André Cassagnes obituary

Publié le par The Guardian - Kim Willsher

The Guardianpublished 04/02/2013 at 17:27 GMT by Kim Willsher

Inventor of the Etch A Sketch, a toy that became an instant hit

Cassagnes AndréWhile the Etch A Sketch – the much-loved but infuriating toy that made drawing less an art than a feat of manual dexterity – is known throughout the developed world, few were aware of its origins. The red and silver-grey plastic box with knobs on was invented in France, where it was known as the télécran (TV screen) or ardoise magique (magic slate), by an enterprising electrical technician, André Cassagnes. Fame has come to him only after his death at the age of 86. It was announced by the Ohio Art Company, the American firm that has produced the Etch A Sketch since 1960, selling 100m of the toys.

Like many of the finest inventions, the Etch A Sketch came about by accident. Cassagnes grew up in the southern Paris suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine. He might have followed in his baker father's footsteps but for an allergy to flour. Instead, he trained as an electrician.

While fitting a light-switch plate in a factory, Cassagnes noticed that after he had peeled a sheet of protective plastic from the plate, pencil marks made on one side transferred to the other side. The factory made a wall covering and used metallic powders. Powder particles had clung to the underside of the plastic sheet, and with the help of static electricity stayed there. Cassagnes's pencil marks had displaced them, tracing visible lines through the powder.

In 1959, the resulting gadget, which originally had a joystick instead of two knobs, was presented at the Nuremberg Toy Fair. The Ohio Toy Co, as it was then, spotted it, but was not at first impressed. However, its founder, Henry Winzeler, thought it had potential, bought the rights to manufacture the toy for $25,000 and took on Cassagnes to refine its design. The red plastic box, with a grey screen and two white knobs – designed to resemble a television screen – went on sale just before Christmas 1960 and was an instant hit. It became the company's signature product.

The beauty of the toy has always been its low-tech simplicity. Drawings are made by turning the knobs, which scrape a stylus through the aluminium powder particles on the underside of the screen. The marks, which seem to appear magically on the screen, disappear when the toy is shaken and the powder is redistributed. In recent years, sales have been hit by electronic and computer games, but the Etch A Sketch never completely went away. It enjoyed a brief revival after featuring in the first two Toy Story movies, and earned some notoriety through a recent political metaphor.

During last year's US presidential election, one of candidate Mitt Romney's aides likened his campaign to an Etch A Sketch: "You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again." Everyone seized on the remark as evidence that Romney's political stance was easily shaken and changeable.

Ohio Art produced the toy in Ohio until 2000, when it moved production to China. In 1998, the Etch A Sketch entered the US National Toy Hall of Fame and the American Toy Industry Association named it as one of the 100 most memorable and creative toys of the 20th century.

Such was Cassagnes's anonymity that even the experts sometimes got it wrong when asked who invented the toy. As legend had it, Cassagnes could not afford to take out the patent himself, and his original investor's assistant, Arthur Grandjean, who registered it, is often credited, though erroneously.

Cassagnes continued working as a technician for the same French company until he retired in 1987. He also continued designing toys, including the SkeDoodle, another drawing toy, but in the late 1970s became fascinated with kites after watching them being flown in the wind above a Normandy beach. He went on to become recognised in the kite world as France's best designer and maker of competition and stunt kites.

"I am not an artist, but I love symmetry and geometry. I am not an engineer, but I am ingenious," he told a kiting magazine in 1992.

Cassagnes is survived by his wife Renée, daughter Sophie and sons Patrick and Jean-Claude.

André Cassagnes, inventor, born 23 September 1926; died 16 January 2013

Publié dans Avis de décès

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