With its bright-red frame, grey screen, and white plastic knobs, the Etch-a-Sketch toy is a 20th-century toy icon. Millions of kids around the world have manipulated those knobs to draw everything from a single line to complicated portraits.
For a plaything so closely identified with American childhood, the Etch-a-Sketch has surprising Gallic roots: Frenchman Arthur Granjean first showed what he called L’Ecran Magique (Magic Screen) at a German toy expo in 1955. Ohio Art executives bought the rights to Granjean’s device, and released it several years later as U.S. patent #3,760,505.
The Etch-a-Sketch works with elegant simplicity: The glass screen’s underside is coated with a mix of aluminum powder and plastic beads. Aluminum powder will cling to almost anything, and the beads help make it movable. The knobs control a stylus that can move in any direction to make lines in the powder/bead mixture. If it were just a grid making machine, the Etch-a-Sketch would not have lasted this long as a toy that’s still bought and used. With coordination and quick manipulation of the knobs, a person can create curved lines—the catch is that the line has to keep going as you draw. If you stop and reverse direction, or try to head to a different point in the picture, your creation will be finished. This challenge makes the Etch-a-Sketch fun and engaging. Over the years there have been different models, colors, and sizes of Etch-a-Sketch, including one with buttons to mimic a computer console, but the only one that has lasted is the original red, white, and gray. The toy’s inner workings remain the same, too. The aluminum powder and plastic beads have not been swapped out for some space-age synthetic material, and the metal stylus is still made and rigged exactly as it was in 1959.
While the original Etch-a-Sketch is still going strong, several other toys in its category are also worth mentioning for their approach to mess-free, reusable, and portable drawing. The Magic Slate is a simple cardboard rectangle topped with a slightly sticky board that has a piece of thin, peelable plastic attached. With an included plastic stylus, a child can draw simple figures, as well as write messages or maths equations. A flick of the plastic, and the drawing is erased. Two popular drawing toys are based on magnets. The first dates back to 1955: Smethport Specialty Company’s “Woolly Willy.” Don and Jim Herzog, brothers whose father, Ralph, owned Smethport, used metal shavings left over from production and a vacuum dome to create a toy that is still manufactured and sold in its original as well as new forms. Basically, a child could take a metal “magic wand” to gather up the polarized shavings and move them to different places on “Willy’s” face (the simple, silly visage was drawn by artist Leonard Mackowski). The Magna Doodle, first released in 1974, is a natural meld of the Etch-a-Sketch, the Magic Slate, and Woolly Willy: It combines the frame construction of the first, the stylus function of the second, and the magnet science of the third to make a durable and very adaptable drawing surface.