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Andre Cassagnes: Electrician who invented the perennially popular toy Etch A Sketch


André Cassagnes was the inventor responsible for the creation of the Etch A Sketch, the perenially popular drawing toy which was launched in 1960 and has since gone on to sell more than 100 million units worldwide. The idea behind the toy was simple but the possibilities for young aspiring artists were endless: a grey screen, enclosed in a red plastic box, with two white knobs. Drawings are produced by moving the knobs to scrape off the grey material, leaving black lines. On making a mistake or wanting to start again one simply shakes the screen to erase the image.

Cassagnes was born in the Paris area in 1926. As a young man he helped his parents at their bakery but soon went on to join a company making home decoration materials, Lincrusta, working as an electrician.

As with so many inventions, the genesis of the Etch A Sketch came about through a fortuitous accident. Cassagnes was repairing an electrical switch and had written in pencil on an adhesive transfer on the switch plate. He noticed that when he lifted off the transfer, the marks were still visible on the other side.

Inspired by this phenomenon, Cassagnes worked to create a "screen" on which lines could be scraped off with a stylus. Using aluminium powder, which was a raw material in his employer's factory, he created a plastic case, filled it with the powder, and equipped it with a joystick. The resulting prototype allowed the user to move the stylus and "draw" on the screen.

He first showed the device, which he called L'Ecran Magique [the Magic Screen] or Télécran [Telescreen], at the Nuremberg Toy Fair in 1959. Although the company Ohio Art saw the Etch A Sketch there, it was not until the following year that the company's president, HW Winzeler, decided to license the toy for $25,000. Winzeler introduced Cassagnes to Jerry Burger, an engineer at the company, and the pair worked on perfecting the final product, incorporating pulleys and the now-familiar white knob wheels.

The first unit came off the Ohio Art production line in July 1960 and sold 600,000 that year, the result of positive magazine reviews and word of mouth. A further boost to sales came in the form of one of the first ever television advertising campaigns for a toy, featuring a young girl character named Pernella.

Over the years the company experimented with a number of variations on the theme. These included Disney, Smurf and Pac-Man branded versions. A colour model and an electronic model, called the Etch A Sketch Animator, launched in 1986, could store and play back drawings. However, the basic format of the toy is still the favourite.

Sales of all the product range were hit by the advent of home computers and video games in the 1980s and 1990s, some of which were, in a strange twist, perhaps inspired by its design. It is not surprising that, in this decade, an app for mobile phones and tablet computers emulates the experience of the original toy.

Etch A Sketch remained in the popular imagination through films such as the animated Toy Story (1995) and its 1999 sequel, in which Etch is a character and friend of the cowboy Woody. "Hey, Etch. Draw! [Etch draws a gun and makes a shotgun sound] Oh! Got me again. Etch, you've been working on that draw. Fastest knobs in the West."

The toy even entered the American political vocabulary during last year's presidential elections. A senior advisor to Mitt Romney, Eric Fehrnstrom, said at a critical stage in the race "Everything changes, it's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again."

The simile became a byword for the fluid nature of the campaigning and saw rival Newt Gingrich responding, "So here's Governor Romney's staff, they don't even have the decency to wait until they get the nomination to explain to us how they'll sell us out, and I think having an Etch A Sketch as your campaign model raises every doubt about where we're going." Gingrich then gave the toy he was carrying to a child in the audience, remarking "You can now be a presidential candidate."

It has also become a favoured tool for professional adult artists and hackers, who have created computer-controlled versions of the toy. The artist Jeff Gagliardi, who organised a world-record sketching event with 372 artists in 2011, remarked, "Etch A Sketch Art is a quintessential American art form where the medium is truly the message. Everyone's familiar with it and I love creating works that you wouldn't expect to see..."

The Etch A Sketch was inducted into the US National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998 and in 2003 the US Toy Industry Association named it one of the hundred most memorable toys of the previous century. In later years Cassagnes had became known in his native country as a developer of large-scale geometrical kites; he had retired in 1987.

The President of Ohio Art, Larry Killgallon, said "Etch A Sketch has brought much success to the Ohio Art Company, and we will be eternally grateful to André for that. His invention brought joy to so many over such a long period of time."

André Cassagnes, inventor: born near Paris 23 September 1926; married Reneé (two sons, one daughter); died near Paris 16 January 2013.