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.

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. 

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