Invented by order of the French revolutionaries

Nicolas Conté (Saint-Cénery, Sées, August 4, 1755 – Paris, December 6, 1805)

Paris, March 1794, the French Revolution has degenerated into terror. Nicolas-Jacques Conté, portrait painter, chemist and balloonist, must appear before the Comité du Salut Public, in which authority is centralized.

The man is summarily ordered to make an invention: 'The toll that we England have to pay to provide us with natural graphite is too high. The pencils have become too expensive.

You have one week to present us with a new pencil process, the basic raw material of which is extracted from French soil.'

The 'request' is completed with a sermon about the end of privileges in the country and a reference to the guillotine. Conté understands all too well the allusion to his wife's noble origins.

Her name is Victoire Boullay de Chompré, not really a name to happily get through the French Revolution. In the previous three months, 177 noblemen have fallen for the axe.

Conté, accustomed to working day and night, reappears before the Committee a week later. He mixed finely ground clay with inferior graphite from the mainland and heated the mixture, baked it, and made the pencil lead ceramic.

By changing the ratio of the mixture, he can make hard or soft leads, black or less black. The Committee is enthusiastic. Conté's wife can feel safe again. Danton is executed on April 5, Robespierre on July 28. The time of the reign of terror is coming to an end.

At the urging of his wife and to please his brother Louis, Conté acquired a patent on the pencil in January 1795, French patent number 32. Louis founded a factory that still exists today, in Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Nicolas Conté did not spend more than a week of his short and intensive life on the invention of the pencil.

Mundane portrait painter

Nicolas-Jacques Conté was born on August 4, 1755 on a small farm in the Normandy village of Saint-Cénery near Sées.

According to legend, as a child he draws the silhouettes of animals on the walls of the village, tinkers together a violin at the age of nine, discovers that the gas bubbles in a dirty pool are flammable.

When the painter of the village chapel dies suddenly, he completes his wall scenes at his own request. He will be fourteen then. With a series of portraits he quickly caused a furore in better circles. His widowed mother entrusts him to a hospital superior in Sées.

In the local capital, he meets his future wife, Victoire Boullay de Chompré. In 1776 he first went to Paris for a year to be apprenticed to the painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze, who was at the height of his fame.

During the day he works in his studio near the Louvre, at night he conducts chemical experiments and tinkers with all kinds of tools. He visits the American scientist Benjamin Franklin, the inventor of the lightning rod, who is staying as ambassador in Paris.

On his return to Sées a year later, he marries. In the role of fashionable painter, he spends another seven years in the genteel circles of the provincial town.

At night he devours the Encyclopédie, the last five volumes of which appear in 1777, he develops a system for measuring land and experiments with a huge balloon which he launches in 1784 from the cathedral of Sées.

On a draft horse, he chases the balloon through the fields and causes panic among the peasantry. The first montgolfière of the Montgolfier brothers had only taken to the air in June 1783. Conté keeps a close eye on developments.

In 1785 Conté and his wife settle permanently in Paris with their daughter. He is then thirty.

There he made friends with the great scientists of his time, such as Jacques Charles, a renowned physicist, expert in ballooning and a formidable rival of the Montgolfiers. As in Sées, Conté paints portraits to earn a living.

The Duchess of Orléans, mother of the later King Louis Philippe, is one of his loyal customers.

At night he devotes himself to his true passion: chemical experiments with dyes, gases and ways to bleach linen. His studio offers a rare sight because of the combination of easels and retorts, canvases and stills.

His wife Victoire, meanwhile, takes an intensive part in the frivolous salon life, visits the theater and the opera. In 1787 they are present together at the opening of a new gallery of the Louvre and at the inauguration of a tropical conservatory in the royal gardens, the Jardin des Plantes.

There he meets the natural historian Buffon, who gives him the idea of creating a museum of technology, modeled on the Louvre.

Air balloon for espionage

While his wife records the first political unrest in the capital, Conté is completely absorbed in his work; he has little regard for the coming French Revolution. When the time comes in July 1789, he is startled and he immediately knows that the time of mundane portrait painting is over.

The republic needs scholars, practical people, with imagination, and that actually suits Conté better. He invents a machine to mint coins faster and improves the quality of the linen for hot air balloons.

The incident with the pencil dates from that period, actually a trifle compared to his other work – the real thing for him. He suggests that the blimp could be used for espionage, to register the enemy's troop movements in a timely manner.

On April 2, 1794, barely a few days after the pencil order, the government sent him to the castle of Meudon to prepare such a military balloon. Meudon was then under the command of the renowned artillery general and writer Choderlos de Laclos, of Les liaisons dangereuses (1784).

