One of the most popular drawing toys ever conceived, the Etch-A-Sketch has taunted the imagination and tested the dexterity of millions of artists for the past fifty years with its two little white knobs. The only thing the toy lacked was forgiveness. Master the operation of the controls and you could create a masterpiece. Make any little mistake and you literally had to shake it off and start over.

Leave it to the French – connoisseurs of more variations of cheese, wine, and bread than there are days in the year – to make something extraordinary out of the ordinary. Arthur Granjean did just that in 1959 when he invented “l’Ecran Magique,” or “The Magic Screen.” Everything about the toy was derived from the mundane. Granjean used simple physics to essentially create a plotter that kids could draw with.

At the International Toy Fair in Nuremburg, Germany, Granjean presented his rectangular toy to the world … and watched as everyone passed him by. But after giving it a little thought, American toy manufacturer Ohio Art Company returned for a second look and decided maybe there was something to this Magic Screen after all.

The Ohio Art Company brought there new toy back to the States and modified it with a few marketing friendly touches, such as a red plastic frame (nine and a half inches long) and renamed it the Etch-A-Sketch. As 1960 drew to a close, print and television advertising bombarded consumers. The result was as magic as the screen itself. Etch-A-Sketch flew off the shelves and became the envy of seemingly every child in America.

The secret of the Magic Screen is in the combination of aluminum powder and styrene beads that coat the back of the screen. A small stylus sits behind the screen as well, scraping the powder and beads away and trailing a dark line behind it. Two small knobs at the bottom of the frame control the stylus, one governing vertical movement while the other guides the horizontal.

Erasing the picture is as simple as turning the screen over and shaking it, an act which recoats the screen. Of course, the ultimate test of the Etch-A-Sketch artist is the curved or diagonal line. It cannot be emphasized enough that the coordination required to do this rivals that of most circus acrobats.

Amateurs will go with the incremental alternation, a move which ever so slowly moves the stylus in miniscule horizontal and vertical steps. To make matters even more difficult, once the drawing has begun, there’s no fixing a mistake without erasing the whole thing. Plus, the stylus can’t move without drawing a line. Hence, to “jump” from one point to another requires the creative use of drawing or the dexterous retracing of steps, either of which encourages a creative mind that sees the end from the beginning and plans accordingly.

Ohio Art released sequels to the Etch-A-Sketch throughout the seventies in hot pink and cool blue frames. In 1985, when the toy celebrated its silver anniversary, the Executive Etch-A-Sketch was issued with a silver frame, jeweled knobs, and even a hand-carved signature at the top. And for a mere $3,750, it made the perfect gift for the kids of plastic surgeons, oil barons, and foreign royalty.

Ohio Art also released electronic versions – the Etch-A-Sketch Animator series – that saved a limited number of drawings and made sound effects as one drew. The most recent of these, the Animator 2000, also allowed one to play cartridge video games. Time has proven however that it’s tough to improve on the magic of the original.

Many Etch-A-Sketch artists take their work so seriously that after creating it, they remove the aluminum powder (either by drilling a hole in the back or removing the back of the casing) so the monotone magnificence will last forever. Fans of Etch-A-Sketch have created calendars, websites, and other knick-knacks – including the Etch-A-Sketch Club founded in 1972 – to commemorate the over one hundred million units that have been sold worldwide. For most, they were merely a fun drawing toy, but in the hands of a master, the Etch-A-Sketch had plenty of magic contained within.

Have you spent many an hour perfecting your Etch-A-Sketch technique? Did you ever master the art of the curved line? Tell us about your experiences in our comments section, as we pay tribute to one of the most fondly remembered toys of all time.

2 Responses to “Etch-A-Sketch”

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  1. jennifer harris says:

    I had one of these.

  2. Eddie Ruff says:

    and it is possible to figuratively shake ones life like an etch a sketch and start drawing again. this retroland feed came via email in the most coincidentally miraculously timely manner imaginable. thank you retroland

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