History of the Chalkboard

by Wes Fernley - Date: 2008-11-26 - Word Count: 530 Share This!

Copyright (c) 2008 Wes Fernley

Walk into just about any classroom and you will find one: A dark green board on the wall, lined with pieces of chalk and felt erasers. Chalkboards, also commonly known as blackboards, have long been a part of daily classroom life, but just what is the history of the chalkboard?

The earliest blackboards cannot properly be called chalkboards, as there was no chalk involved. They were simply small pieces of slate, and instead of chalk children would use another, smaller piece of slate to write on the board. Marks would be erased with a simple rag in order for the student to move onto the next problem.

In the late 18th and early 19th century, such "slateboards" were commonly used in schools in the United States and other countries. These small pieces of slate would be bound in a wooden frame to help strengthen the board and keep them from cracking. In those days paper was expensive and hard to come by, so these mini slate blackboards provided a good substitute.

At some point in time, however, these slate boards began to be used in a brand new way. A geography teacher working in Scotland is reported to have taken the slates from the students and hung them all on the wall. He then used this to make-shift blackboard to write out geography information which all the students could read at once. A revolution in blackboard usage had begun.

Adoption of this new idea came quickly. The first recorded use of this style of slate board in North America comes from 1801, when such a blackboard was in use at the United States Military Academy in West Point. Other academic military schools quickly picked up on it as well, and soon enough it began to spread throughout grammar schools.

Much of slate mining in the United States occurred in the Northeast, places such as Maine, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and a bit further to the South in Virginia. As Americans began to expand to the West, the new railroads were able to bring slate for blackboards from these states to schools across the Great Plains and prairie lands by the 1840's. No matter where Americans went, slate followed for use in public schools.

By the 1850's, virtually all schoolhouses included a blackboard along with their other staples: a wood burning stove and benches for the students to sit on. Still, however, our modern chalkboards were not in common usage.

As technology progressed, the old pieces of slate finally began to be replaced by chalk. The soft limestone chalk was easier to use on the boards, and easier to clean as well. The old rag erasers have been erased by new felt chalkboard erasers, which are able to absorb more of the chalk dust and keep it out of the air. The boards themselves are no longer made of slate, but instead are a steel sheet with a porcelain enamel.

In the past couple of decades, many schools are beginning to phase out use of chalkboards for whiteboards over fears of the hazardous effects of chalk dust. The principle, however, remains the same, and blackboards will continue to be used in schools for many years to come.

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