By the end of the 1990s, whiteboards outsold chalkboards by a margin of up to four to one. Even digital whiteboards—computerized display boards with interactive features—outsold chalkboards by the turn of the millennium. Since then, chalkboards have all but disappeared from schools. Why, then, do they remain such potent symbols for education? Perhaps it’s because of what they represent: the idea of stable knowledge in a rapidly changing digital age.
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In the early 1800s, slate blackboards represented change. For centuries, students had used handheld tablets of wood or slate. Teachers moved about their classrooms, writing instructions and inspecting students’ work on individual slates. When the Scottish educational reformer James Pillans became the rector of Edinburgh High School, in 1810, his use of a blackboard was revolutionary. He explains in an 1856 memoir, Contributions to the Cause of Education:
I placed before my pupils, instead of a crowded and perplexing map, a large black board, having an unpolished non-reflecting surface, on which was inscribed in bold relief a delineation of the country, with its mountains, rivers, lakes, cities, and towns of note. The delineation was executed with chalks of different colours.
Widely recognized as the inventor of the blackboard, Pillans doesn’t specify how he constructed the apparatus. Popular lore, as recounted in Lewis Buzbee’s Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom, holds that he connected several handheld slates to form a single large surface. Pillans used his innovation to teach Greek as well as geography, noting, “The very novelty of all looking on one board, instead of each on his own book, had its effect in sustaining attention.”
By the mid-19th century, blackboards were in common use. As is the case for all technology, they came with a learning curve. Manuals like Josiah Bumstead’s The Black Board in the Primary School (1841) and William Alcott’s Slate and Black Board Exercises (1842) helped teachers adopt blackboards as instructional tools. The manuals offered lessons like this one, from Bumstead:
The teacher, after making a single mark on the board, thus inquires,
How many marks have I made?
Adding another mark,
How many marks have I made?
Slate blackboard manufacturing began in the U.S. by the 1840s, and rail travel soon made it possible to ship blackboards across the country. In a single year during the 1890s, 11 factories near Slatington, Pennsylvania, produced nearly a million square feet of slate blackboard, according to mineral industry statistics published in 1898.
Green chalkboards first appeared in the 1960s. Generally made of porcelain enamel with a steel base, these chalkboards are lighter and more durable than slate, and thus easier to ship. They were ubiquitous in American classrooms for three decades, until whiteboards began to replace them.