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Back to School with the Blackboard -1817’s Newest Teaching Technology

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This post was updated to reflect that it was written by Michelle Cadoree Bradley, a Science Reference Specialist in the Science, Technology and Business Division.

Department of Mathematics, 1904. Photographs of West Point – William H. Stockbridge. Courtesy of the United States Military Academy.

By the 1840s this teaching aid was being lauded as miracle of instruction. In an article published in The Common School Journal in 1844 “… a great discovery, almost equal to the art of printing and the steam engine.”    (“Letters to a primary school teacher,” v. 6, no. 1, p. 56-59) In his introduction to the use of the blackboard in the primary school setting, author Josiah F. Bumstead states:

The inventor or introducer of the black-board system deserves to be ranked among the best contributors to learning and science, if not among the greatest benefactors of mankind; and so he will be regarded by all who know its merits, and are familiar with school-room trials.” (p71)

Although there are some references to the blackboard being used in some small classrooms before 1817, its popularization is widely traced to Frenchman Claudius (Claude) Crozet (1790-1864) who joined the faculty of the West Point Academy, serving as Assistant Professor of Engineering.   In teaching geometry he wished to illustrate and have cadets illustrate and perform instructions before the class.  His use of the “black-board” became a widely popular way of teaching mathematics and was soon introduced into many colleges and schools.

Children studying geometry in a classroom in Washington, D.C. 1899? Frances Benjamin Johnston.

I found a number of early books in the Library of Congress collections.  The following can also be found online:

The Black Board in the Primary School Josiah F. Bumstead (1841)

Slate and Black Board Exercises W.A. Alcott (1843)

The Black-board, Exercises and Illustrations on the Black-board by John Goldsbury (1847)

An introduction to early teaching technologies can be found in Charnel Anderson’s Technology in American Education 1650-1900.

For a great look at many early classroom interiors (and a lot of blackboards in the background) see the blog post “Absorbing details in the classroom,” by Barbara Orbach Natanson, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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