The Etch A Sketch: Rhodri Marsden's Interesting Objects

In 1998, Etch A Sketch entered the US National Toy Hall Of Fame

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The Independent Culture

This weekend 55 years ago, the very first Etch A Sketch rolled off a factory production line in Bryan, Ohio. It was one of the first toys to be advertised on American television, and after also winning endorsements from popular magazines of the day it became the Christmas hit of 1960. The man who invented it, however, kept a much lower profile in his native France.

André Cassagnes was an electrician with a fascination for geometry. While fitting a switch plate for an electric light in the mid-1950s, he noticed the way his pencil marks would transfer onto surfaces through the protective plastic sticker, and it got him thinking.

Working with glass, a rudimentary joystick and a bag of aluminium powder he borrowed from work, he developed an early version of a toy which he called the Télécran, or telescreen.

Unable to afford the patent, Cassagnes approached a local plastics moulding company for assistance. The factory produced the samples, while the owner registered the patent under the name of his treasurer, one Arthur Granjean (who is thus often incorrectly credited with the invention).

At the 1959 Nuremberg Toy Fair the prototype caught the eye of Henry Winzeler, president of the Ohio Art Company, who paid $25,000 for the rights. It's not clear how much of that money Cassagnes ever saw; suffice to say that he continued working as an electrician until his retirement in 1987.

But he didn't seem overly bothered. "I am not an artist, but I love symmetry," he said. "I am not an engineer, but I am ingenious." In his later years he developed a passion for kites, and became a renowned designer of stunt models. In 1998, Etch A Sketch – despite being one of the most infuriating toys ever foisted upon the public – entered the US National Toy Hall Of Fame. To date it has sold over 175m units.

@rhodri

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