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A Brief History Of The Etch A Sketch: Why We're Still Fascinated By The Toy After 55 Years

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It's hard to believe the Etch A Sketch is only 55 years old. It seems like the classic red-framed drawing toy has been around forever.

That's probably because the Etch A Sketch has done a lot in its little more than half-a-century lifespan. It has sold more than 175 million units worldwide since it hit stores on July 12, 1960. It was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, N.Y., in 1998 and was included in the Toy Industry Association's "Century of Toys" list in 2003. It has appeared in a number of movies and TV shows, such as the Toy Story movies, Elf and a recent episode of Pretty Little Liars.

It even played a role in the 2012 presidential election. Eric Fehrnstrom, Mitt Romney's senior campaign adviser, used the Etch A Sketch as an analogy that seemed to suggest that the then-hopeful Republican nominee would transition from a conservative to a more moderate stance on issues once he achieved the nomination. This gaffe was then mocked by everyone from Stephen Colbert to fellow Republican nominee hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.

You have to admit it's pretty impressive that a toy that can't connect to Wi-Fi, doesn't have Bluetooth capabilities - heck, doesn't even have batteries - continues to be iconic and have relevance today, especially when children are increasingly putting down toys and picking up video game controllers.

Though the Etch A Sketch may still not have the countless capabilities of the devices that make their way into kids' hands today, it's the simple fact that you can't quite figure out what's going on behind that gray screen that has continued to captivate the young and the old for decades, according to Martin Killgallon, the president of the Ohio Art Company, which has manufactured the Etch A Sketch for the U.S. market since 1960.

"Even today in this high-tech world, there's something — even though it's low-tech — magical about Etch A Sketch. People say, 'Wow, how does it do that?'," said Killgallon in an interview with T-Lounge. "We like to say Etch A Sketch, you know, it's easy to play with, but it's not easy to master, so I think that's a clear reason why it's thrived for 55 years, it's that kids will play with it, and they see things that Etch A Sketch inventors do with it, creating the Mona Lisa, just doing beautiful artwork. Then they say, 'Wow, I want to try and do that.' "

The Inventor's Aha Moment

It's no surprise that the Etch A Sketch was born out of curiosity. Sometime around 1955 or 1956, a 30-something Andre Cassagnes was working as an electrician for a company called Lincrusta in Vitry-Sur-Seine, France. While installing a factory light switch plate, he peeled off its translucent decal and made some pencil marks on it. Cassagnes, who passed away at the age of 86 on Jan. 16, 2013, realized that he could see the image he had drawn on the opposite side, and he was inspired to create a drawing toy.

Cassagnes experimented with various materials before landing on glass for its transparency, aluminum powder for its accessibility at Lincrusta, and a pointed joystick to create the actual image. The first Etch A Sketch made by Cassagnes was a hollow box with a pulley system on the inside that operates a stylus to brush away the aluminum powder from the screen. The toy basically works the same way today.

Cassagnes' prototype, which the Ohio Art Company still has in its possession, shares similarities with the Etch A Sketch recognized worldwide today. It's basically a miniversion of the toy with a rectangular case in that famous red color with a joystick mechanism that juts out to move the stylus and push around the powder on the external screen.

A Bumpy Journey To The U.S.

Winning a prize in a French invention competition motivated Cassagnes to patent his design. However, he didn't have the funds to do so on his own.

He eventually partnered with Paul Chaze, the owner of a small plastic injection molding company, who obtained patents for the toy in France and the U.S. with the help of his accountant Arthur Granjean. Since he actually filed and paid for the patents, they were in Granjean's name, not Cassagnes'. For this reason, Granjean was often erroneously credited throughout much of history as the inventor of the Etch A Sketch. Granjean signed over the French patent rights to Chaze, who licensed the French manufacturing and marketing rights to French toy company Joustra.

Cassagnes introduced the Etch A Sketch at the Nuremberg Toy Fair in Germany in 1959, but it didn't attract much attention from manufacturers because they thought the inventor was asking for too much money in exchange for the rights. The Bryan, Ohio-based Ohio Art Company eventually struck a deal with Cassagnes to acquire the rights to the Etch A Sketch for $25,000, more than the company had ever paid for a license, according to the National Toy Hall of Fame.

