The Patents Behind Seven Classic Back-to-School Supplies

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

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John Patriquin/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

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.

Crayon Boxes with a Sharpener

Dull crayons were banished more than 60 years ago, thanks to this 1958 patent for a crayon box with a built-in sharpener. The patent was granted to three employees of Binney & Smith, now known as Crayola LLC, which has been selling crayons since the early 1900s. The 64-color box with the sharpener is so iconic it’s part of the collection at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

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.

Trapper-Keepers

If you’re a Gen X-er or an older Millennial, you almost certainly had a Trapper Keeper (or five) in your day. The colorful, cartoon- or TV character-decorated binders, with their Velcro closures and folders for organizing your loose-leaf papers, made back-to-school shopping fun. But teachers hated them—they were too big, with too many pockets and noisy Velcro. Many schools even banned them. Today they’re difficult to find; even Amazon comes up nearly empty. The Trapper Keeper was the brainchild of an executive at Mead named E. Bryant Crutchfield, who had heard that school locker space was tight, so students needed to carry more supplies with them from class to class. The tricked-out binder was the product of extensive market research; kids could earn a free notebook by filling out feedback cards. This 1976 patent shows the clip apparatus that made the binder possible.

3-Ring Binder

Less snazzy than the Trapper Keeper is the classic 3-ring binder. The first U.S. patent was granted in 1904 to William P. Pitt of Independence, Missouri. "My object," the patent reads, "is to provide means whereby...hooks may be readily opened or closed by simply drawing their free ends apart or pressing them together, so that loose leaves may be quickly attached thereto or removed when desired." The invention remains more or less the same today.

Backpacks

Humans have been carrying packs on their backs since prehistory—Ötzi the Iceman was found with a 5,000-year-old version. But it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the backpack became a school staple. Before that, students carried books with leather book straps or in satchels similar to today’s messenger bags. The backpack’s journey towards schoolkid classic began in the 1920s, when Lloyd “Trapper” Nelson patented a pack based on Inuit sealskin and wood designs he’d encountered when hiking in Alaska. It became one of the first mass-marketed backpacks, though aimed more at sportsmen than kids. Backpacks got zippers in the 1930s and came out in nylon in the 1960s. JanSport began marketing a contemporary version to college students in 1970; high schoolers quickly wanted in on the trend. 

Flexible Ruler

Rulers are as ancient as civilization, with measuring rods excavated from Mesopotamian and Indus Valley archeological sites. This 1902 patent, granted to Frank Hunt of Buffalo, New York, is for the first flexible ruler, which lets users mark straight lines on curved surfaces. It’s a forerunner of the little bendy plastic strips in math classrooms across America.

Magic Markers

The first marker, consisting of an ink-filled tube with a felt tip, was patented in 1910 by Lee Newman. It was difficult to use and not a commercial success. In 1953, Sidney Rosenthal patented a short glass ink bottle with a wide felted wool tip that would come to be known as the Magic Marker. But patent disputes with his many imitators left Rosenthal broke and living in obscurity. After his death, in 1979, his widow launched a (as yet unsuccessful) campaign to have him inducted to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. But having your product in schoolkids' hands from the U.S. to Uruguay to Uzbekistan is its own kind of immortality.