anatomy of a white board

Scientistjenluc There's an exciting new addition to the decor chez Piquant: a shiny new white board, which the Spousal Unit picked up one day from Office Depot, after I repeatedly expressed my desire for just such an item to assist me in my calculus studies. He was skeptical at first, but now that we've got the thing set up, the added value it brings is indisputable. In fact, it might be the source of future domestic strife, since the Spousal Unit uses it more than I do at the moment for his own (far more advanced) mathematical scribblings. What will happen when I need equal time?

I learned to appreciate the educational benefits of a white board when I was still living in Washington, DC, and writing my first book. Occasionally I'd venture into the American Center of Physics with various questions about, say, special relativity, or whatever particular topic I was learning about that week. And my APS News editor, Alan Chodos, would patiently sit me down near the white board in his office — or in the adjacent conference room, when others wanted to listen in — and run through simple explanations, complete with diagrams and the odd equation. Yes, he knew of my distaste for mathematics, but kept insisting it wasn't "real" math: "It's just algebra." And gosh darn it if he wasn't right: I could follow his explanations just fine, and it really did help to see the equations for time dilation and length contraction firsthand — concepts that can give the average non-scientist a major headache. Those mini-lessons with Alan are one of the things I miss most about my years in DC, but the Spousal Unit has vowed to make up for the loss by trying to fill that gap. Hence, our spiffy new white board!

Because I'm a big geek, I had to Google "white board" for some background on our new addition. And I was surprised to learn that white boards didn't really come onto the scene until the 1990s, eventually replacing the once-ubiquitous chalkboards. Chalkboards themselves were somewhat revolutionary. The earliest versions were small squares of slate framed with wood so they wouldn't crack, distributed to public school students so they could be marked on with other shards of slate. Paper was too expensive back then, and the students had to practice their sums, and spelling, or what have you. Wikipedia tells me that in the late 18th century, a geography teacher in Scotland came up with the idea of using a larger version of the slate tablet mounted on a wall. Teachers could now write problems or lessons on a single board that all the students could see, rather than on each individual slate. It also meant they could educate larger classes. By 1801, academic military schools like West Point were using full-sized chalkboards for lessons, and the practice soon spread to prairie schools popping up all over the developing US.  

But chalkboards produce a lot of dust, which is problematic for those with allergies. It's also problematic for computers, another revolutionary element that is now an integral part of modern classroom instruction. Enter a British company called Magiboards, which introduced an enamel-on-steel magnetic white board (also called a dry erase board) in the 1990s. Corporations latched onto the concept immediately, and today, most new schools are equipped with white boards rather than chalkboards. The technology (if that's the term for it) has improved since that first prototype, the costs have come down, and so have the number of alternatives to choose from. There's three basic materials for white boards. The cheapest is melamine resin — I suspect that's what ours is — but white boards are also made with polyester-coated steel and the more expensive enameled steel, which are supposedly more durable than the cheaper versions.

The bad news is our melamine resin board will turn grayish over time because ink from the special non-permanent markers will seep into the pores of the material. (I seem to recall that the white board in Alan's office has some equations permanently stained into the background; no doubt ours will meet with a similar fate, at which point — we'll buy a new one!) The pricier, enameled white boards apparently remain white. But all three versions exhibit a little effect called "ghosting": the board is actually cleaner where something has been written because of the alcohol solvents used in the dry markers, so one's equation (or grocery list) is still faintly visible for a bit after erasure. And some delicate souls aren't just allergic to chalk dust, but also to the strong order of the dry markers. (There are now reduced-odor markers for those users.)

It's the nature for a successful product to continue to evolve and improve, and the white board is no exception. Folks soon figured out that a white board could be used as a projecting medium for an overhead or video projector, so a presenter could write directly on the board while speaking. A company called Virtual Ink Corp. in Massachusetts sells the mimio Xi, which saves words and drawings on a white board stroke by stroke into a computer file, so teachers can create a digital movie of a lesson that students can later download and review.

We're in the Age of Power Point, so it's not surprising to find interactive white boards are on the rise: a high-tech version that turns a white board into an interactive, touch-sensitive computer screen, projecting images from, say, a desktop monitor onto the board's surface. Users can control the computer using a special pen, finger, mouse, or other stylus-type device. It's the Internet that makes this feasible for classroom use. An interactive white board connects to a computer via a USB port or a wireless connection, with attendant driver software loaded directly onto the computer. The driver converts contact or position with the interactive surface into mouse clicks or digital ink, either through a touch-sensitive surface or an infrared laser pointer type thing. You can pick a front- or rear-projection system, or even opt for the newer "short-throw projection" systems, which allow the projector to be much closer to the interactive white board surface.