"I believe a lot of the companies turned him down, and I think Ohio Art may have even turned him down the first time," Killgallon said. "At some point, the management of the company who would have been my grandfather and the nephew of the founder saw it and agreed to take it on as a project."

How The Ohio Art Company Changed The Etch A Sketch — And Vice Versa

It was a challenge for the Ohio Art Company to figure out how to reproduce what would become the Etch A Sketch for American children. Cassagnes worked with the company's chief engineer Jerry Burger to redesign the toy.

“Etch A Sketch, it seems simple, but it’s not easy to manufacture and produce so that you have a good, quality product. I know that in 1960 at our facility, there was a lot of trial and error about how do we get this just right," Killgallon said. "Before we perfected it, there was just a mountain of red frames out behind the factory of trial and error that they went through to make sure that it draws properly and consistently.”

But once the Ohio Art Company got it right, it really got it right. The Etch A Sketch was an instant hit.

"I know that we were manufacturing Etch A Sketches up until noon on Christmas Eve trying to get product to the West Coast in time for kids to wake up and have it for Christmas morning," Killgallon said.

As Seen On TV

Killgallon attributes part of that success to the product's commercials, especially during a time when TV was increasingly becoming a huge influence on American culture. For something like the Etch A Sketch that was totally new and unique to Americans at the time, the visual medium seemed perfect to illustrate how children could use the toy to draw a picture and then "magically" make it disappear.

"There's animation in this commercial, and they have a character named Pernella. She's drawn on the screen, and she comes to life. There's a space rocket that's built that blasts off," Killgallon said. "Thinking about being a kid in 1960 and talk about powered by imagination, just seeing this visual on TV of creating whatever you want and then coming to life had to be incredibly impactful."

In fact, TV was a major influence on the toy from the very beginning. Cassagnes originally named it a "L'Ecran Magique," as it is still referred to in France today, because with its screen and two knobs, it resembled a TV set. The Ohio Art Company initially thought to keep that connection alive with the English translation of the title, "Magic Screen," but the company changed the name to Etch A Sketch some time between January 1960 and the product's official launch that summer. Still, the Ohio Art Company didn't completely abandon the Etch A Sketch's resemblance to a TV set, as you can see today.

"You think about, well, why does the Etch A Sketch look like it does today? I think that TV was really coming on. It was becoming really popular. It was the high-tech thing," Killgallon said. "I like to think that the designers of that time took his drawing concept, said how do we make this look more like the hot, innovative thing right now, which is a TV, which is how we believe it got its look and feel today."

A Seemingly Unshakable Legacy

The Etch A Sketch hasn't been without change in its 55-year history. The Ohio Art Company has introduced size and color variations over the years as well as partnering with major children's movies and TV shows, such as a Frozen-branded Etch A Sketch featuring Elsa and Olaf on the frame. The company has also spun off the Etch A Sketch to create other products, such as the Doodle Sketch, which is basically like an Etch A Sketch but with a stylus instead of knobs to help the user draw, a Plug & Play Etch A Sketch that allows users to draw on their TV screen and the Etch A Sketch Animator that brought drawings to life when it hit stores in the 1980s. There's now even an official Etch A Sketch mobile app that lets you create images and transform your photos into the toy's classic grayscale drawings.

A major change for the Etch A Sketch came in late 2000 when the Ohio Art Company announced that production for the toy would be moving from its Bryan, Ohio facility to China in an effort to cut production costs. The company also faced bankruptcy around that same time before securing financing to stay viable.

But through all of those changes, that classic red-framed Etch A Sketch remains the Ohio Art Company's bestseller today. Still, that doesn't mean the company doesn't feel pressure to keep the Etch A Sketch up with the times.

"I think that it's always a challenge, no matter what the brand is, to try and keep it relevant," Killgallon said. "You have to be careful because you want to keep the core Etch A Sketch in place, but you always want to be innovating. I don't see the classic Etch A Sketch going away, but we're working on some projects that definitely would be a totally new way to see Etch A Sketch in the future."

In fact, this 55-year-old toy seems to be ripe for the viral generation with Etch A Sketch artists' work, such as George Vlosich III's portrait of LeBron James, blowing up on the Internet every so often.

Even though technology now allows us to create images and share them with people all over the world in a matter of seconds, there seems to still be something so alluringly enigmatic about what goes on underneath that Etch A Sketch screen. Sometimes, you just can't shake off curiosity.

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