A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.
You know something that you probably haven’t had to deal with in a while if you’re an office drone? The whiteboard.
A classic example of what happens when you have a space to collaborate, the whiteboard had a bit of a moment in the late 20th and early 21st century as offices around the world embraced them for writing down ideas and brainstorming with a group of their peers—all things that people now do in the discomfort of their own homes.
But as rumors emerge of people being pushed to go back to the office, the whiteboard might be ready for its big comeback, even if you, personally, might not be.
Let's talk whiteboards, dry-erase markers, and why the chalkboard stuck around for decades after it was made obsolete.
Before we talk about whiteboards, let’s discuss the dusty nostalgia of the chalkboard
I don’t know about you, but the most drive-me-crazy noise I can think of is nails on a chalkboard. It’s a pretty aggressively painful noise, and I don’t know about you, but when that’s my overarching memory of chalkboards, I’m fully in favor of retirement in most cases.
I will concede chalkboards are great in certain settings, such as when painted on a wall or used in a hipster restaurant or coffee shop, where the artistic value of the chalkboard outdoes the questionable functional value of the material.
But chalkboards were never perfect for their primary use case. Today we may talk about things about our computers in terms of dark mode, but we weren’t using bright, overbearing OLED screens to display information within a foot of our faces—we were trying to convey information using dark blocks of slate, usually black or a dark green and definitely not backlit, to teach students from a long distance. And honestly, it was hard to do—the contrast was simply bad, and it was just not as easy to see as a plain white surface.
And of course, chalkboards created lots of dust. And dust, honestly, sucks—a major byproduct of trying to display information on slate. Back in 2011—you know, literal decades after we were fully into the era of whiteboards—researchers with India’s National Environmental Engineering Research Institute researched the impact of chalk dust in a “clean room environment.” and found that while there was no toxic effect, it could create allergic byproducts.
And the research, highlighted in The Guardian by Ig Nobel prize organizer Marc Abrahams, generated this once-in-a-lifetime bon mot: “During teaching, entry of chalk dust in the respiratory system through nasopharyngeal region and mouth could be extensive in teachers due to their proximity to the board and frequent opening of mouth during lectures and occasional gasping and heavier breathing due to exhaustion.”
Which is why it’s probably a good thing that we finally made the move to the whiteboard, which solved the problems with contrast and, at least for some teachers and students, minimized the potential health impacts that came with teaching with such a dusty material.
But it took a while for the whiteboard to finally break through in the classroom. A big reason as to why might very much be tradition—because there is evidence that the whiteboard was introduced more than 80 years ago, and it didn’t take off for decades afterwards.
“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.”
— The lead sentences from a 1950 Associated Press story reporting on new trends highlighted at the convention of the American Association of School Administrators. (Yes, that’s correct. There was a time we talked about whiteboards like we talked about Chromebooks or iPads.) At the time, the report noted that the primary tool that teachers could use with the writing surface was crayons.
There is an apparent whiteboard inventor who is not getting any credit for his work, despite originating the idea two decades before other claimed inventors
We know that the whiteboard is common today. But who the heck invented it?
This is a classic example of a story where if you simply Google it, you’ll miss out on some clear evidence of prior art. (And if you are a regular Tedium reader, you know the importance of looking past the point where the answer emerges.)
If you look on websites about whiteboards (here’s an example), you will read two names credited for its invention—Martin Heit and Albert Stallion, both of whom came upon the idea in the 1950s. Heit apparently surfaced on the idea after using a marker on a film negative, while Stallion, who worked for a steel company, came upon the idea of putting enamel on steel—an idea apparently met with skepticism from his employer.
Both sparks led to companies that eventually commercialized the devices in the early 1960s. Stallion founded a company, Magiboards, that is still around today; Heit, who died last year, sold his patents to a company called Dri-Mark, which is better-known today for selling the markers used to test whether or not a bill is counterfeit. (Which feels like a Tedium piece in and of itself.)
These two men may hold claims to popularizing the invention and introducing what became common materials for building whiteboards in the modern day, but evidence of putting writable white surfaces on boards predates their work by two decades.
