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When the inventor of Etch A Sketch, Andre Cassagnes, died on January 16 in a Paris suburb at the age of 86  — 56 years after his invention was launched to worldwide success — he left us wondering how the power of one continuous line can continue to amaze the world.

Originally named L’Écran Magique, or Magic Screen when it was first developed in the late 1950s, Etch A Sketch quickly became a household name, an iconic symbol of childhood, and a tableau of memories for generations of young men and women who used its rectangular grey screen, red frame and two white knobs like a handheld cockpit that would put their creativity on the runway and take their imaginations into flight.

Cassagnes was born in 1926 just outside Paris and as a boy worked in the bakery owned by his parents. But, according to The New York Times’ Margalit Fox, “He took a job as an electrical technician in a factory that made Lincrusta, a deeply embossed covering applied to walls and other surfaces to mimic sculptural bas-relief. One day in the late 1950s, as was widely reported afterward, (Cassagnes) was installing a light-switch plate at the factory. He peeled the translucent protective decal off the new plate, and happened to make some marks on it in pencil. He noticed that the marks became visible on the reverse side of the decal….”

Like magic, the pencil had raked through the fine, aluminum powder that clung naturally to the decal (and to everything else it touched) due to an electrostatic charge. Cassagnes spent the next few years perfecting his invention before exhibiting it at the Nuremberg Toy Fair in 1959 where the Ohio Art Company acquired its rights for US$25,000. That’s about US$200,000 today. Cassagnes not only sold the toy to Ohio Art Co., but also worked with their chief engineer, Jerry Burger, to refine the design. Where the original was operated with a joystick, the final version simulated the look of the reigning deity of the day, the television set.

Launched in the United States in late 1960, Etch A Sketch made its mark as the top-selling Christmas toy that year to having sold over 100 million sets to date. Today, it has been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame and is on the American Toy Industry Association’s “Century of Toys” list and is seen, Margalit Fox reports, as “one of the brightest stars in the constellation of mid-century American childhood amusements.”

The technology is simple. Etch A Sketch is basically a manually operated plotter with a built-in shake-and-erase system. Just twist the two white knobs to displace the aluminum powder on the back of the gray screen with a stylus (mounted on a pair of orthogonal rails that move vertically or horizontally depending on which knob your turn), leaving a line drawing that can be erased with a quick shake. By shaking the set, the inside face of the glass is re-coated thanks to a mixture of aluminum powder and small metal beads added to make the powder flow more evenly.

In spite of being a toy box classic, Etch A Sketch surged in popularity after being featured in the first two Toy Story films. More recently, it benefited from publicity during 2012’s US presidential election where it was featured as a much publicized American political simile: Asked about changes to Mitt Romney‘s approach between the primaries and the upcoming elections, an aide compared the candidate’s campaign to an Etch A Sketch. He said, “You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.” As a result, both Democrats and Republicans seized on the gaffe as proof of Mr. Romney’s political opportunism.

Ohio Art, on the other hand, responded to the blunder with a full-blown politically themed advertising campaign, “Shake It Up, America,” and offered customers across the country an opportunity to buy its venerable red-framed toy in a new, dark blue frame — for Democrats.

Of course, this doesn’t compare to the role “The Worlds’ Favorite Drawing Toy” continues to play in the imaginations of children everywhere. Its lines draw a parallel to a time when inventions surfaced by serendipity and not by the self-exerted and self-fashioning power of focus groups, venture capitalists, start-up buses and tech meet-ups. Which is why there is much to love in a gadget whose magic is borne from a moment of joyous inspiration and whose simple, pre-digital mechanics continue to astound and develop young minds.

 

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