Simanaitis Says

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THIS CONNECT-THE-DOTS has an easy solution: Nicolas-Jacques Conté. He was a French polymath who gave Napoleon’s army the first significant use of aircraft and he also perfected the lead pencil as we know it today.

Polymath and Prodigy. Nicolas-Jacques Conté was born in the Normandy village of Aunou-sur-Orne in 1755. According to Encyclopædia Britannica, “At 14, he took up portrait painting, from which he derived a considerable income. Passionately interested in mechanical arts and science, he began displaying his inventive faculty during the French Revolution.”

Nicolas-Jacques Conté, 1755–1805, French painter, natural philosopher, balloonist, army officer, inventor of the modern pencil. Portrait by Robert de Launay.

Aerostat Investigator. Conté lost his left eye in a chemical experiment, possibly from an explosion of hydrogen. He was an investigator in “aerostats,” an early term for lighter-than-air craft.

The word aerostat comes from the Greek: ἀήρ aer “air” and στατός statos “standing.”

The French Revolution’s Committee of Public Safety appointed Conté to the Aerostation School of Meudon, located in a southeast suburb of Paris. One result of this activity was the First French Republic’s use of a balloon at the Battle of Fleurus in central Belgium in 1794.

Above, Battle of Fleurus, June 26, 1794, painting by Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse. Below, a Character Card rendering, c. 1890.

According to Wikipedia, “The French use of the reconnaissance balloon l’Entreprenant was the first military use of an aircraft that influenced the result of a battle.” The First French Republic won.

Conté’s Egyptian Adventures. Napoleon appointed Conté the chief of the balloon corps in the 1798 Egyptian Campaign. As detailed in Encyclopædia Britannica, “When most of the French instruments and munitions [balloons too!] were lost after the Battle of Aboukir (July 1799) and the revolt of Cairo, Conté immediately put his inventive genius to work, improvising tools and machines to supply bread, cloth, arms, and munitions, exact tools for engineers, and operating tools for surgeons.”

Napoleon called Conté “a universal man with taste, understanding, and genius capable of creating the arts of France in the middle of the Arabian Desert.”

Conté’s Engraving Machine. One of his inventions was a time-saver in documenting the Egyptian Campaign: his engraving machine.

Above, Conté’s engraving machine. Below, Shaduf Raising Water, an illustration in Description de l’Egypte, a massive work produced between 1809 and 1828. Images from Linda Hall Library.

Hand-engraved plates made illustrating early books a laborious process. Conté’s machine mechanized the process of engraving the long, straight, even lines used to illustrate textures. It gave 42 different choices, each engraved more precisely and faster than humanly possible.

The “Lead” Pencil. Around the mid-1500s, a huge deposit of graphite was discovered in Borrowdale, Cumbria, in the Lake District of England’s northwest, about 300 miles from London.

The material was so dense that it could be sawn into thin strips, fitted into holders, and used as writing utensils. It was mistaken chemically and called plumbago, Latin for “lead ore.” Thus, the writing utensils became known as lead pencils, though they never have contained this element.

Borrowdale continued as plumbago’s primary source for centuries, until a Napoleonic War blockade cut off France and its conquered neighbors.

A Wartime Blockade. According to Wikipedia, Lazare Nicolas Marguerite Carnot was known as “Organizer of Victory in the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars.” By the way, he’s not to be confused with his son Sadi, of Carnot Engine theory.

It was Lazare Carnot who directed Conté to formulate a substitute for plumbago. Others had tried, but Conté succeeded by mixing clay with graphite available in powdered form. By varying the ratio of graphite to clay, it was—and is—possible to vary the hardness of the pencil.

Conté received a patent for this invention in 1795. He also invented the hard pastel stick used by artists and now known as conté crayons.

It is a high regard when one’s achievement loses its upper case: abelian group, euclidian geometry, conté crayon. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020


  1. earlyaviationguy
    June 6, 2020

    Some ballooning enthusiasts still use the term “aerostat.”

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