One early claimant that surfaces at least two decades prior is a man named Paul F. Born, a mechanical engineer who (in a syndicated photo and newspaper article) is credited as installing one in a classroom in Elgin, Illinois, where he served as head of the district’s school board, in 1937. Given the chance to write on his invention (using compressed carbon rather than chalk), he wrote:
This “White Blackboard” is dedicated to the eyesight of school students and to the creation of a more cheerful atmosphere in the classroom.
A teacher said of the invention: “Boy, what a relief from the dismal, funeral-like appearance of most schoolrooms.”
If Born did invent it, evidence is relatively strong he was first—as mentions of the idea picked up soon after Born’s experiment surfaced in the news—but he does not seem to have patented the idea. There were differences—rather than plastic or steel, Born’s innovation relied on painted glass. Nonetheless, Born’s work caught the attention of Edward Podolsky, a medical doctor and writer whose book The Doctor Prescribes Colors, published in 1938, nicely dovetailed into Born’s idea.
“Not only is black chalk on white board easier to read, but the white color of the board imparts a decidedly cheerier atmosphere to the entire classroom,” Podolsky wrote of the Elgin experiment. “After several months of use it has been found that besides. relieving eyestrain, the whiteboards combined with light-colored walls make the classroom more cheerful, and learning a much more pleasant adventure.”
This seems to be the general vibe around whiteboards at the time—the first mention of the material in The New York Times, in 1938, seemed to imply that educators and parents alike were ready for a little less blackboard in the classroom. “Yellowboards and greenboards have been tried and found wanting,” the short editorial comment stated. “But glass treated with white pigment seems to fit the bill.”
And it did nonetheless draw skeptics. After news of Born’s work earned a strong reaction in Texas’ Lubbock Morning Avalanche in the fall of 1937, members of the school board, not understanding that chalk would not be necessary for a white blackboard, expressed concerns that “things would get pretty dirty” if black chalk was used. (To be fair, the newspaper made it seem like black chalk was necessary based on the cutline in the prior day’s paper.)
Of course, if you’re reading this, you most assuredly know that the whiteboard did not enter most classrooms until the 1990s or later. After a few years of early interest—including an appearance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that may have been the first public experience many New Yorkers had with whiteboards—the Times barely mentioned the surface again for more than 40 years afterwards. Personally, I graduated more than 20 years ago, and can’t remember seeing a single whiteboard in my various schools during my time in K-12. (Maybe I wasn’t observant.)
But when I went to college, I remember they were relatively common—though not fully replacing chalkboards. If the whiteboard was clearly better, why did the chalkboard stay so dominant for so long afterwards?
For one thing, we have to talk about the materials used to write on whiteboards.
The year the company Microfield Graphics first released Softboard, a dry-erase board that featured built-in networking capabilities. Basically, you could write on the board using traditional dry-erase markers, and then the board would detect the colors using built-in laser scanners and recreate them for virtual users over a dial-up modem connection. Despite its seemingly niche nature, the tool found lots of use in the federal government during the late ’90s, with FCW reporting that NASA, the U.S. Postal Service, and the U.S. Supreme Court all using the tool. The idea found interest among computer science students who saw an opportunity to render whiteboards obsolete. Oops.
Why the whiteboard became popular in the corporate world before the classroom
It, of course, took a while to come up with the right approach to solving the problem of blackboards. It wasn’t just having white surfaces to write on—it was also about coming up with a way to clean those boards with the same ease of use as a chalk eraser, dust notwithstanding.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, two competing teams—one in Japan and one in the United States—were working to solve a problem that perhaps threatened the long-term mainstream status of the whiteboard: cleanup.
One inventor working on this was named Jerome Woolf, who worked for a company named Techform Laboratories, who developed the plastic surface and the general concept of the easy-drying and quick-erasing ink from the markers. The other was the Pilot Pen company, which perfected the ink that became the key element of dry-erase markers.
“The writing ink of the present invention is designed to dry almost immediately after being applied to an impermeable writing surface of metal, plastic or ceramic material, yet retain sufficient water after drying so that the ink may be removed from the writing surface by wiping with a dry erasing material even under conditions of low humidity,” the Pilot patent stated.
