Etched in Memory

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Etch A Sketch

When I was a kid in the 1970s, I loved to draw. I’d mostly doodle superheroes and Star Wars characters on big sheets of dot-matrix printer paper my mom brought home from work. I thought I was pretty good… Then I got my first Etch A Sketch, and boy, did that little red tablet knock me down a peg or two.

It had looked so easy.  Drawing on a . . . a . . .  thing, with knobs?  How hard could it be?  Well, it usually took me three or four tries before I could even get my drawings started in the right place!  And those knobs definitely challenged my hand-eye-coordination.

I became decent with diagonal lines, but in all my years of Etch-A-Sketching, I never got the hang of circles.  I was convinced I’d discovered a new geometric shape, the squarecle…

Robots were my favorite things to draw, probably because they were blocky and, thus, recognizable.  I remember making a particularly awesome robot with lots of knobs and circuits.  As I hopped off my chair to show my brother my masterpiece, I knocked the Etch-A-Sketch on the floor, totally disintegrating my work!

The Etch-A-Sketch seemed like magic to us kids, like something you’d see in Willy Wonka’s factory, conjuring images out of nothing.  I remember thinking, “Is it drawing on the screen or taking something off the screen?”

How It Works

Inside the Etch A Sketch

The Etch A Sketch's knobs are connected to rods by steel wire in a complex pulley system.

How the Etch A Sketch works is quite fascinating. The glass screen is coated on the underside with a mixture of fine aluminum powder and plastic beads (which allow the powder to flow evenly).  The knobs are connected to horizontal and vertical rods by steel wire in a complex pulley system.  When you turn the knobs, the rods move and a stylus attached to the rods scrapes the aluminum powder off the glass – making a line you can see.

A Brilliant Idea…

The Etch A Sketch was invented in 1957 by French electrician Andre Cassagnes. After noticing how an electrostatic charge made aluminum powder adhere to glass, Cassagnes worked on the device in his garage. He based the framed design on the classic television set.

Initially called the Telecran, the ingenious drawing toy was later also called L’Ecran Magigue (The Magic Screen).

Etch A Sketch in Classic Packaging

The Etch A Sketch has seen only slight design changes since 1960. Today it is available in classic retro packaging.

In 1959, Cassagnes took his invention to the International Toy Fair in Nuremberg, Germany, and reps from American toy company Ohio Art were impressed.  Ohio Art acquired the rights to the Telecran and perfected its design over the following year.

Introduced in June 1960 under the name Etch A Sketch, the red-framed drawing toy was like nothing kids had ever seen.  It took the world by storm and has been a mainstay in kids’ toy boxes ever since.

For more than 50 years, the Etch A Sketch has changed little.  It still sports that famous red frame, although it can be found in other colors and styles, too.  Today’s versions have slightly smaller knobs and screens, but the drawing mechanism is the same design as used in the ’60s.

Never-Ending Popularity…

The Etch A Sketch remains one of the most popular kids toys around, and die-hard enthusiasts have spent countless hours taking the toy’s sketching power to higher levels. Today, adults are picking up this classic to take its art to mind-blowing levels for fun or competition. Restaurant chain Red Robin Gourmet Burgers even held an “Etch-A-Sketch a Burger” Contest, but adults are now taking Etch-A-Sketch art to mind-blowing levels.

Just take a look at this time-lapse video of George  Vlosich’s massive sketch of the Chicago Cubs (FALL Classic):


And this multi-sketch video by Christoph Brown, who sketches frames within minutes on a Pocket Etch A Sketch:


By the way… Artists preserve their sketches by draining the aluminum powder from the Etch A Sketch and locking the knobs. It’s a simple process, though has to be done carefully so as not to disturb the unit – such as by shaking – until the beads and powder have been drained.

Did you have an Etch A Sketch when you were a kid?  What was favorite thing to draw?  Did you never master those two knobs?  Share your memories or art designs, we’d love to hear about them.

Last updated: Jun 20, 2012
Filed under: Retro Memories Tagged with: Classic Toys