Sunday, January 22, 2012

The story of highlighters

Ever wonder about the origin of the highlighter?  Today we take them for granted but there was a time when the humble highlighter had as profound an effect on people's reading habits as contemporary e-reading devices like the Kindle.  To learn the interesting history of this ubiquitous reading aid, check out this article from the Sunday New York Times Magazine section.

Who Made That?

The Hand-Held Highlighter

Once, when readers wanted to remember something, they had to mark important passages with thin, wobbly lines in drab, hard-to-relocate colors. Before the rise of the highlighter, says Dennis Baron, a University of Illinois professor and the author of “A Better Pencil,” attentive readers relied on “a combination of underlining and marginal notes.”

Like so much else, that began to change in the 1960s. It was then that the Japanese inventor Yukio Horie created a felt-tip pen that used water-based ink. The following year, in 1963, the Massachusetts print-media giant Carter’s Ink developed a similar water-based marker that emitted an eye-catching translucent ink. They called it the Hi-Liter.

As with Horie’s invention, capillary action pulled ink through a filter — similar to the one in a cigarette — to the paper’s surface when a writer pressed the highlighter to paper. Just as important as the ink’s smooth, even application was its color: see-through yellow and pink, which both drew the eye and neatly delineated a piece of text without obscuring it. The fact that the highlighter’s ink was water-based, rather than alcohol-based, helped prevent it from seeping through paper.

By the 1970s, highlighting was already overtaking underlining as the dominant way to refer back to something important, or just kind of important. In 1978, Dennison, the predecessor to today’s binder-and-label behemoth Avery Dennison, had gobbled up Carter’s Ink and was ready to introduce the next great innovation in text-marking technology: fluorescent colors. This class of pen, which has come to dominate the medium, achieves its unearthly glow by absorbing UV rays and re-emitting them into the visible spectrum.

The highlighter’s appeal has flourished in the digital age. Most word-processing and e-reader software products have a highlighter function. And the hand-held highlighter continues to evolve, too. In the early ’80s, the fiber tip gave way to polyethylene beads molded into porous heads. (The plastic squeaks less, and the ink flows more smoothly.) When the highlighter business saw that it wasn’t being embraced by holdouts who preferred pens, it made the dual highlighter/pen. There are now retractable highlighters. And flat ones. And ones that smell like pizza.

But Steve Raskin, a senior marketing director for Avery Dennison, says 85 percent of sales go to the classics: yellow and pink.


| Permalink


A former colleague of mine at Tulane actually wrote an article many years ago - The Problem with Highlighters:

the "academic" version:

and in Harper's:

Posted by: Howard Katz | Jan 23, 2012 10:33:02 AM

Post a comment