Michael Bywater: The Etch a Sketch was infinitely worse at something all of us can do, but millions were sold

The beastly thing had a strange, clairvoyant significance

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The Independent Online

Remember the Doodle Master, later renamed the Etch A Sketch? A red box with a silver screen and two white knobs. You twiddled the left-hand knob and a vertical line appeared: the right, and the line – there was only the one line – moved horizontally.

That was not all. "The combination of the motion of both knobs enables you to draw all other lines: slanted lines, curves, winding lines and figures or lettres." The instructions gave its origins away: it was French.

And its inventor, André Cassagnes, died near Paris at the weekend, aged 86.

It was one of those toys almost everyone hated. The names, English and American, told as much. "Doodle" was too frivolous, "Master" too feudal for the Americans. Yet "Etch A Sketch"? It was the precise opposite of etching: impermanent and irreproducible. And "Sketch"? The word implies speed, an impromptu fluency of line, at which nothing could be worse than the Etch A Sketch.

In truth, Cassagnes invented a new and infinitely worse way of doing something that we'd been able to do much better since the Lascaux cave-painters.

Yet the American manufacturers Ohio Art have shifted over 100 million of the things since 1960. There are dedicated groups of Etch A Sketch artists. There's a Guinness record for the most people simultaneously to sketch the same thing on the same model of Etch A Sketch. Mahatma Gandhi, Cher and Bill Gates have had their Etch A Sketch portraits made. There's even an iPad app: Etch A Sketch HD.

And the beastly thing had a strange, clairvoyant significance. It was a sort of prototype for the world-through-glass of our computer-mediated age.

Now we complain about skeuomorphism: functionless hangovers from the old way of doing things, like the meaningless click-and-whirr of the camera in your smartphone.

But then, the Etch A Sketch brought something we don't have a word for. A new way of doing things worse, and at one remove. Perhaps skaiotropism, from skaios, clumsy, and tropos, way.

Cassagnes, then, invented the world's first skaiotrope. Now, everything adopts the form of the Etch A Sketch. It even had software: stick-on grids, a donkey and some looping French handwriting.

Perhaps he should have sued Apple. But he flourished in simpler times. "To erase," his instructions advised, "turn over and move back and forth, as when sifting sand". Ah, how well we recall our childhoods, sifting sand. The years fall away. We must hope that, as @GuyEndoreKaiser tweeted, Mr Cassagnes will be solemnly cremated, then shaken vigorously until he entirely disappears.