The Etch-A-Sketch toy came onto the market in the 1960s. I was trying to imagine what was going through André Cassagnes’ mind when he invented the device. The first thing that came to mind was that perhaps he felt that drawing, using pencil or some other mark-making equipment and paper, was just far too easy. What was needed was something to make it a lot tougher. Etch-A-Sketch is first of all an impediment to drawing. As a toy it is a drawing frustrater, an un-drawing machine. What makes those scenes so fabulous in Toy Story and Elf, where an Etch-A-Sketch is used to conjure finely-rendered images and maps is that in reality it takes ages just to write your wobbly initials.
My second thought was that this updated version of the ‘mystic writing pad’ plays on the glamour of the TV set. You have to cast your mind (or your browsing searches) back several decades to get to TVs where you had to tune them in to one of three channels using a dial. The dialling of knobs is the key. The endless twiddling as you run through the wavelengths is put to some sort of productive use in the Etch-A-Sketch. It is hard to see old TV sets as glamorous, but in the days of dial-tuned TVs, three channels and shut down at about midnight, a TV was an enchantment. We, as kids, tried to make our own by cutting holes in shoe boxes and sticking photos from magazines inside.
In the short history of electronic image technology it is perhaps fitting that a drawing device tried to look like a TV. Devices, electronic or not were always mimicking other devices – they still are. In the 1940s TV looks like giant cabinets, perhaps for holding drinks and glasses, for making cocktails. When microwaves came on the scene they took their look from the 1970s TV. Today it is not so much TV that is the form to mimic but the mobile phone, the laptop, and the iPad. The illuminated advert casings that you find at bus stops and along the street now look like giant iPads and iPhones. The Etch-A-Sketch anticipated the laptop and the tablet computer in the way that playing it felt like having a TV-like thing that could be used horizontally rather than vertically and was small enough to place on your lap. It is fitting then that one of the shells that you buy for your iPad is a shell that makes it look like an Etch-A-Sketch toy, and it seems right that someone would make a felt Etch-A-Sketch phone cover for their iPhone.