How Slates, Blackboards, and Whiteboards Have Changed Over Time

How Slates, Blackboards, and Whiteboards Have Changed Over Time

In order to survive in modern society, a person needs to know how to read and write.  Even simple things like writing a grocery list or the cash you won from your online blackjack requires skills in reading, writing, and since we are dealing with money, even math.  Sometimes our writing is complex, like writing a book, a report, or script for YouTube video.  But other times we just want to write something on scrap paper.  Today, scrap paper is common.  But in past generations, people did not write on scrap paper.  People wrote on slates or other reusable writing surfaces.  So let’s take a look at the physical act of writing over time as well as how English has changed over time.

History of the English Language

If you look up words on Wiktionary, you will see headers for Old English, Middle English, and English.

Old English

The first writing system was invented between 3400 BCE and 3300 BCE.  Old English was first written using a runic script, but this was replaced by a version of the Latin alphabet introduced by Irish missionaries in the 8th century.  Due to Christianity, over 400 Latin words were incorporated into Old English.  Old English was also influenced by Old Norse.  This happened around the 9th Century (800 CE).

Most native English speakers today find Old English unintelligible, even though about half of the most commonly used words in Modern English have Old English roots.

Old English migrated into Middle English around the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066.

Middle English

Middle English is the form of English spoken roughly from the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 until the end of the 15th century (1400).  English literature began to reappear after 1200, when a changing political climate and the decline in Anglo-Norman made it more respectable.

The Provisions of Oxford, released in 1258, was the first English government document to be published in the English language after the Norman Conquest. In 1362, Edward III became the first king to address Parliament in English. The Pleading in English Act 1362 made English the only language in which court proceedings could be held, though the official record remained in Latin.  By the end of the century, even the royal court had switched to English.

The English language changed enormously during the Middle English period, in vocabulary, in pronunciation, and in grammar.

Early Modern English

English underwent extensive sound changes during the 15th century, while its spelling conventions remained largely constant.  The language was further transformed by the spread of a standardized London-based dialect in government and administration and by the standardizing effect of printing, which also tended to regularize capitalization. In 1604, the first English dictionary was published, A Table Alphabeticall.

For comparison, the first English dictionary in 1604 had 3,000 words.  Today, the Merriam-Webster unabridged dictionary had 470,000 entries.

Modern English

The first authoritative English dictionary, the Dictionary of the English Language, was published in 1755.  The dictionary standardized both English spelling and word usage.

Late Modern English has many more words, arising from the Industrial Revolution and technologies that created a need for new words, as well as international development of the language.    The internet was invented in 1983 by NASA (United States).  Now the internet is worldwide.  During the last 50 years, people have speculated if other languages like Spanish, Chinese, or Japanese would become the world dominant language.

But that was when international communication was usually done through politics or business.  Now, in 2022, even everyday people can communicate with each other internationally with just a few keystrokes.  Although each country has its own international country code, many people create websites that are just .com, .net, .org, etc.  or one of the  1247 top level domain names that are not country codes.    For a majority of those websites, users use English to communicate with each other.

What English is written on

Writing in Ancient Egypt

The first paper in Ancient Egypt was papyrus.  This was around 300 BCE.  Creating paper was a lot of work.  Writers in Ancient Egypt were called Scribes.  To become a scribe, you had to attend a special school for scribes.  At this school, you would learn how to read and write hieroglyphics and hieratic scripts. This was hard work. These scripts are complicated, and there were many signs to learn. Not anybody could become a scribe.  Usually, only a child of a scribe could become a scribe.  It would usually take between 4 and 5 years to complete scribe school.

Students spent a lot of time practicing the signs by copying them onto sheets of papyrus, old pieces of pottery or flakes of limestone.  These were the first forms of “scrap paper”.

Writing in Ancient China

China did invent papermaking in 105 CE. Because of paper, China became the world leader in book production. From the fourth century CE to about 1500, the biggest library collections in China were three to four times larger than the largest collections in Europe.  However, despite the initial advantage afforded to China by the paper medium, by the 9th century its spread and development in the Middle East had closed the gap between the two regions.  Between the 9th to early 12th centuries, libraries in Cairo, Baghdad, and Cordoba held collections larger than even the ones in China, and dwarfed those in Europe.  From about 1500 the maturation of paper making and printing in Southern Europe also had an effect in closing the gap with the Chinese.

Printing Press

German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg is credited with inventing the printing press around 1436, although he was far from the first to automate the book-printing process.

Although the printing press had a major impact on book production, books were still very expensive and not something that every family had easy access to.

