Who knew a red plastic box, aluminum powder, and a joystick were an initial catalyst that changed Christmas morning forever?
Serendipity describes it perfectly. It started out as some random pencil marks made during otherwise routine electrical repair at the home of André Cassagnes (1926-2013), an electrician living in Paris. Noting that these random pencil marks on an adhesive surface on the plate somehow remained visible on the other side of the adhesive surface inspired Mr. Cassagnes to design an actual device mimicking this phenomenon. He did so utilizing alu
minum powder, a plastic case, and a joystick to engineer the L’Ecran Magique (aka Télécran), the earliest version of what we know today as an etch-a-sketch which was originally premiered at the 1959 Nuremberg Toy Fair in Germany. Though the Ohio Art Company initially was not sold on the idea when first seeing the concept in Nuremberg in 1959, they later picked up on the concept in 1960, altered the design slightly (example: replacing the joystick with the classic white knobs we know today) and through effective advertising right before the 1960 Christmas season, sold over half a million L’Ecran Magique devices almost instantly. By 1998, this popular toy was nominated to the US National Toy Hall of Fame, and was honored in the top 100 memorable toys of the 20th century by the US Toy Industry Association in 2003.
So how does this seemingly simple, commonplace device actually work? As mentioned above, Mr. Cassagnes utilized aluminum powder in his original design. Aluminum powder in the plastic case has a unique ability to adhere to a variety of surfaces, including the thin glass layer found within the etch-a-sketch apparatus. There are plastic beads incorporated into the aluminum powder intended to minimize the chances of the aluminum powder particles sticking to themselves, thus ensuring uniform distribution of the aluminum powder on the glass plate. When you shake and/or invert the apparatus to erase your artistic creations, the aluminum evenly coats the glass plate, rendering a “blank” canvas.
When you turn one or both of the white knobs, you are activating a pulley system which pulls on a wire that is connected to a stylus. This stylus rubs off the aluminum particles from whatever area of the screen the stylus is at, resulting in the artistic creation of your choice. The lines you draw only appear black because of the absence of light present within the etch-a-sketch device.
This basic concept of an etch-a-sketch was also the basis of research conducted at the University of Pittsburgh. Using both lanthanum aluminum oxide and strontium titanium oxide instead of aluminum, and the tip of an atomic force microscope as a stylus, scientists found that the changes in voltage (movement of protons and electrons based on changes in electrical field) across the surface may yield insights for potential nanowire research; these nanowires have potential use in transistors and other potential wiring applications.
As Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior advisor to former presidential candidate Mitt Romney mentioned during the campaign,”Everything changes, it’s almost like an etch-a-sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.” Whether on the political stage, as a gift to a child under a Christmas tree, as a model to help you survive physics class, or the basis of nanowire research, the etch-a-sketch has a noteworthy place not only within the history of the toy industry, but within society.