|The Secret of Everyday Things|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|Fascinating conversations with Uncle Paul reveal the mysteries behind the dyeing and weaving of cloth, the lighting and heating of homes, the processing involved in bringing oil, coffee, tea, spices, and other foodstuffs to the table, and the power of water in all its manifestations. Excellent as follow-on to The Story Book of Science. Ages 11-14 |
AKE from a case one of the finest needles, examine its
sharp point, its tiny, almost imperceptible eye, and
note finally the polish, the shine. Tell me if this
pretty little tool, so perfect in its minuteness, would
not seem to require for its manufacture the superhuman
fingers of a fairy rather than man's heavy hands.
Nevertheless it is robust workmen with knotty fingers
blackened by the forge and covered with great calluses
that do this most delicate work . And how many workers
does it take to make one needle?—one only? For
the manufacture of a pin, I have already told you, it
takes fourteen different workmen; for the manufacture
of a needle it requires the coöperation of one hundred
and twenty, each of whom has his special work. And yet
the average price of a needle is about one centime.
"The metal of needles is steel, which is obtained by
adding carbon to iron heated to a very high
temperature. Under this treatment iron changes its
nature a little, incorporating a very small quantity of
carbon and thus becoming exceedingly hard, but at the
same time brittle. A needle must be very hard in order
not to bend under the pressure of the
 thimble forcing it through the thickness of the
material on which the seamstress is at work, and also
in order that the point may not become blunted, but
always retain the same power of penetration. Steel, the
hardest of all the metals, is the only one that fulfils
these conditions of resistance; neither copper nor iron
nor the precious metals, gold and silver, could replace
it. A gold needle, for example, in spite of its
intrinsic value, would be useless, becoming blunted and
twisted before using up its first needleful of thread.
Steel alone is suited to the manufacture of needles,
though unfortunately this metal is brittle, and the
more so the harder it is."
"But I should think," Marie interposed, "that since
steel is so hard it ought not to break."
"You will think otherwise if you listen to me a while.
Hardness is the degree of resistance that a body
opposes to being cut, scratched, worn away by another.
Of two bodies rubbing against each other the harder is
that which cuts the other, the softer is that which is
cut. Steel, which scratches iron, is harder than iron;
in its turn glass is harder than steel, because it can
cut the steel without being cut by it. But a diamond is
still harder than glass, since it scratches glass and
glass cannot scratch it. In fact a diamond is
 the hardest of all known substances: it scratches all
bodies and is scratched by none. Glaziers take
advantage of this extreme hardness: they cut their
panes of glass with the point of a diamond."
"I have heard," said Claire, "that a diamond placed on
an anvil and struck with a hammer stands the blows
without breaking and penetrates into the iron of the
anvil, it is so hard."
"That is a great mistake," replied Uncle Paul. "A
diamond breaks like glass, and he would be very
ill-advised who should submit the precious stone to the
proof of a hammer. At the first blow there would be
nothing left but a little worthless dust. You see by
these different examples that hardness and brittleness
are often united. Steel is very hard, glass still
harder, and diamond the hardest of all substances;
nevertheless all three are brittle. That explains to
you why needles of excellent steel, which gives them
their rigidity and power of penetration, nevertheless
break like glass in clumsy fingers.
"Now I come to the subject of manufacture, from which
the properties of steel turned us for a moment. The
metal is drawn out into wire by means of a draw-plate;
then this wire, several strands at a time, is cut into
pieces twice the length of a needle, just as in
pin-making. The pieces are pointed at each end, first
on a revolving sandstone similar to an ordinary
grindstone, then on a wooden wheel covered with a thin
layer of oil and a very fine, hard powder called emery.
Imagine glass reduced to an impalpable powder and you
will have a sufficiently correct idea of what emery is.
The first process gives us a more
 or less coarse point; the second sharpens this point
with extreme nicety.
"The pieces thus pointed at both ends are cut into two
equal parts, each one of which is to be a needle. The
workman then takes in his fingers four or five of these
unfinished needles, spreads them out like a fan and
puts the large end of them on a little anvil; then with
a light blow of the hammer he slightly flattens the
head of each. It is in this flattened end that later on
the eyelet or hole of the needle will be pierced."
