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This appears as a Guest Editorial in the December 2006 issue of

The Physics Teacher (Vol.44, Pgs. 568-569) 


Albert A. Bartlett

Department of Physics, University of Colorado at Boulder, 80309-0390 

In a recent meeting, an architect went to the whiteboard, intending to draw some explanatory diagrams.  He had designed the building and had specified a whiteboard instead of a conventional chalkboard in the room where the meeting was held.  He picked up a pen from the tray, took off the cap and tried to write.  The pen was dry.  He picked up another pen and had the same experience.  There were about half a dozen pens in the tray, and he quickly found that every one had expired.  Someone in the group went to an office and brought back several more pens.  These worked, but they did not seem to be writing at full strength.   

A member of the audience spoke up and said that there were important lessons in this experience and that he hoped that everyone had all learned the lessons. 

  1. Has anyone ever seen a piece of chalk that would not write?
  2. Every piece of chalk, by its size, tells at a glance how much more writing the piece can do.
  3. A whiteboard pen costs much more, perhaps as much as an order of magnitude more, than does a piece of chalk.

So in new or remodeled buildings, the act of specifying white boards and pens instead of chalkboards and chalk is an action whose effect is to increase the client’s operating costs while condemning the client to the perpetual frustration of inferior service.   

Someone said that they liked the whiteboards rather than the chalkboards because the chalk dust bothered the person’s allergies.  This must be balanced off against the health effects of breathing of the solvents in the pens.  These solvents could have a serious cumulative effect for teachers who spend a lifetime in the classroom, breathing the solvents day after day.  It is probable that different companies use different solvents.  In some of the pens, the solvent smelled like ether.  

It has been said that one should use whiteboards in computer rooms where chalk dust might get into the computers.  Erasing whiteboards produces some dust, but not as much as the use of chalk.  One can guess that the vital elements of computers are well sealed, except for the keyboards, and when one sees people using keyboards with one hand when they are holding coffee cups in the other, one can conclude that there’s not much concern for the vulnerability of keyboards to airborne or spilled contaminants.    

More factors need to be considered in comparing the whiteboards with blackboards. 

  1. The shelf life of chalk in office storage before use is probably infinite.  Because they contain volatile solvents, the shelf life of the felt pens is probably much shorter.
  1. One can guess that 80% of a piece of chalk winds up as lines on a chalkboard but that only a few percent of the colored dye in a pen gets on a writing surface before the solvent has all evaporated and the pen is then dead.
  1. It would be interesting to know, in average use, how many total meters of line are actually drawn by one of the felt pens before it expires, compared to the total meters drawn with the average piece of chalk.  It would not be surprising if, in average use, the meters drawn by the piece of chalk was at least an order of magnitude greater than the meters drawn by a felt pen.
  2. Put these together and the dollar cost per meter of line written (drawn) on the board may be as much as two orders of magnitude higher (a factor of 100) for pens on whiteboard than it is for chalk on chalkboards.
  3. And what about the environmental effects?  When you are finished, the little nubs of unused chalk that are discarded are only small volume of waste that is probably benign when thrown in landfills.  The felt pens with their aluminum or plastic bodies add up to a much larger volume of waste.  They may still have small amounts of remaining solvents, which is a pollutant.  Throwing away aluminum or plastic rather than recycling them is unconscionable.

So, if you are planning on a new building or are remodeling an old one, and you want reliability, low cost, and low waste, specify chalkboards.  Leave the whiteboards for the thoughtless wealthy who have little concern for the environment, who can pay the costs and who are willing to put up with the perpetual inconvenience of pens that pollute, and that die quickly without giving any signal of their imminent demise or of their death. 

What does it say about our society and about ourselves when we discard the familiar tried-and-true environmentally friendly devices whose completely dependable functionality has been proven through generations of universal use, and then like lemmings we eagerly and thoughtlessly follow the advice of others and replace the old reliable devices with devices that are new, modern, fashionable, glitzy and enormously more expensive to use and to dispose of?  What does it say about us when we go on mindlessly accepting these white boards and felt pens in spite of their high costs and their serious functional deficiencies? 

This replacement of the logical chalkboards by the illogical whiteboards is a triumph of business, as was explained by the director of General Motors’ Research Laboratories, Charles Kettering, who is said to have observed that the mission of business is “the organized creation of dissatisfaction.”    


"Simplicity is not natural. You have to choose to make it happen. To get Simplicity, you have to want it badly enough." - Dr. Edward de Bono