Carbon is the fourth most common element in the universe, behind hydrogen, helium and oxygen respectively, and is also the basis of all forms of life on earth. The name carbon comes from the Latin word Carbo, meaning coal, which was probably its earliest discovered form. Carbon’s symbol on the periodic table is C, and it is a member of group 14, making it a non metal. It is also one of the most widely used elements in everyday processes, and is a byproduct of many others.
All forms of carbon are highly stable, and they are also notoriously resistant to heat, having a melting point of 3500.0 C (3773.15 K, 6332.0 F) and a boiling point of 4827.0 C (5100.15 K, 8720.6 F) . Most forms of carbon also have a very low toxicity, meaning that they tend not to be dangerous unless breathed in as dust in large quantities.
Carbon was discovered in some of its forms in prehistoric times, such as soot or coal, and is thought to have first been used as charcoal by the Romans. The Chinese are thought to have discovered the first diamonds around 2500 BC, and of course today diamonds are one of the most valuable substances in the world. Charcoal was probably first discovered by accident, much earlier than the Romans use of it, although there is no single discoverer known.
Charcoal is a black substance made by heating many different substances without a large amount of oxygen being present. It is widely used by many people for cooking on barbecues, and is also used for drawing and iron smelting. Although most things will make charcoal if heated in the right way, the most commonly used material is sawdust and wood off-cuts.
One of the most commonly used application for carbon is in the form of graphite, which is used in pencils for drawing. However it is also used for steel making, brake linings in some vehicles and also in some industrial lubricants. Graphite is mined in many areas of the world in both open pits and more conventional mine shafts. The reason that the graphite in pencils was previously called lead is due to the fact that scientists used to think that graphite was a form of lead rather then carbon, although this has since been proven false.
Diamonds are probably the most valuable use of graphite, and are also one of the hardest substances known to man, only being beaten in toughness by man made super hard metals. Until relatively recently, diamonds were all mined from a small number of locations around the world, mainly Russia, Botswana, the democratic republic of Congo and Australia. In actual fact however diamonds can be found in many different locations worldwide, although to usually in large enough quantities to mine.
Today an increasing number are made synthetically, as techniques involved in their manufacture have become more advanced and allowed the creation of natural quality stones. Before, although stones could be made, the process was prohibitively expansive, and often produced poor quality stones. Despite this trend, the same large companies still control the vast majority of the worlds diamond supply, and keep the price artificially high compared to how common diamonds actually are.
Carbon is also found in fossil fuels and oil in the form of hydrocarbons, which is probably the most widespread and common use for carbon as an element. However there are a large number of lesser known uses for carbon as well, such as its use in printing ink in the form of carbon black, or in carbon polymers such as wool or silk. It is because of the great versatility of carbon, and the many different forms that it can take, that it is so widely used, and is probably the most important element in terms of usage.
Carbon in the form of carbon black is also thought to have been the first substance used in tattooing, as a prehistoric iceman named Otzi, who lived around 3500 BC was found to have numerous carbon based tattoos which were still detectable when he was discovered in 1991. These tattoos were probably done using carbon black, and are thought to be related to some form of acupuncture or pain relief.