The Etch a Sketch is the original magic screen that's fun and easy to use. You just draw on the screen using the left and right knobs; when you're done, turn over and shake to erase then start the fun all over again! A popular toy in the 1960s and 70s and far more portable than a wooden rocking horse or a football table, the Etch a Sketch has a place in history. This article explores this interesting toy, looking at its history and internal workings.

History of the Etch a Sketch

It took two tries before the Ohio Art Company agreed to purchase the toy from inventor Arthur Granjean in 1959. The French mechanic had originally called his drawing toy L’Ecran Magique—the Magic Screen. It was by far the most expensive toy Ohio Art had considered acquiring, and company executives initially balked at the asking price. But given a second chance to buy it, they made the purchase, and the Etch A Sketch made their company an American icon. Etch A Sketch was patented in the United States (patent number 3,760,505), but the patent has since expired and other companies now make similar toys. Ohio Art has sold more than 100 million Etch A Sketches.

How Etch A Sketches Work

The left knob moves the pointer to the left and right. The right knob moves it up and down. The arrangement of monofilament string and pulleys controls the cursor with the pointer that touches the underside of the glass plate. As the pointer moves, it scrapes aluminum powder away from the underside of the glass, leaving a dark trail. (The fine powder sticks to everything, so if you open the case be prepared to spend some time cleaning everything around you.) Shaking the toy redistributes the powder (and small beads that help distribute the powder) so it adheres to the glass, erasing the image.

How Etch A Sketches Work

The left knob moves the pointer to the left and right. The right knob moves it up and down. The arrangement of monofilament string and pulleys controls the cursor with the pointer that touches the underside of the glass plate. As the pointer moves, it scrapes aluminum powder away from the underside of the glass, leaving a dark trail. (The fine powder sticks to everything, so if you open the case be prepared to spend some time cleaning everything around you.) Shaking the toy redistributes the powder (and small beads that help distribute the powder) so it adheres to the glass, erasing the image.

Inside the Etch A Sketch

This is one toy you want to avoid taking apart. It won’t go back together, the aluminum powder is probably not healthy stuff to inhale, and you’ll get it everywhere. How do we know you’ll get it everywhere? Because we did.

Here’s how we wrestled the toy open. It wasn’t pretty. We cut it open along the seam using a hacksaw (the first time we opened one) and a Dremel rotary cutting tool (each of several times afterwards). Of course as we cut through the plastic case, more and more of the obnoxious aluminum powder spilled out. Once we had the two parts separated, more or less along the lines at which they’d been joined, we could see the details of how the stylus works.

For a less messy look inside, just use the Etch A Sketch in the normal way to scrape all the aluminum powder off the screen—great while watching a sporting event on the tube. With enough of the powder gone, the screen will be clear enough to allow you to see inside.