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
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
The floodgates opened and in rushed Papermate (a division of Gillette) and
Pentel with their "water soluble inks suitable for normal weight paper," wrote
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
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."