Lots of companies offer this new white board technology, but the number one Google hit is a company based in Calgary, Alberta, called SMART Technologies. They sell the SMART Board, which looks much like a typical ho-hum white board, except it has a touch-sensitive surface that controls the attached computer. A digital projector beams images onto the board, which comes with four electronic "color sticks" instead of the usual dry markers. The idea is to enable teachers to create interactive, multi-page presentations with pictures, texts, and even hyper-links to the Internet, for a truly engaging classroom experience.

So, okay, those high-tech interactive white boards are pretty nifty, but when it comes to built-in entertainment for cocktail parties, nothing beats an old-fashioned white board and magic markers. That was our hypothesis, and we tested it experimentally a few weeks ago when we hosted the first annual Cocktail Party Physics cocktail party one Saturday night. Lots of scientists, science writers, and just plain science-minded folks from the greater metropolitan LA region showed up (plus a few out-of-towners who happened to be passing through La-La Land), and many took advantage of the offer to doodle something about their work on the white board. We like to think of it as improvisational performance art — about SCIENCE! It ended up looking like this:


I sent this pic to my friend Diandra, a condensed matter physicist, who commented that white boards are a bit like a Rorschach test: "I can tell you hang out with cosmologists. The same white board would look very different if you had condensed matter physicists around." She has a point: white boards reflect the performers who happen to be present. But I think ours is actually fairly diverse, despite the cosmological bias. Certainly there are equations associated with general relativity and a quantum version of Boltzmann's equation, among other things, but if you look closely, you'll also see a diagram of stem cells, a schematic for a prototype space probe, and what I can only assume are astronomy or particle-physics related items. (I have no idea what the recurring spiral drawings are supposed to represent — I was probably replenishing my cocktail glass during that part of the "performance" — but they add a unifying element to an otherwise haphazard set of themes.) We're not just about the cosmology here, no sirree!

All of this has convinced me that every self-respecting science-minded home should have a resident white board. (Offices should, too, but I suspect most of them are already thus equipped.) I'm curious as to whether any regular readers of the cocktail party have had cause to examine their white boards after parties or inter-disciplinary gatherings. So I'm asking a general (two-part) question for folks to answer in the comments: What's the most interesting thing you've seen written on a white board? And what can we infer (if anything) about the sorts of things people doodle on the surface?

White boards: they're not just for scientific offices and labs anymore! Buy yours today!

22 thoughts on “anatomy of a white board”

  1. White boards also have one other advantage over blackboards that I heard lots about doing my undergraduate senior thesis: For people doing low blank carbonate chemistry for paleoclimate work, chalk dust is a major contamination problem. Ditto for strontium isotope work, whether climatological or hard rock.
    Writing on and with geological materials is great, but if they mix with samples then life gets difficult.

  2. If you want a big free white board, wait for some department to throw one in the dumpster in favor of a new one! Mine’s a nice 4’x8′.

  3. Jennifer says: “What will happen when I need equal time?”
    Spousal unit buys a second whiteboard?

  4. And some delicate souls aren’t just allergic to chalk dust, but also to the strong order of the dry markers.
    Good thing that whiteboard markers aren’t closed systems and their strong order will decay with time.
    I havce two whiteboards at home, one is too large to comfortably mount anywhere, so is standing behind the laundry basket and is (almost) never used. The smaller whiteboard is mounted on the wall next to the computer and is used as document storage (it’s just far enough from the wall that you can stick an envelope in behind it) and assorted scribbling, for various purposes (mostly code design and equations, boringly enough).
    I really should look into getting a whiteboard for work, too…

  5. The real use of a white board, as any parent of a small boy knows, is to permit an endless reconfiguration of the forces in Star Wars.
    Spousal competition? My white board lasted perhaps 14 minutes before my then-five year old expropriated it.

  6. I’m surprised at the 90s date. At 3M we had boards that were white all over the place twenty years earlier. Perhaps your “white board” and 3M’s white boards were something different but the description and the picture look the same.

  7. The switch to whiteboards in classrooms seems very silly for the “protect the computers!” reasons: they are more expensive (expecially with the markers v. chalk taken into account), and the computers would be obsolete and replaced before the chalk dust would kill them anyhow.
    Re: SMARTBoards … I know at least that many public schools in South Carolina use these, and they seem to be fairly useful if the teacher is committed to making them a learning tool rather than a shiny toy, which isn’t something to be taken for granted.
    Personally, I miss chalkboards. If they are good enough for MIT classes, then they should be good enough for anyone.

