In his book The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, Henry Petroski tells at length of early graphite mining and its impact on the development of the pencil. From what I recall, for many years there was but one deposit in England that produce graphite of the right quality to produce workable pencils. As one reviewer of the book writes:
Petroski ranges widely in time, discussing the writing technologies of antiquity. But his story really begins in the early modern period, when, in 1565, a Swiss naturalist first described the properties of the mineral that became known as graphite. Petroski traces the evolution of the pencil through the Industrial Revolution, when machine manufacture replaced earlier handwork. Along the way, he looks at some of pencil making’s great innovators–including Henry David Thoreau, the famed writer, who worked in his father’s pencil factory, inventing techniques for grinding graphite and experimenting with blends of lead, clay, and other ingredients to yield pencils of varying hardness and darkness. Petroski closes with a look at how pencils are made today–a still-imperfect technology that may yet evolve with new advances in materials and design. –Gregory McNamee
Today I read that Tesla will construct a new factory with a $5 billion price tag to make batteries for electric cars—and his factory will need six new graphite mines. Some news reports and investment bloggers are promoting investment in graphite mining as the next way to make money investing in mining. Maybe.
I saw my first Tesla in the parking lot of an expensive restaurant in southern California. We stopped and looked, in awe at this most beautiful car. More of them on the road would increase the aesthetic pleasure of highway driving.
I once had a Honda Accord Coupe. To me it was the most beautiful car I had every seen or owned. Not sure that I will replace my current Honda Civic two-door with a Tesla, although I wish I could. The kids eventually drove the coupe into the ground and went out and bought two Priuses. Being Californians they swear by electric cars. Maybe Prius and Tesla will change the nature of motoring as much as the invention of the pencil changed the nature of writing. And both are based on graphite.
I have yet to hear from the Greens on the balance of benefits and landscape degradation involved in six new mines to make an environmental car. Glad I do not have to offer a cogent opinion on that one. Especially if we have to build more nuclear power plants to provide the electricity for the new cars.
Henry Petroski is a professor of engineering. He has written many other readable books. One is Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design. One reviewer of this book writes:
Success through Failure shows us that making something better–by carefully anticipating and thus averting failure–is what invention and design are all about. Petroski explores the nature of invention and the character of the inventor through an unprecedented range of both everyday and extraordinary examples–illustrated lectures, child-resistant packaging for drugs, national constitutions, medical devices, the world’s tallest skyscrapers, long-span bridges, and more. Stressing throughout that there is no surer road to eventual failure than modeling designs solely on past successes, he sheds new light on spectacular failures, from the destruction of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940 and the space shuttle disasters of recent decades, to the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001.
Let us hope that there are no failures of the Tesla and the six new graphite mines along the road to a new way of getting around.