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Indelibly Devoted / Marker-maker's widow fights for his fame

History is not written in indelible ink.

If it were, Emily Rosenthal figures, Sidney N. Rosenthal's name would be

right up there with Tesla, Edison and Fermi.

"He'd take apart gadgets and put them together to see how they move and

work, then sketch and build some doodad with a twist," Rosenthal says of her

late husband, the inventor. "One day," she said, "he showed me this little

glass jar filled with ink and a brush sticking out." He made a series of

squiggly lines on a cardboard box, on a wooden handle, a metal container, a

swatch of leather, a cut of cloth, a plastic cup and a rubber tube.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Rosenthal had invented the Magic Marker felt-tip pen, a trademarked name

that - like Kleenex tissues, Xerox copiers, Jell-O and Band-Aids, would become

synonymous with the product itself.

But a series of patent disputes and business failures befell Rosenthal, and

by the time he died in 1979 of complications from diabetes, the inventor had

receded into anonymity.

"That's unacceptable to me," declares Emily Rosenthal, who has mounted a

one-woman campaign from her home in Manhattan for the past eight years to get

her late husband admitted to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio.

It is an uphill battle, to be sure. "There's a backlog of worthy inventors

and only three slots per year for induction in the deceased category," explains

Frederick Allen, editor and publisher of American Heritage and vice president

of the hall's Selection Committee. Still, he adds, "the felt-tip marker is an

important invention, one that is deserving of recognition."

Indeed, it does seem hard to dispute.

After all, with one felt stroke Rosenthal had provided an alternative to

the thin line of the ballpoint pen, and by 1952, had begun manufacturing the

revolutionary marker at his Queens business: Speedry Chemical Products in

Richmond Hill. His invention dispensed ink evenly without flooding the paper or

blotting.Its wedge- shaped nib attached to a leak-proof glass barrel, and a

cap covered the tip, keeping it moist and ready to use.

Commercial artists snatched up the magical markers and talked them up. Soon

consumers got swept up in the craze, making posters, signs and labels on all

kinds of surfaces.

Inevitably, there were imitators. "In 1958, Carter's Inc. started selling a

more slender marker with an aluminum tube," wrote Robert McGough in a 1986

article about Rosenthal that appeared in Forbes magazines. "Speedry sued for

patent infringement and lost."

Rosenthal was stoic, given the megamillions at stake. "Sidney always told

me a patent gives you the right to sue or be sued - nothing more," says Emily

Rosenthal.

The floodgates opened and in rushed Papermate (a division of Gillette) and

Pentel with their "water soluble inks suitable for normal weight paper," wrote

McGough.

The inventor divested himself of his shares in publicly traded Speedry in

1965, which was bleeding red ink after a protracted battle against

deep-pocketed concerns. Five years later, Rosenthal sold the rights to the name

Magic Marker. For all his originality and enterprise, he walked away with

several million dollars in royalties from a billion-dollar industry that would

grow by leaps and bounds in the following decades.

Rosenthal died when he was 72. His wife, 12 years his junior, says she

spent the next decade alone, battling breast cancer.

For a brief moment, the name of Rosenthal resurfaced in 1989. Binney &

Smith, the maker of Crayola crayons, entered into a licensing agreement for the

exclusive rights to the Magic Marker brand name, and several years later

introduced a redesigned line of felt-tip markers. The company prepared a lavish

publicity spread for its quarterly publication and tracked down Emily, living

in south Florida, to help spice it up with colorful anecdotes and artifacts

about the man who first made his mark 40 years earlier.

But fate intervened. On Aug. 24, 1992, Hurricane Andrew ripped a gaping

hole in Emily's penthouse condominium on Grove Isle, destroying her

irreplaceable memorabilia and photographs - the accumulated treasures of her

life with Sidney.

She headed back home to New York City, in fragile health, with few

belongings and no family or friends for moral support. One day, in 1994, "while

flipping through the TV channels, I happened to come upon a special on famous

inventors," she says. "Fifteen years after Sidney's death, and it was the first

time I had heard of the existence of the National Inventors Hall of Fame."

Emily discovered that alongside such superstars as Edison, Bell and the Wright

Brothers were the makers of Scotchgard, Velcro, polyurethane, and scores of

practical and popular breakthroughs.

"I realized I had to do something to make sure Sidney gets his just due. I

believe in giving and getting credit where credit is due, and I'm not shy in

stating he belongs in a place that celebrates creative genius."

She began gathering evidence for the nominating application to the

inventors hall of fame. She hired a researcher who dug up 25 patents and

trademarks buried in the archives of the patent office, attributing the

invention of the Magic Marker felt-tip pen to Rosenthal.

She cited the markers' uses - from highlighting passages in periodicals to

drawing on transparencies for overhead projectors, writing over numerous

surfaces and under numerous conditions. From tracing areas of the human body

for surgery or chemotherapy to branding cattle, from creating landscape scenes

of pictorial brilliance to achieving striking surreal effects on photographs,

altering lures and camouflaging fishing lines, touching up scuffed shoes and

nicked furniture. Even for "tweaking" compact discs to increase sound quality

by drawing a line around the outer edge.

"Markers have changed the way people express themselves," says Patty

Larado, an elementary school art teacher in East Islip. "Just walk into any

classroom the world over and you'll see wall-to-wall Sharpies, Flairs,

Highlighters and Magic Marker implements - they are, hands-down, the drawing

utensil of choice and the choice of drawing utensils." Still, Rosenthal's

marker ultimately went the way of Scotchgard. "Binney & Smith no longer

manufactures or promotes the line of markers developed around the Magic Marker

brand name," said Susan Tucker, director of media for Binney & Smith. "Magic

Marker products just didn't measure up to the leaders of the industry," such as

Sanford's Sharpie.

The name of Sidney N. Rosenthal appeared on the ballot for induction into

the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995 and has each year since. "I was

told not to expect anything to happen right away," says Emily Rosenthal, "and

that proved to be an understatement."

Her desire to have her husband recognized has become increasingly urgent

for the 83-year-old widow, who recently suffered a series of strokes that have

left her immobile and impaired.

Still, she holds out hope that her quest will have a happy ending. "I can't

bear the thought," she says, "that Sidney will not make it into the hall of

fame, or be linked publicly to his invention and vanish without a trace."

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