R.I.P. André Cassagnes, Inventor Of The Etch-A-Sktch
On January 16th, 2013 we lost André Cassagnes, 86 year old inventor of the Etch-A-Sketch. The Etch-A-Sketch is one of those rare enduring classic toys that has changed little in the decades since its birth, and is just as beloved today as ever.
Cassagnes was a French electrical technician. In the late 50s he was installing a new light switch plate, peeled back the protective decal which had attracted some nearby metallic powder thanks to the natural electrostatic charge of the plastic. He made some marks on the clear plastic, and noticed that they became visible through the reverse side. it took some years to transform the idea into a toy, which he then sold to Ohio Art in 1959 for $25,000.
For most of its life, Etch-A-Sketch stood steadfastly by its original iconic design. Originally mimicking an early television (in those early days of TV, lots of products made a point of resembling a television set), the red frame and white knobs remained a staple of good toy design - and good package design. Long before every toy boasted an appealing "try me" button, Etch-A-Sketch invited young fingers to play. Toy shelves transformed into impromptu art galleries of all of the pre-sale attempts at Etch-A-Sketch masterpieces.
While the standard Etch-A-Sketch is still sold in stores today, there have been a number of variants over the years. Different colored screens, glittery frames, pocket sized versions, even a 1980s all-electronic version that could save and playback multiple chunky pixel images to create animation.
"Serious" artists have scribed astonishingly detailed (and elaborately pre-planned, I'd guess...) pictures with the humble toy. Once completed, artists often drill a hole in the bottom and dump out the aluminum powder to make sure that no one accidentally erases hours of work with a careless shake.
To show you how relevant a 50 year old toy can still be, recently Etch-A-Sketch joined the sketchy world of politics during the seemlingly interminable 2012 U.S. presidential election. A careless comment from one of Mitt Romney's senior advisers, Eric Fehrnstrom, likened his boss' campaign strategy to the classic toy: “Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”
Whoops. A comment possibly intended as a bragging point about flexibility came off sounding like the candidate had no actual political agenda. Both sides of the aisle were in rare agreement that this quote was a spectacular goof. The winner was, of course Etch-A-Sketch, who saw sales rise by 30% (including a new blue-framed model for ardent Democrats).
Ohio Art, manufacturer of the Etch-A-Sketch, miraculously kept the manufacture of the classic toy in the USA until 2000. Just three years later, Etch-A-Sketch was named in 2003 as one of the 100 best toys of the 20th century - a tremendous legacy by any measure. So let's honor André Cassagnes' brilliant invention by giving our Etch-A-Sketches a good shake, and then we can all spend the rest of the day trying to draw a circle.