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Back to School with Patents

September 1st, although often associated with the commencement of WW2, also marks the official “back-to-school” day in Israel – and in many other countries around the world. This provides for an excellent opportunity to acknowledge those inventions and patents that have shaped the way in which we teach and learn – namely, how (and on what) do we stage knowledge?

The chalkboard, the quintessential classroom learning aid, is believed to have been invented in 1801 by James Pillans, Headmaster of the Old High School in Edinburgh, Scotland. Pillans had allegedly conjured the idea to hang his students’ individual slate boards together onto the wall to create: “A large ‘slate board’ to write up his geography lessons where the whole class could see them at once.” (Wylie C. D.[1], 2012) Whether Pillans can be declared the factual originator of the chalkboard or not, the immense contribution of the chalkboard to education was recognized just forty years later in an essay by Josiah F. Bumstead, where he declared that: “The inventor or introducer of the [chalkboard] system deserves to be ranked among the best contributors to learning and science, if not among the greatest benefactors of mankind.” (The Blackboard in the Primary Schools, 1841)

Since then, with the advancement of the material sciences, alongside the evolving needs of education systems worldwide, most classroom chalkboards have been replaced by whiteboards. Surprisingly, it remains quite unclear as to whom this invention should be credited.

Stock Image.

A game of “Clue:” who invented the whiteboard?

Some believe that a photographer named Martin Heit is our truthful culprit. In the 1950s, Heit supposedly developed a small plastic scribbling board intended for installation adjacent to wall-mounted telephones. He planned to unveil the product – aptly named the “Plasti-Slate” – at the Chicago Merchandise Mart, but the showcase mysteriously burned down on the night before the launch. Following these unfortunate circumstances, Heit decided to patent and sell his invention to a company – later known as “Dri-Mark” – that would, shortly thereafter, introduce whiteboards to the world of education.
“The old-fashioned blackboard is on its way out of the schoolroom today. Whiteboards are the newest thing. In fact, the whole idea of going to school is becoming glamorous.” Associate Press (1950s)

Albert Stallion, the founder of one of the oldest manufacturers of whiteboards in the world, is also said to have invented a whiteboard. While employed in London in the 1960s, Stallion observed that the properties of the material he was working with – enamel steel sheets used for covering underground railway stations – could provide for a dry wipe whiteboard surface. He then presented this idea to his American employer and was consequently rejected. Yet, believing his idea to be that good, Stallion didn’t give up and went on to establish “MagiBoards,” a prominent manufacturer of display solutions in the UK to this day.

There is reason to believe that the whiteboard may have even originated a couple of decades earlier, in 1937, when an inventor named Paul Born from Elgin, Illinois, introduced a “White Blackboard.” A nameless schoolteacher was quoted, saying of the invention: “Boy, what a relief from the dismal, funeral-like appearance of most schoolrooms.” This was almost immediately hailed a replacement to the traditional chalkboard, and a 1950s Associated Press story went so far as to declare that: “The old-fashioned blackboard is on its way out of the schoolroom today. Whiteboards are the newest thing. In fact, the whole idea of going to school is becoming glamorous.”

Originally, teachers wrote on whiteboards with water-based crayons and the earliest whiteboards had to be wiped clean with a wet cloth after each use. This made using whiteboards at the time somewhat cumbersome. However, their popularity soared after the first whiteboard and dry-erase pen combination was invented and patented by Jerry Woolf, a scientist at “Techform Laboratories.” Dry-erase markers became even more widespread after the introduction of the version that was patented in 1975 by the Japanese stationary giant “Pilot” – which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2018. Although they were already quite common at the time, the New York Times reported in 1987 that still: “Whiteboards have not caught on well in schools because of higher prices and the tendency of students to walk off with the markers…” Who can blame them?

Displaying the future

Though the whiteboard remains in wide use, many educational frameworks today are embracing “Smart Classroom” initiatives, understanding that knowledge can be transmitted and engaged with through a variety of media – to encourage the development of a variety of learning skills. In Israel, for example, many classrooms – from elementary school to university – have been installed with interactive whiteboards that are better suited to address present-day advances in learning technologies.
Education is not only one of the true frontiers of humanity, but also, in fact, a basic human right.
Interestingly, patents can cover not only physical “things” like whiteboards, but also educational methods. In 2015, “Khan Academy,” the online education platform whose thoughtful videos have carried many through to successful graduation, applied for a patent for “systems and methods for split-testing educational videos” – an A/B testing of sorts wherein students are shown two different video clips, and are then asked to evaluate which of the two is more effective at teaching a given topic. At the time, it wasn’t clear whether an educational method could (or should?) be patented. Yet the Khan patent was eventually granted – though it would later be abandoned for undisclosed reasons.

To conclude, education is not only one of the true frontiers of humanity, but also, in fact, a basic human right. Exploring new innovative educational methods and technologies will likely be the key for the future success of the education system, and consequently society at large. Patents, the driving force of innovation, have, and will continue to play, a significant role in advancing the use of technology in education, ultimately making knowledge more accessible to all – as it should be.

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[1] Wylie, C. D. (2012). Teaching manuals and the blackboard: accessing historical classroom practices. History of Education: Journal of the History of Education Society, 41(2), 257-272. doi: 10.1080/0046760X.2011.584573

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