See biographies by H. Dupre (1940) and M. Reinhard (2 vol., 1950-52, in French).
He was born at Saint-Céneri-près-Sées (now Aunou-sur-Orne) in Normandy, and distinguished for his mechanical genius which was of great avail to the French army in Egypt. Napoleon called him “a universal man with taste, understanding and genius capable of creating the arts of France in the middle of the Arabian Desert.”
One of his early interests while still at Sées was in the newly developing science of aeronautics. He made at least one hot air balloon which he flew in the public square, but it was not a great success. On the basis of the recognition he was beginning to receive as an inventor, he was appointed to the aerostatic corps at Meudon where he was among the first to understand the military possibilities of the captive balloon for observation purposes. He contributed to the improvement of the production of hydrogen gas, as well as the treatment of the gas bag of the balloon itself.
In Egypt Conté was called on to exercise his expertise in ballooning and was asked to prepare an ascension for the celebration of the French New Year on September 22, 1798. He was not sufficiently prepared so the event was postponed to December 1st. On that occasion his efforts met with a near disaster. The balloon caught fire and the Egyptians received the impression that what had been demonstrated was a machine of war for setting fire to the enemy encampments. At a second attempt with a larger balloon, it is said that the ascension was witnessed in Esbekia square by 100,000. It is probable that the use of the balloon in Egypt was limited to impressing the local population and was never found suitable for military purposes. Al Jabarti, (‘Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti al-Misri) in his account of the ascension said “Their claim that this apparatus is like a vessel in which people sit and travel to other countries in order to discover news and other falsifications did not appear to be true.”
Conté invented modern pencil lead, more specifically conté, at the request of Lazare Nicolas Marguerite Carnot. The French Republic was at that time under economic blockade and unable to obtain graphite imports from Great Britain the main source of the material. Carnot asked that Conté create a pencil that did not require foreign imports. After several days of research, Conté had the idea of mixing powdered graphite with clay and pressing the material between two half-cylinders of wood. Thus was formed the modern pencil. Conté received a patent for the invention in 1795, and formed la société Conté to make his crayons.