Innovative Spirit

The Patents Behind Seven Classic Back-to-School Supplies

From backpacks to crayons, every piece of gear has an invention story

(John Patriquin/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
smithsonian.com

It’s hard to think about back to school when it’s still steamy outside and the sun seems to beg, like our kids, to stay out late. But here we are: mid-August, school just a few short days or weeks away. As you’re gathering school supplies, consider their histories. Someone invented that crayon sharpener, that ball point pen, whether in a corporate lab or on a messy suburban kitchen table. Here are some of the patents behind our most beloved back-to-school necessities.

Pencil-Eraser Combo

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(USPTO)

It’s been more than 160 years since Hymen Lipman patented the pencil with a built-in eraser. The Philadelphia stationary entrepreneur then sold the 1858 patent to another businessman for $100,000—more than $2.5 million in today’s money. That businessman, Joseph Reckendorfer, later took the Faber company to court for patent infringement—and lost. The Supreme Court ruled that combining two known technologies—a pencil and an eraser—didn’t count as a genuine invention, and therefore couldn’t be protected by a patent. So any company was free to pop erasers on their own pencils, and they all did.

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