Etch-a-sketch is one of the iconic toys of the 20th century, especially popular in the ’60s and ’70s. Many families, including mine, had one at some time. It has been produced by The Ohio Art Co. in the USA since 1960, but few knew that its inventor was a French man, André Cassagnes. Aged 86, Mr Cassagnes died on 16th January, 2013, in Paris.
As I was preparing some other posts to add to this blog I came across the news that André Cassagnes had died, and it seemed right to set aside a little time to pay tribute to an inventor of such an iconic toy. I had planned to do a feature on the Etch-a-sketch at some point, so why not now?
Living in the UK I cannot recall André Cassagnes being mentioned as the inventor of the Etch-a-sketch, believing it was just an American toy that was very popular. I understand that in France he was much more well known and continued to invent and design for many years, specialising in kites in the 1980s and also designing other drawing devices.
Etch-a-sketch is a relatively simple design, yet a true innovation too. The Lincrusta Company, France, employed André as an electrician in their factory, which produced picture frame covers using aluminium dust. While fixing a light switch plate he removed a translucent decal covering from the plate and wrote on it with a pencil. He noticed that the image transferred to the other side of the decal. Pondering on the potential for using what he had observed led him to invent a device with a pointer, that scratched the surface of aluminium dust, leaving a dark line behind it. Anything drawn could be erased with a simple shake to redistribute the dust. He called his invention L’Ecran Magique, (The Magic Screen). He exhibited his prototype at the Nuremberg Toy Fair, in West Germany, in 1959, when it came to the attention of business contacts of the Ohio Art Co.
The Ohio Art Co. was founded in Archibold, Ohio, USA, in 1908, by Henry Winzeler. To begin with it manufactured metal picture frames and novelty items for sale in retail stores across America, moving to Bryan, Ohio in 1912. They had success with a framed print series known as Cupid Awake/Cupid Asleep having moved into metal lithography, which also allowed them to print on wood grained metal sheets. They expanded into the toy market from 1917 with windmills and a climbing monkey in 1919. After WW1 they continued to grow making colourful tea sets and drums, as well as continuing the metal lithography. Both arms of the business are still thriving today.
Hearing of André Cassagnes’ invention, through business contacts in Europe, Henry Winzeler arranged to work with him. Along with Jerry Burger, Chief Engineer at the Ohio Art Company, they developed what was at first known as the ‘Telecran’ into the Etch-a-sketch by July 1960. It went on sale soon after that for the holiday season of 1960 and with few differences the Etch-a-sketch is still available, one version packaged to look like the original. They also now do a large range of related devices that range in size, shape and colour. To see more of what they do today just visit the Interactive webpage of Ohio Art Co. There are also guides on how to better use an Etch-a-sketch, including videos and galleries of art created on them.
In the mid-70’s, after a year or two yearning for an Etch-a-sketch my mum agreed to buy one, although I believe that I had to pay part of the cost from my pocket money, earned by washing and polishing a two cars for a neighbour. A week or so later one arrived in a parcel from the Peter Craig catalogue, with payment being less than £1 a week over 20 weeks! The first one was damaged, with aluminium powder leaking from the screen edge, so there was a long wait for a replacement.
Once the second one arrived I recall putting it to almost constant use for the first few days and weeks, but my interest began to fade once I realised that it wasn’t that easy to draw really good artwork. I did find the ability to draw straight lines with ease of interest as I was already doing a lot of pencil and pen drawings on paper that were either complex patterns or ‘designs’ for space age houses of the future. After living in a succession of old, dark, damp and dingy homes it seemed the necessary thing to do for a bright future in clean shiny spacious homes of the year 2000!
Several years of occasional use followed, with me or my sister (6 years younger) finding something to do with it, but eventually the Etch-a-sketch became forgotten and rarely used. Then one day we found this second one had started to leak aluminium powder too. After unsuccessful attempts to seal the edge of the screen with various glues it was dumped. That seems a pity now, as it is a piece of history lost, but unsure how toxic the powder was or how much worse the leak would become it seemed for the best at the time.
Would like to extend a thank you to Steve Berry of tvcream.co.uk for the photo at the start of the article and the original can be found in his photostream –unloveablesteve at Flickr It was the best UK related photo of an Etch-a-sketch I could find. I believe the two drawing control knobs are different in design on the UK version, having a cone shape that you can grip easily instead of the wider flatter design of the original and current US designs.
One final quote from Larry Killgallon, president of Ohio Art, “Etch A Sketch has brought much success to the Ohio Art Company, and we will be eternally grateful to Andre for that. His invention brought joy to so many over such a long period of time”.