Chalkboards have had a role in education for centuries, and the large blackboards that most people easily recognize today have quite a storied history. The earliest examples were individual slate or slate-like boards that students used as a less expensive substitute for pen and paper. Most historical accounts say that the first mounted classroom chalkboard was pioneered in Scotland in the early 1800s, and soon spread to the United States and the rest of the world as slate became both more commonly mined and more readily available. Despite the ready presence of slate today, most modern chalkboards are made of composite materials that are easier to clean and maintain; many schools and businesses have also phased them out entirely in favor of cleaner “whiteboards,” which are usually made entirely of synthetics.
As a Paper Substitute
Some of the earliest chalkboards were little more than small squares of slate, usually framed with wood to keep them from breaking. Students were typically each assigned one if they didn’t own one themselves, and they used them to solve equations and compose short educational exercises. They could be marked on with other, lighter slate pencils, or chalk where it was available; the students could wipe their work clean with a cloth in order to use it over and over again.
Slate was one of the most popular choices in the early 19th century because of how widely available it was in most parts of the world. The industrial revolution in Europe and the mining boom in North America uncovered stores of this material, which made it much more attainable than paper and ink or graphite. Slate is a dark, metamorphic rock that occurs in large stores beneath the earth in many parts of the world. Some students in the most elite schools used paper, but this was usually considered a luxury.
Slate in the United States
The boom in slate usage is perhaps most profound when looking at the history of the chalkboard in the United States. Slate mining coincided with the development of the American railway system. As such, much of the mineral that was mined out of Vermont, Maine, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and New York could be efficiently transported via railroad to the thousands of prairie schools popping up across the frontier in the 1800s.
Changes in Classroom Efficiency
Student slate boards were effective, but not particularly efficient, particularly in disciplines that required precise equations — science and math, for instance. Teachers would usually have to individually transcribe the problems onto each individual slate, which took up a lot of time. All of this changed when teachers began mounting bigger boards onto classroom walls.
This leap forward is widely believed to have first happened in a geography classroom in Edinburgh, Scotland; that teacher, James Pillans, is said to have taken a rough piece of raw slate and mounted it himself up on the wall behind his desk. Once this innovation took hold, teachers could convey lessons and visual aids to entire classes, thus giving everyone the benefit of seeing the board. Students still used their individual slates, but only for solving — not for reading instructions. The first recorded use of a wall-mounted chalkboard in the United States occurred at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, in 1801.
Substitutions and Modifications
Despite the widespread availability of slate, it was still too expensive for some of the poorer and more rural school districts. Teachers in these circumstances sometimes resorted to painting a plaster wall or wooden panel with dark paint to imitate slate, and black-painted grit sometimes also worked. An old rag served as eraser. Students sometimes came up with these sorts of crude substitutes for their own individual supplies, too.
The history of the chalkboard has also taken a few modern twists. Today’s scholars are more likely to find a chalkboard that is a steel sheet enameled with porcelain rather than true slate. Chalk, which is a limestone derivative, is the most common writing implement, and the rag erasers of earlier times have largely been replaced by blocks of felt that can erase chalk marks without creating as much airborne dust.
In the 1990s, concern over allergies and other potential health risks posed by chalk dust prompted the replacement of many blackboards with whiteboards. A whiteboard is a plastic board, sometimes also known as a “dry erase board,” on which people use special pens to make colored marks. These can be a cleaner, brighter alternatives to education and business interests.