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)
smithsonianmag.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.

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.

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