André Cassagnes, 1926–2013

The inventor who dreamed up the Etch A Sketch

André Cassagnes had his eureka moment in 1955. The French electrician was peeling a translucent decal from a new light-switch plate when he noticed that an electrostatic charge had caused metallic powder to cling almost magically to the plastic sheet. Where he touched his pencil to the decal, the powder fell away. Realizing that the phenomenon could be used to create a drawing toy, he spent several years working up a prototype in his basement workshop. Cassagnes hawked his invention, L’Écran Magique (The Magic Screen), around European toy fairs, and in 1959 the Ohio Art Co. bought the rights to the device for $25,000. The firm tweaked the design and in 1960 launched the toy in the U.S. with a catchier name: Etch A Sketch.

The Etch A Sketch was an instant hit largely because of its “simple, abiding technology,” said The New York Times. The underside of the toy’s TV-like screen is coated with fine aluminum powder. Using two large dials, the user controls a stylus that scrapes away the powder, sending a black line zipping across the silver screen. Shaking the toy recoats the screen with aluminum, erasing the image. “In recent years, sales have been hit by electronic and computer games, but the Etch A Sketch never completely went away,” said The Guardian (U.K.). The device enjoyed a brief revival during the 2012 election when one of Mitt Romney’s aides likened his ailing presidential campaign to an Etch A Sketch: “You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.”

Over 150 million Etch A Sketches have been sold since 1960, but the toy’s success had little impact on Cassagnes’s life. He worked at the same French factory for more than 30 years until his retirement in 1987, and continued designing toys. In the late 1970s, he became obsessed with kites, said the Los Angeles Times, and his elaborate creations led him to be hailed as France’s greatest kite designer. “I am not an artist, but I love symmetry and geometry,” he told a kiting magazine in 1992. “I am not an engineer, but I am ingenious.”

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.