Who Invented the Etch A Sketch?

I recently learned that the Etch A Sketch toy had been created by a Frenchman. If you want to know, in France, we call it “l’Écran magique” (the magic screen). As I wanted to know a bit more about that, I started researching:

Who Created the Etch A Sketch?

A French electrician employed by Lincrusta Co. named André Cassagnes was the mind behind the Etch A Sketch. He was then working at a factory in a northern Paris neighborhood where is was not creating toys.

The 30-year-old Cassagnes was working at the plant placing a plate over an electrical light switch. That was around 1955. On the new plate’s translucent protective decal, which was covered by a decal, he scribbled some pencil marks. He removed the decal and saw that his marks were still discernible on the other side.

There was a rational explanation for this phenomenon that seemed miraculous. Some of the tiny metallic particles on the decal that had been attracted to it by an electrical discharge had been moved by Cassagnes’ pencil. This incident gave him the inspiration to create a sketching tool that replicated what he had just witnessed.

Cassagnes experimented with a variety of materials before settling on glass for its transparency, aluminum powder since it was readily available in Lincrusta, and a pen that resembled a joystick to make the designs.

The backside of the screen has a coating of “pulverulent material such as aluminum powder” that the Etch A Sketch uses to work. To avoid clumping, the powder is combined with microscopic plastic beads. A “movable tracing stylus” that is buried behind the screen is controlled by two knobs. The left knob controls the stylus’s horizontal movement, and the right one controls its vertical movement. The stylus is moved through the powder by turning the knobs, and it scrapes the powder off the screen to expose vertical or horizontal lines. Simply flip the Etch A Sketch over, shake it, and recoat the screen with aluminum powder to remove the picture.

Eventually, Cassagnes formed a partnership with Paul Chaze, the proprietor of a small plastic injection molding business, who, with the help of his accountant, Arthur Granjean, was able to get patents for the toy in both France and the United States. It’s crucial to note that Granjean is occasionally incorrectly attributed as the creator of the Etch A Sketch since he submitted and paid for the patents (on July 23, 1959).

Evolution of the Design

A redesign of the Etch-A-Sketch toy was developed by the Ohio Arts Company thirteen years later. The two most noticeable modifications were the inclusion of a protective layer of clear plastic film put over the top of the glass plate, making the device safer to use in case it was dropped and the glass plate cracked, and a better casing that stopped the aluminum powder from escaping.

The Ohio Art Company first rejected the toy but subsequently decided to take a risk on it, going on to become the producer of the Etch A Sketch. For $25,000, they bought the toy’s rights, and Cassagnes collaborated with Jerry Burger, the company’s head engineer, to improve the design. The joystick was replaced with the recognizable two-knob system, which had a television-like design to mirror the time’s most popular home appliance.

In time for the 1960 Christmas season, this updated model—Now known as the Etch A Sketch—entered the market. It quickly gained popularity, selling more than 600,000 units.

The popularity of the Etch A Sketch may be credited to both its creative design and its astute marketing strategies, which included animated ads that highlighted the toy’s distinct drawing and erasing features. It immediately rose to prominence as one of the very first toys to get television advertising.

The impact of the Etch A Sketch goes well beyond its ground-breaking style. It was one of the first toys inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998. The Etch A Sketch was ranked among the top 100 toys of the 20th century in 2003 by the Toy Industry Association.

If you like reading about the story behind the creation of famous toys, I previously wrote about the invention LEGO and the Slinky.

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