And once that problem was solved, the whiteboard found its way into businesses, becoming a hot commodity starting in the 1980s, but schools—where whiteboards were first implemented—proved much slower to embrace the technology. As a 1987 New York Times piece noted, whiteboards faced more practical concerns in schools that businesses generally didn’t have to worry about:
Whiteboards have not caught on well in schools because of higher prices and the tendency of students to walk off with the markers. But in corporate offices and conference rooms, it has been bye-bye blackboard, as the screech of the chalk and the cloud of chalk dust fade into memory. Aside from permitting color presentations, whiteboards can double as projection screens for slides or transparencies.
Whiteboards moved into schools slowly, however, and part of the reason for this is that they often weren’t retrofitted into old schools, but added to new ones, because it was treated as an element of the school’s design.
There’s also the element of permanence. For many businesses, whiteboards developed around thin layers of plastic are fine. But teachers were often working with whiteboards or chalk boards for hours each day, and their work needs to hold up for long periods of time. Which means that whiteboards in schools need to be made of higher-quality materials than whiteboards in offices.
Ultimately, when you break it down, a modern chalk board is not all that dissimilar to a modern whiteboard—these days, they’re both treated sheets of metal, something called a “porcelain” surface, which tends to cost more than the plastic sheets but is much higher quality. (After all, if you’re a school and whiteboards are essential to your teaching, you don’t want the cheap stuff.)
But the difference is what goes on those sheets; whiteboards tend to use glossy enamel, while chalk boards have moved away from slate and now use a less glossy, more ceramic enamel.
And, of course, there’s the whole nostalgia element of this. A 1996 Hartford Courant piece pointed to this when interviewing teachers critiquing the differing surfaces. One teacher told the newspaper that the familiar sound of chalkboards was important to them (and that they hated the smell of the markers), while a company that sold traditional chalkboards made the bet that they wouldn’t stick around.
“I think that the markers are just a fad,” said Dave Allen of the Connecticut Blackboard Company, which was still selling slate boards to schools.
That feels like a bad bet.
In the 1970s, artist John Baldessari perhaps created the first work that lived up to the whiteboard ethos, a self-explanatory document called “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art,” in which the phrase is written numerous times in a cursive script, not unlike the way that Bart Simpson wrote on chalkboards in the intro of The Simpsons.
As part of a broader artistic project at the school where he taught, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Baldessari had his students write the phrase all over white walls, and he did some of that writing himself. (He also disowned his earlier works, so there was no turning back. The boring art was dead.)
Baldessari’s approach, something of a modern art rallying cry, was basically dry-erase art without a dry-erase board. It looks like the kind of thing that people create with whiteboards today when they’re looking for some kind of mental spark that leads them to their next big idea. In a lot of ways, Baldessari was brainstorming at the widest possible scale.
These days, the whiteboard has found increasingly novel contexts, beyond the office or the classroom, and even the pandemic hasn’t entirely dampened its potential. A popular note-taking tool, the RocketBook, has gained popularity by mixing the best elements of whiteboards (that is, the erasability and reusability) into something that looks like a traditional notebook, offering a little of the manual and the automatic in one package.
But the thing is, whiteboards are amazingly well-suited to office environments, as they encourage deep thinking in a setting where anyone can pick up a dry-erase marker and go. Compare it to, say, journaling. Some people’s brains just work better that way.
My favorite collaborative moments involving a whiteboard didn’t involve a meeting or a discussion session, but a game of hangman on a wall of whiteboard paint during Friday-night happy hours. It created a way for us to mentally meet up with our coworkers over a beer and have a little fun that had nothing to do with impressing a client.
Whiteboards became a tool for collecting the storms of our brains in groups, a powerful element of discussion that went far beyond what we could do with paper and pen alone. And even in an era of screens, sometimes the handwriting just carries more power.
But let’s give some credit to the guy who made a pitch for them first, because it seems like he deserves a lot more notice than he’s been getting.