School Slate

Before modern computers and modern lined paper, most students completed their school work on slates.  The slates had two sides and the edges were wrapped in leather or wood to protect students’ hands. In the 1800s, schools used slates to teach students reading, writing, and math.  Students used slates because books were very expensive.  Workbooks were not an option.  At first, students used slate pencils to write on their slates.

It was like using a light rock to write on a dark rock.  Later, slate pencils were replaced with soft chalk.  Soft chalk was popular because it made writing smoother.  It was easy to erase homework on a slate.  After the teacher checked the student’s work, students just used a cloth or a wet sponge to clean their slates.  Because they only had one slate to write on, students erased their work many times during the day.


Before the invention of the blackboard, students did have access to individual slates, which they could write their assignments and answers on. This helped cut down on the cost and need of the sometimes unavailable paper and pencil supplies.  But in 1801, George Baron, an instructor at West Point Military Academy incorporated a large black chalk board into his math presentation.

He was the first American instructor to use a blackboard.  It wasn’t long before the blackboard became one of the popular and widely used teaching materials across the U.S. By the mid-1800s blackboards were in nearly every classroom in the U.S., however not every school was able to afford one.

Once blackboards were invented, coarkboards came later in 1891.

But the one disadvantage of blackboards was the chalk.  That is one of the major reasons why whiteboards were invented.


Whiteboards, as we know them today, were not invented until the mid-1980s.  Once they were invented, 21% of all schools quickly converted over to the more advanced boards.  Once main advantage of whiteboards over blackboards is that with whiteboards different color dry erase markers can be used.  So although whiteboards are great, you still need to wash them.

A lot of whiteboards are also magnetic, which is very useful for both businesses and schools.

Clear Dry Erase Boards or Glass Dry Erase Boards

In terms of writing, there is no difference between the original whiteboards and today’s glass dry erase boards.

The main difference is how they look.  Glass dry erase boards are made with, well … glass.  This means that just like glass is impermeable to food, glass dry erase boards are impermeable to dry erase markers.

This also means that it can be molded just as easily as regular glass.  Think …

  • Glass cabinet doors on your food pantry — keeps the kids out of trouble while you cook
  • Glass doors or walls for a business — a whole wall to use for meeting while the meeting room looks classy and business like
  • In schools, the whole wall can be a whiteboard.

Glass dry erase boards can also be clear, so they can make beautiful walls between offices while still being a writing surface that can be easily cleaned.

Tablets (Android type Tablets)

At first, tablets used a stylus, but now a stylus is not needed to use a tablet.  In terms of viewing things, tablets are great.  For example, instead of having the students carry around a large textbook, the students can just have electronic textbooks stored on their tablets.  This is great.

But in terms of writing …

For learning the letters, there are several applications to learn to trace letters.  But in terms of, for example, solving a large algebraic math problem, writing with a finger is just one, not very legible, and two, nothing at all like traditional writing with a pen.

But in recent years, the stylus has come back and it is not like it was in days of old.  The new tables that support stylus pens support both using your finger to use the tablet and the stylus to use the tablet.  In terms of writing, the writing is very nice and clear.  It works great for notetaking, and nice it is a tablet, you can scroll down or create new pages.  You can also use the erase icon to erase, just like you would erase with a standard drawing program.

LED Drawing Pads

An LED Drawing Pad is not a tablet.  It does not have any “computer parts”.  It just has a stylus and the pad and allows you to draw on it.  The only electronic part is the erase function.  So you can draw (or write) on the pad without having a battery in it (or the power on). But when you want to erase, you need to put the power on, have a battery with power, and press the erase button.

The erasing of a whole screen is great.  With one button press, the whole screen is erased.  In terms of writing, the stylus is designed like a traditional pen, including the size.  The writing is clear, as opposed to writing with whiteboard markers that may or may not be drying out.  Depending on how hard you press, determines how thin or thick your lines are.

The only major problem is that you cannot do partial erases.  The whole screen has to be erased.  There are some companies that claim to make a version where you can do partial erases, but from the reviews that I have read, this feature does not work.  So do not waste your money buying expensive ones.  Another con, unless you take a picture, you cannot save your work.


Slates have changed over time.    We have come a long way since the days of using a slate board in school in the 1800s.  Beyond drawing on the sidewalk, I do not know of anybody who still uses chalk.  In terms of the actual writing, I really like the new LED Drawing boards in terms of the cleanliness of the writing.  But in terms of being able to erase a part of what you write or draw, whiteboards are not going away any time soon.

On the other hand, any company that can fix the partial erase problem with the LED drawing boards will have a winning product.


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