It could be argued that there are two different kinds of people in this world: those who can draw accurately on an Etch A Sketch and those who end up with what looks like a ball of hair coughed up by their neighbor’s cat. Okay, perhaps not…but regardless, the Etch A Sketch is as iconic as they come in the world of toy design along with Pez dispensers, Barbie, and Hot Wheels. Today, some hardcore ‘Etch Enthusiasts’ are even programming their Etch-a-Sketch ‘platforms’ with Arduinos and step motors to run computer-aided designs. But where did the concept for the Etch A Sketch come from in the first place anyways? In this animated short released Saturday by the New York Times, Etch a Sketch inventor André Cassagnes gets the proper biographical treatment on the iconic toy that he developed decades ago.

‘Discovered by Accident’

For those still struggling to understand the mechanics of an Etch a Sketch, it is essentially a box of aluminum powder that coats a transparent screen and the ‘etch’ comes from a 2-axis scraper that reveals a darker line that is actually the shadow of the box interior. If you were to ‘blackout’ the entire Etch A Sketch window, you would actually be subtracting all the material that was on the screen rather than adding to it.

It’s been reported that Cassagnes fell upon the concept for the Etch A Sketch by accident while installing a light-switch plate at the factory he worked in the late ’50s. After peeling the translucent protective decal off of the new plate, he noticed that the marks he had made with his pencil became visible on the reverse side of the decal. After spending the next few years perfecting his invention, the rest is history. It’s popularity can be attributed to it’s release near the Baby Boom in the early 1960s and is still popular enough that it has been featured in all three Pixar Toy Story movies as well as having been put into the political meme engine.

As part of their annual ‘The Lives They Lived’ tribute to some significant individuals who passed away this year, the New York Times made sure that Cassagnes’ (who sadly passed away in Paris this past January) story wasn’t written in words but rather, pictures from his device that surely inspired thousands to pursue a life in art and design:

The holy grail for Etch A Sketch art has always been to draw a perfect circle, or at least a curved line. Of course with Arduinos and other hacks these days, it was only a matter of time before somebody programmed their Etch A Sketch with Mastercam to let the computer do all the work:

Hopefully Cassagnes got a chance to see how his toy is still inspiring thousands today.

(Images via YouTube/The New York Times)


Simon is a Brooklyn-based industrial designer and Managing Editor of EVD Media. When he finds the time to design, his focus is on helping startups develop branding and design solutions to realize their product design vision. In addition to his work at Nike and various other clients, he is the main reason anything gets done at EvD Media. He once wrestled an Alaskan alligator buzzard to the ground with his bare hands… to rescue Josh.