Hey kid - what's in your locker?
Where would you be without your three-ring binder? And what if you didn't have a calculator? Or a pencil? What if you had a pencil but (horrors!) no eraser? (In fact, erasers weren't invented until centuries after the pencil!) Think about all that for a moment, then read on and find out about the humble, accidental, odd, and true origins of the ordinary objects you use at school every day.Skip to next paragraph
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Today there's a statue on Boston Common commemorating the inventor of the loose-leaf binder. But it wasn't erected to honor Henry T. Sisson's profound contribution to neatly ordered papers. No. Colonel Sisson of Providence, R.I., fought in the Civil War on the Union side. His exploits included fighting at the Battle of Bull Run and narrowly escaping capture in Fort Washington, N.C.
But before the war, in 1854, at the age of 23, Sisson patented the first "loose-leaf binder."
Early binders were heavy-duty, expensive, and black in color. The novelty of the idea was that you could compile papers in any order you wanted, and insert papers at a whim. The binder was made of stiff pressboard (heavy cardboard) with a glued-on paper cover.
Fast-forward to the 1960s, when binders became mainstream. The stiff pressboard began to be covered with light-blue or light-green canvas. Vinyl replaced canvas in the 1970s. Today, binders range from simple and cheap to elaborate, expensive, and zippered. They come in all colors, too - not just black. But if you check, you may find that the material stiffening your binder's plastic or cloth covers is still old-fashioned cardboard.
Speaking of notebooks, did you ever wonder why notebook paper is such an odd size - 8-1/2 by 11 inches? Why not a foot? Why 8-1/2? The answer has to do with how far papermakers could stretch their arms.
Before the days of machine-made paper, "vatmen" made paper by hand. They used a two-sheet paper mold, which the Dutch invented in the 1600s. The average laborer could comfortably stretch his arms out 44 inches, so that's how wide the molds were made. Most molds were 17 inches tall (that is, measured from front to back). Why 17? History is silent on this.
The resulting large sheets (two sheets per mold) were cut in quarters to make eight pieces, each one 8-1/2 by 11 inches. Centuries later in the United States, when most paper was being made by machine, this paper size was retained to keep makers of handmade paper in business.
There are two twists to this paper tale. In 1921, the federal Bureau of the Budget, with President Hoover's approval, established 8 by 10-1/2 inches as the standard for government letterhead. That same year, a different federal agency set the standard at 8-1/2 by 11 - the same size the rest of the country was using.
The two government standards existed side by side until the early 1980s, when President Reagan declared 8-1/2 by 11 inches the official official standard.
Twist No. 2: The US and Canada are the only industrial nations still using paper that's 8-1/2 by 11 inches. The rest of the world uses International Standard paper sizes based on the metric system. In Europe, a sheet of letterhead is 210 by 297 millimeters (about 8-1/2 by 11-3/4 in.). The differing paper sizes create extra costs for international businesses (think about office copiers, faxes, and loose-leaf binders). Do you think we'll ever switch?
Let's get something straight: There is no "lead" (as in the metal) in pencil lead. Ancient scribes did write with lead, the metal, but that was long, long ago. The stuff you scribble math equations with is graphite mixed with clay. In fact, a more interesting and accurate term for "pencil lead" might be "pencil stardust."
That's right. Graphite, like diamond, is a pure form of carbon. Carbon is produced by nuclear reactions in dying stars. When the stars collapsed and exploded, the carbon and other elements created were scattered. Carbon dust eventually found its way into the cloud that coalesced to form our solar system five billion years ago. (Just think: You're writing with something created in the blazing heart of an ancient star billions of years ago!)