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The Evolution of Back to School Tech: A Look Back

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abacus image

If you have kids, it shouldn’t be surprising to you that their school supply list differs pretty drastically from when you were in school. Long gone are the days of slide rules, metal lunchboxes, and even simple calculators. In their place are more sophisticated graphing calculators, computers, and tablets that have taken the place of more traditional research techniques. We’ll take a look at 3 specific pieces of technology that have changed the inner landscape of today’s schools.

Mechanical Pencils

Whether you prefer traditional wooden pencils or mechanical, there is no doubt that the rise of plastics has given rise to more varieties in writing technology. Here’s a brief history of how the pencils we know and love came to be.

  • 1564: First graphite deposit turned into a pencil – This year, in England, the first graphite deposit was found. Pencils were then made from square rods of graphite that were inserted into hand-carved wooden holders. A common misconception is that wooden pencils contained lead at any time. In fact, school children have always used graphite. Before the mid-1500s, pencils were rarely used by anyone other than artists.
  • 1822: Mechanical pencils patented – Even though yellow wooden pencils are still popular, mechanical pencils have risen in popularity as well. The mechanical pencil was first patented in 1822 and named the “propelling pencil”.

  • 1879: Mechanical pencils become most common type of pencil used in schools. – Even though the mechanical pencil was invented in 1822, it wasn’t until 50 years later that it became the most common type found in schools.

Calculators

We’ve all either experienced slide rules or heard our parents complaining about them at some point. In fact, the prevalence of calculators on school supply lists and in schools is a relatively recent phenomenon. However, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t calculating machines and tools before calculators. In fact, calculating machines date back to about 2700 BC!

  • 2700-2300 BC: The abacus was used – An abacus is a simple machine in which different tabs on a pole represent numbers. It can be used to count up to 100 and add and subtract small sums.  Even now, some children learn basic counting and arithmetic using abaci.
  • 1600s: The slide rule is invented – The slide rule is a circular device that you can use to perform rapid multiplications and logarithmic scales. These were very popular up in schools even up through the 1980s because they were low cost, portable, and could help with complicated math equations.

  • 1887: The comptometer was invented – The comptometer was the first computing machine with columns of keys (much like the modern calculator. This machine, however, was much larger than the pocket-sized calculators we see today and much less advanced.  

  • 1948: Curta Calculator invented – This was a pocket-sized mechanical device that could add, subtract, multiply, and divide, but didn’t have keys to press. This circular device that you could work by pushing up small levers and pegs.  Technically, this was the first pocket calculator.

  • 1961: Electronic calculator were invented – The electronic calculator was invented in the 60s, but it was another several years until they were able to be made small enough for children to carry in their pockets or school bags.

  • 1978 – Pocket sized electronic calculators invented – The pocket-sized electronic calculator was invented in 1978, but slide rules were still used throughout the 1980s as a low cost, pocket-sized option.

Library Technology

It may seem like libraries have been the same forever. However, it's been a number of years since many libraries have instituted the complicated card cataloging system. Now, there are library catalogs and even entire libraries available online. 

  • 2600 BC: Libraries of clay tablets have been found from as early as 2600 BC in Mesopotamia. The most famous of the ancient libraries was the Library of Alexandria at Egypt, which was once considered one of the wonders of the ancient world.

  • 1876: There were many American libraries created before 1876, but this is when Melville Dewey introduced his Dewey Decimal-based system of classification. This, combined with an initiative from congress, made it possible for many community libraries to be created throughout the country. Historians estimate that 75-80% of all libraries in the U.S. were created during this time.  

  • 1983: Computer cataloguing programs invented – The same Dewey-Decimal system for library cataloguing remained in place until around 1983 until the cataloguing software Dynix was invented. Now, library-goers no longer have to take out cards; they can simply find the books they need using computers as catalogues. With the prevalence of the Internet, now even more information that you would typically find in libraries can be found online.

Whether you feel like your kids' back to school shopping lists are longer, shorter, or just more expensive these days, there's no question that they have changed over time. Technology has changed the classroom as well, making everything more connected in a digital world.

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