A few months later, that first military balloon, L'Entreprenant, plays a role as a new weapon in the Battle of Fleurus, namely on June 26, 1794, when the French defeat the Austrians and the Southern Netherlands
countries will be united with France for a period of twenty years. Conté commands the 'aérostatiers'.

Although the military balloon is still difficult to handle and some historians doubt its usefulness in that battle. The Entreprenant was launched above the mill of Jumet, just south of Fleurus, as an instrument of reconnaissance.

The thing had to be restrained with a lot of manpower on ropes and hindered the French troops in their movements. The spies, who had to watch the movements of the opponent with binoculars from the balloon, were not accurate in the analysis of what they saw.

The commanding general Jourdan concludes that balloons will never play a role on the battlefield.

Conté returns to Paris and continues his chemistry work. One morning after a heavy explosion – in an attempt to produce hydrogen cheaply – he is found more dead than alive in his studio.

He recovers well but his left eye can no longer be saved.

He embarked on a process to make dyes more sustainable and took the first steps towards the creation of his technical museum, Engraving of Conté from his own balloon, dedicated to the battle of Fleurus, the renowned Conservatoire Nationale des Arts et Métiers, the first museum of technology in the world.

With Napoleon in Egypt

But his time is tight. Napoleon wants him on his Egyptian expedition (May 19, 1798 – September 1801), a military fiasco that will yield a treasure like the Rosette Stone.

The young general, 29 years old, takes more than 150 scientists with him: chemists, astronomers, surgeons, pharmacists, physicists, architects, painters, engineers, geographers and printers.

Conté was especially invited as a specialist in hot air balloons and has complete equipment on board. Even before they have landed in Alexandria, one of the ships sinks and a large part of the technical equipment is lost.

On August 1, 1798, the British, led by Nelson, destroyed the entire French fleet in the roadstead of Abukir, leaving Napoleon and his troops – 38,000 soldiers and 10,000 sailors – imprisoned in Egypt.

Napoleon brings Conté to Cairo where, all sources say, he performs technical marvels. Napoleon will make special mention of him for this in his memoirs. "Conté has all the sciences in his head and all the arts in his hands," one of the other scholars later recalls.

Conté constructs ovens for baking bread, mills for grinding lime, hydraulic machines, an optical telegraph and all kinds of precision instruments, in short, everything that scientists and the military need.

Conté's workshops include a blacksmith shop and a carpenter's workshop, but also a small arms factory or a watchmaking workshop. Naturally, he amazes the citizens of Cairo with his hot air balloons. He employs a total of three hundred men, many of whom are Egyptians.

He has a number of things manufactured by the local population. The French are not popular.

Only Conté, the strange man with a band over his left eye, is 'loaded with blessings' during his walks in the city.
In his spare time he paints and draws: the ruins, panoramas of the surroundings, especially the indigenous arts and crafts. The French completely map the old and the new Egypt. They literally measure the land.

They draw temples, pyramids and monuments down to the smallest details, but also all plants, all animals, all fish.

Only the map of Cairo contains eighty engravings. On the spot, the idea also arises to make a single collective work from the findings of all scholars and artists: The description of Egypt. Napoleon runs off in August 1799 with some confidants.

The French army is crushed by British troops. It was not until July 1801 that the remaining French – on British ships – were able to go home. The military humiliation is total. In September, Conté finally arrives in Marseille.

As a government commissioner, he is immediately put in charge of the huge publishing project.

To begin with, he develops a new machine to produce engravings faster. Thanks to a special technique, which will later be used all over the world, he can reduce the engraving work of a single plate from eight months to two or three days.

Conté presides over countless meetings to make choices from the many hundreds of texts and engravings. Musicologist Guillaume Villoteau alone is responsible for a thousand pages on Egyptian musical instruments. In the midst of jealousy and scheming, he must make the decision.

The project includes twenty tapes. He puts six printing companies to work.

In 1803 his wife Victoire dies of an infectious disease. Conté says he is losing pleasure in his work. Is it because of Victoire? Perhaps the insane pace at which he operated in Egypt undermined his health.

More than thirty scholars, mostly young men, have lost their lives in Egypt due to illness and exhaustion. Perhaps the monster project The description of Egypt is too much of his powers. On December 6, 1805, he dies at the age of fifty of a cardiac artery rupture.

The first books did not appear until 1810: in total the work will contain 7200 pages of text and 3000 illustrations. Conté is forgotten. Especially since he left no writings.

A biographer: 'He wrote little or nothing, apparently it was enough for him to have everything firmly engraved in his head.

If he had put them down on paper, how many fantastic, new and original ideas would have been preserved for us?' Even as the inventor of the pencil – which is still manufactured on the same principle two hundred years later – his name was lost.

De Dikke Van Dale: 'The conté: crayons of a certain make, especially black, also white and red.'