  8. Hey, like your bloggin’ ways. This is spot-on topic offtopic. I have begun using a freeware program called pencil for its endless supply of white paper, plus, since it is an animation program with onion skin capabilities, I have limited 3 dimensional layering abilities, plus, speed reading my animated note stack, which gives me more ideas than the static notation-surfaces. Amazing how harmless squandering is a gift of the gods… with a mac, notes can be exported as movie files… add a projector and a wacom, and yer doin’ overhead projection with mad twists. Mostly, when I see white boards, I’ve ran the other way because it’s like seeing crayons when you paint with oils… so, as to what the most interesting thing I’ve seen is drawing a complete blank is perhaps noteworthy, judge on ye note-takers, but aside from the way in which whiteboards attract people who would be banned from using media for artistic purposes, (quite healing for them, as we should all express ourselves,) the reassuringness of erasure vs. posterity allows people to think and express at a substandard level. Granted, this is generalization, but, imagine a felt pen with an irising brush and variable flow pressure…

  9. I helped a friend set up two 4×8′ whiteboards when she was writing her senior thesis — we simply bought two 4×8′ sheets of formica-covered particle board and hung them. Worked great. I’m not sure they’d last any longer than a framed whiteboard bought at Staples, but they were darn cheap and seemed to work just fine.

  10. I found the transition to whiteboards a little difficult; I taught in the late 80’s and got used to chalkboards, but holding chalk and holding the larger whiteboard marker are different and affect the writing. The amount of friction is different as well. One thing I’ve noticed is that the chalkboard training leaves me much less susceptible to the temptation of erasing with my hand, so I don’t usually end up with black/rainbow smudges on my hands (which can then migrate).

  11. We painted our guest bedroom door, front & back, with blackboard paint. Cost: $10. Most of it is covered by my dissertation, but random things do appear when guests stay overnight.

  12. Nice article… already earned a google ranking of 6th for keywords “paint marker anatomy” — which is really wanted to know as part of a design project for a chemical dispensing system. The pictures were interesting, the site title was intriguing, and the gal is pretty so I jumped in. What a pleasant read.
    I wanted to offer up another as yet unmentioned member of the visual expression medium, the humble bar napkin. Available almost infinitely, at cost approaching zero, it is the Dirac-delta function of “here, lemme show you” mediums. Not to mention bar napkin’s inherent proximity to a *bar*, where mind-enhancing and expression lubricating beverages are served. Responsibly, of course. There’s a frailty that has the advantages of easy destruction for purposes of confidentiality or propriety, and a “fragile: handle with care” aura that makes all pen strokes careful, deliberate, and non-violent. Otherwise, a royal pain to write on without tears — the BN’s one big downfall. Also very portable and quite fade-proof. I’m a design engineer, quite scientific albeit not a scientist, and it’s amazing how many brilliant ideas had their conception on a bar napkin. Or maybe it’s just amazing that I have any ideas at all after spending so much time in a bar…
    For those of you with the cheaper variety of whiteboard (and I are one) with ghosting or staining problems, you will find that a paper towel soaked with a liberal amount of Vodka will get the most stubborn ancient ghosts out of the pores. And it’s cheaper, works better, smells better, and [I would think] tastes better than the special-purpose whiteboard cleaners.
    I have whiteboards at home and in the office, but no supply of bar napkins. I think a cross-polination is in order; I will buy some bar napkins for the house and suggest my local tavern get a whiteboard.

  13. Magiboards did indeed launch the enamel steel whiteboard (see, but this was actually in the 60’s, not the 90’s. They’ve been around for a long time so you were probably right about seeing them at 3M in the 80’s. It started with enamel, but then moved to other smooth surfaces from which dry marker ink could be erased. Enamel remains the best though, because it is dense as glass (it is in fact almost the same) and ink doesn’t get into the surface. In most countries chalk boards in education are now being discouraged or even banned, because of asthma issues with chalk dust. Whiteboards expensive? If you look at the new Magiboards website you’ll see that their cheapest 4’x3′ boards now cost less than £30.00, or about $55.00 I think. That’s not bad at all I should think!

  14. For a cheap white board I use a large (second hand/thrift store) photo frame just framing some nice white paper. The glass is near impossible to stain if it dose get dirty you can remove it and clean it with some strong stuff/solvent without having to worry about your setting/damaging the frame.
    I got the idea from the fume hoods at university, their glass sash is ideal for writing on with the “permanent” marker thats never too far away. Then it can be easily remove with the acetone wich is again never too far away ( top tip: add a little ethyl acetate to the acetone on the rag, it helps reduce smearing).

  15. I guess my elementary school was close to 3M because from 1979 on, I had white boards in the classrooms. They usually covered the entirety of the exterior walls. MIT freaked me out a little when stepping backward in time to chalk and chalk dust in most classrooms after a dozen years of white boards, which also handle projected images well.

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