levée en masse, and he was able to raise France’s army from a meager 645,000 troops in mid-1793 to 1,500,000 in September 1794.

Once the problem of troop numbers had been solved Carnot turned his administrative skills to the supplies that this massive army would need. Many of the munitions and supplies were in short supply: copper was lacking for guns so he ordered church bells seized in order to melt them down; saltpeter was lacking and he called chemistry to his aid and leather for boots was scarce so he demanded and secured new methods for tanning.

Yet in 1795, France was under a naval blockade imposed by Great Britain and was unable to import pure graphite sticks from the British Grey Knotts mines – the only known source in the world at the time for solid graphite. Carnot, needing to keep track of the armies supplies thus faced a unique problem; he had all these supplies, but was running out of pencils to keep tally of the mass of inventories.

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To solve this problem, Carnot turned to one of his officers, a man named Nicolas-Jacques Conté who was born on this day in history in 1755. After several days of research, Conté discovered a method of mixing powdered graphite with clay and forming the mixture into rods that were then fired in a kiln. By varying the ratio of graphite to clay, the hardness of the graphite rod could also be varied.

Music credit Excerpt from Beethoven Septet, opus 20

Thus was formed the humble, modern pencil and with its assistance the First French Republic, which had started out from a position precariously near occupation and collapse, had defeated all its enemies and produced a revolutionary army that would take the other powers years to emulate. In 1802, France and England signed the Treaty of Amiens, the only period of peace during the so-called ‘Great French War’ between 1793 and 1815, however the peace treaty only lasted for one year – one wonders if it may have been signed with one of Conté’s pencils.

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This entry was published on July 4, 2012 at 10:45 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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