"But you just told us, Uncle," Marie interrupted, "that
good steel is brittle, the same as glass; yet the
workman flattens the head of his needles with a hammer
without breaking anything."
"Your remark is very timely, for before going further
we have to take note of one of the most curious
properties of steel. I must tell you that it is only by
tempering that this metal becomes hard and at the same
time brittle. Tempering steel is heating it re-hot and
then cooling it quickly by plunging it into cold water.
Until it undergoes this operation steel is no harder
than iron; but, to compensate for this softness, it can
be hammered, forged, and in fact worked in all sorts of
ways without risk of breaking. Once tempered, it is
very hard and at the same time so brittle that it can
never henceforth stand the blow of a hammer.
Accordingly needles are not tempered until near the end
of the process of manufacture; before that they are
neither hard nor brittle and can be worked as easily as
 "If you look at a needle attentively you will see that
the head is not only flattened but also hollowed out a
little on each side in the form of a gutter or groove
which serves to hold the thread. To obtain this double
groove, the workman places the needles, one by one,
between two tiny steel teeth which, moved by machinery,
open and shut like two almost invisible jaws. Bitten
hard by the shutting of these two teeth, the head of
the needle is indented with a groove on each side.
"Now the eye must be pierced, an operation of unequally
delicacy. Two workmen cooperate in this, each equipped
with a steel awl whose fineness corresponds with the
hole to be made. The first places the head of the
needle on a leaden block, puts the point of his
instrument in the groove on one side, and, striking a
blow with the hammer on the head of the awl, thus
obtains not a complete hole but merely a dimple. The
needle is then turned over and receives a similar
dimple on the other side. The other workman takes the
needles and with the aid of his awl removes the tiny
bit of steel that separates the two dimples. Behold the
eye completely finished.
"Probably no work requires such sureness of hand and
precision of sight as the piercing of the eye of a
needle. Certainly he has no trembling fingers or dimmed
eyesight who can, without faltering, apply his steel
point to the fine head of a needle, strike with perfect
accuracy the blow of the hammer, and open the
imperceptible orifice that my eyes can scarcely find
when I want to thread a needle."
 "There are needles so small," remarked Marie, "that I
really don't see how anyone can manage to make an eye
"This incomprehensible achievement is mostly the work
of astonishingly skilful children. So skilful, indeed,
are some of them that they can make a hole in a hair
and pass a second hair through this hole."
"Then the needle's eye," said Emile, "which seems such
a difficult piece of work to us, is only child's play
"Child's play indeed, so quick and dexterous are they
at it. And they have still another kind of dexterity
that would astonish you no less. To make the needles
easier to handle in the process of manufacture, they
must be placed so that they all point the same way; but
as in passing from one operation to another, from one
workman to another, they become more or less
disarranged, it is necessary to arrange them in order
again, all the points at one end, all the heads at the
other. For us there would be no way but to pick them up
one by one; with these children this delicate task is
but the work of an instant. They take a handful of
needles all in disorder, shake them in the hollow of
the hand, and that is enough; order is reestablished,
the heads are together the points together.
"The eye completed, the next process is tempering, to
give the steel its required hardness. The needles are
arranged on a plate of sheet-iron, which is then placed
on red-hot coals. When sufficiently heated, the needles
are dropped quickly into a bucket of cold water. This
produces in them the hardness
charac-  teristic of steel, and its accompanying brittleness.
"As a finishing touch the needles must be polished till
they shine brightly. In parcels of fifteen or twenty
thousand each they are sprinkled with oil and emery and
wrapped up in coarse canvas tied at both ends. These
round packages, these rolls, are placed side by side on
a large table and covered with a weighted tray. Workmen
or machinery then make the tray pass back and forth
over the table unceasingly for a couple of days. By
this process the packages, drawn this way and that by
the tray, roll along the table, and the needles,
rubbing against one another, are polished by the emery
with which they are sprinkled.
"On coming out of the polishing machine the needles,
soiled with refuse of oil and detached particles of
steel, are cleaned by washing with hot water and soap.
It remains now only to dry them well, discard those
that the rude operation of polishing has broken, and
finally wrap with paper, in packages of a hundred,
those that have no defect. The most celebrated needles
come from England, but needles are also made in France,
at Aigle in the department of Orne."
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