What did we do before the iPad? (By ‘we’ I mean ‘you’, because I’m the dinosaur stuck with the lap-top). The answer: We played all day on the Etch A Sketch.
Hours and hours of my young life wasted/gained/lost/liberated: on the sofa, in bed, in the back of the car.
It has everything the iPad has: text (writing ‘STEPHEN’ in large, uneven letters across the screen); images (all those pictures of stick-men, houses, battle-fields, random animals and geometric patterns); video (the pictures morphed and developed in the making); audio (the faint screech of the wires, the white noise of shaking the filings back into place, using the screen as an improvised drum). It even had wifi: the fact that if your little brother was just finishing his Etch A Sketch masterpiece on the other side of the living room you could use a carefully thrown basketball to edit or delete the image at will; no troublesome wires, no worry about incompatible sockets.
And perhaps all of my present obsessive-compulsive tendencies stem from my discovery that if you systematically rubbed out every millimetre of the screen by bringing the horizontal line back and forward and edging it down incrementally, you uncovered the inner reality of the mechanism: the wires, the pulleys, the metal filings piled up below. This took about half an hour, and I couldn’t stop until not a single filing remained on the underside of the screen. A first taste of mystery, of engineering, of taking things just a little bit too far…
Why this reverie? I just discovered that André Cassagnes, the Etch A Sketch inventor, died last month at the age of 86. This is from Margalit Fox:
A chance inspiration involving metal particles and the tip of a pencil led Mr. Cassagnes to develop Etch A Sketch in the late 1950s. First marketed in 1960, the toy — with its rectangular gray screen, red frame and two white knobs — quickly became one of the brightest stars in the constellation of midcentury childhood amusements that included Lincoln Logs and the Slinky.
Etch A Sketch was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester in 1998; in 2003, the Toy Industry Association named it one of the hundred best toys of the 20th century. To date, more than 100 million have been sold.
The toy received renewed attention in March, amid the 2012 presidential campaign, after Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney, described his boss’s campaign strategy heading from the primaries into the general election thus:
“Everything changes,” Mr. Fehrnstrom said. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”
The quotation, pilloried by Democrats and Republicans alike, was widely interpreted as an acknowledgment by the Romney campaign that its candidate had no fixed political ideology.
The complete eradicability of an Etch A Sketch drawing is born of the toy’s simple, abiding technology.
The underside of the screen is coated with a fine aluminum powder. The knobs control a stylus hidden beneath the screen; turning them draws the stylus through the powder, scraping it off in vertical or horizontal lines that appear on the screen as if by magic. (An early French name for the toy was L’Écran Magique, “Magic Screen.”)
To erase the image, the user shakes the toy, recoating the screen with aluminum; tiny plastic beads mixed with the powder keep it from clumping.
That is essentially all there is to an Etch A Sketch, and though the toy now comes in various sizes, shapes and colors, its inner workings have changed little since Mr. Cassagnes first touched a pencil to a powder-coated sheet on an otherwise ordinary day more than five decades ago.
And the discovery itself?
One day in the late ’50s, as was widely reported afterward, Mr. 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.
In making its faux finishes, the Lincrusta factory also used metallic powders; Mr. Cassagnes’s pencil had raked visible lines through particles of powder, which clung naturally to the decal by means of an electrostatic charge.
Mr. Cassagnes spent the next few years perfecting his invention, which was introduced in 1959 at the Nuremberg Toy Fair. (Because the toy was patented by Arthur Granjean, an accountant working for one of Mr. Cassagnes’s early investors, Mr. Granjean is sometimes erroneously credited as the inventor of Etch A Sketch.)
After Ohio Art acquired the rights to the toy for $25,000, Mr. Cassagnes worked with the company’s chief engineer, Jerry Burger, to refine its design. Where Mr. Cassagnes’s original had been operated with a joystick, the final version mimicked the look of the reigning household god of the day — the television set. It soon became the company’s flagship product.
In later years, Mr. Cassagnes designed kites; by the 1980s, he was considered France’s foremost maker of competition kites, which can perform elaborate aerial stunts.