There are certain timeless toys that are universally associated with childhood – dolls, action figures, building blocks, and so on – but there is one common toy that very few users understand. The enigmatic Etch A Sketch has an elegant design and has remained mostly unchanged for over fifty years, but the simple secret behind its magical erasable screen is not the ultimate reason for the toy’s success. The real reason that the Etch A Sketch has remained an unchanging cultural icon for the better part of a century is that it appeals to children of every background, of every level of artistic aptitude. The Etch A Sketch is an icon, and like many other great icons that we’ve explored on Garage Greatness, it was first invented in a garage.
André Cassagnes was thirty when he first chanced upon the idea that would go on to become the Etch A Sketch. Cassagnes was an electrician with the Lincrusta company, in Vitry-Sur-Seine, France. While installing a switch plate over a factory’s light, Cassagnes made some marks with his pencil on the face of the light plate’s decal, and after removing the decal, he noted that the marks had transferred to the opposite side of the decal as well. This idea would form the heart of the Etch A Sketch.
Cassagnes was only an electrician due to his inability to work in his family’s bakery, due to a flour allergy. As a teenager, he worked with his parents in their shop outside Paris, but after leaving and finding a job as an electrician, he was set on the path to greatness. In his time at the Lincrusta company, he learned about aluminum powder, the powder used to make picture frame covers. This aluminum powder would also go on to be at the heart of the Etch A Sketch, and his early prototyping centered around this powder.
Cassagnes did his tinkering in the garage.
Like most of the other inventors and products we’ve covered, the road from idea to product was long. Cassagnes tried a variety of systems to handle the actual drawing, once you figured out how to use aluminum powder to capture the image. The design that he settles upon is still used today, and relies upon the use of a pointed joystick and a pane of glass to create the magical image. Cassagnes won a prize in the Paris Concurs International D’Inventions and wanted to continue working on the concept, but without the $200 that he needed to register a patent, he didn’t want to let his idea be stolen.
Once he had a full idea for his new invention, called “L’Ecran Magique” or “The Magic Screen,” Cassagnes began shopping his new toy around to potential manufacturers. At the 1959 International Toy Fair in Nuremburg, Germany, Cassagnes looked for anyone willing to help him continue his new dream, but wasn’t able to interest any of the toy manufacturers, who didn’t want to take a risk with such a new technology and no guarantee the children (or parents!) would care. Nion Company, a plastic molding company from his hometown, but they were not interested – he was, however, referred to the owner of another plastic injection molding company, MAI, that went on to produce his first tracking device samples.
It wasn’t until 1960 that Cassagnes found someone interested in his Etch A Sketch. Although they had originally passed over the idea at the International Toy Fair, The Chief Engineer of The Ohio Art Company now showed an interest in the toy, and Cassagnes travelled to America to prefect the design. He and Jerry Burger, the Chief Engineer at Ohio Art, created a system of vertical and horizontal pulleys that could be controlled with just two knobs, mirroring the appearance of televisions at the time. The working name for the tracing device was “Magic Screen,” but thankfully before it was introduced in the Spring, the name was changed to the now familiar Etch A Sketch.
In their first year of production, over 600,000 Etch A Sketch toys shipped to an international audience. The toy’s launch was just as innovative as its design, since it was one of the very first toy products that was advertised with television commercials. This method of advertising, the price tag of $2.99, and the just-in-time-for-Christmas release date led to an enormously successful launch. In fact, The Ohio Art Company was still manufacturing the new toy until noon on Christmas Eve, before immediately shipping them to California so that they could get to buyer’s homes by Christmas. In 1998, Etch A Sketch was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame, and now it has become an iconic toy, even in these days of iPads and smart phones. Since its introduction, more than 150 Million Etch A Sketch have been sold across the world.
Later in life, Cassagnes went on to develop complex kites in France, a toy he was particularly passionate about. He lived with his wife and three children, and invented several other toys in his lifetime, including a toy to guide metal cars onto tracks called the Teleguide and a globe-shaped doodling toy named the SkeDoodle. At the age of 86, Cassagnes passed away in his Paris home.
The Etch A Sketch is one of the most enduring toys, and it came from a simple garage idea! If you want to hear about more exciting inventions from the garage, just check back to our weekly blog, Garage Greatness.