How Does an Etch A Sketch Work?

iStock/Garrett Aitken
iStock/Garrett Aitken

We learned on February 2, 2013, that Etch A Sketch inventor André Cassagnes died last month in France. Here's a look back at his legendary toy.

In 1955, a French electrician named André Cassagnes got an idea for a new toy after seeing how an electrostatic charge could hold aluminum powder to glass. He worked up a prototype for the toy—based on the design of a television screen—in his basement workshop and called it “L'Ecran Magique,” or “the magic screen.” Its joystick, glass and aluminum powder allowed users to draw and erase images and letters with no ink and no mess. Cassagnes sought a patent, put couldn’t pull the money together to get one, so he borrowed from an investor, who sent an employee to pay the fee at the patent office. (The assistant’s name ended up on the patent, and he has often been wrongly credited with the invention of the toy in the decades since.)

Cassagnes’ investor, Paul Chaze, took the toy to several European toy fairs, but it drew little interest. Executives from the Ohio Art Company saw it at the 1959 International Toy Fair in Nuremburg, Germany, and didn’t think much of it at first, either. But they decided to take a chance on the product. [Image credit: The Invisible Agent]

Ohio Art paid $25,000 for the rights to the toy and had their chief engineer, Jerry Burger, collaborate with Cassagnes to perfect it. The company launched the toy in the United States under the name “Etch A Sketch” the following year, just in time for the holiday shopping season.

The Magic Beneath the Screen

When Ohio Art Co. executive William Casley Killgallon brought the toy back from Germany, his 21-year-old son Bill was mesmerized by it. “I was just fascinated,” he told the Toledo Blade in 2010. “I thought, 'How the heck is this working?' I was turning the knobs and just couldn't figure it out.”

And that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? Not knowing how it works? The idea – in a young, fertile imagination – that it might actually be magic? If you prefer to think of it that way, I can’t blame you, but you should stop reading, because here’s what’s going on under the screen:

When you turn the Etch A Sketch upside down and shake it, the inside surface of the screen gets coated with aluminum powder, which will stick to almost anything (mixed in with the powder are small polystyrene beads, which help it flow evenly and keep it from caking).

Also inside are horizontal and vertical bars connected by thin steel wires to the knobs on the face of the toy. A stylus is mounted where the two bars cross, so when you turn a knob, it moves its bar and the bar moves the stylus. As the stylus moves across the inside surface of the screen, it scrapes off the aluminum powder and creates a dark line on the light gray screen, which is just the darkness of the toy’s interior set against the lighter aluminum powder.

To erase their picture, an artist only needs to flip the toy and shake, redistributing the powder over the screen.

Etch A Sketch of Mass Destruction?

In the first season finale of the AMC series Breaking Bad, the protagonist Walter White makes some thermite using the aluminum powder from inside several Etch A Sketches and uses it to melt the lock off of a door he needs to get open. Would that actually work outside of an Emmy-winning TV series?

I’m no Jamie Hyneman, and my girlfriend won’t let me play with explosives in the house (this is, I suppose, her only flaw), so I can’t test this out myself, but it seems pretty straightforward and plausible.

Thermite is made from a metal powder and a metal oxide and produces an exothermic oxidation-reduction reaction, known as a thermite reaction, when heat is applied. This reaction creates extremely high temperatures around a small area and is used for welding in situations where there isn’t enough space for conventional welding equipment (some MIT students also once used it to weld a trolley to its tracks as a prank).

Fuels commonly used in thermite include powdered aluminum, magnesium, calcium and boron. Common oxidizers are boron(III) oxide, silicon(IV) oxide, manganese(IV) oxide and  iron(III) oxide.

Empty a few Etch a Sketchs and you’ve got a small amount of aluminum powder, so all Walter would need is a metal oxide. Iron(III) oxide is easy enough to get (it’s used as a pigment and as “jeweler's rouge”), and an aluminum-iron(III) oxide thermite would easily reach 4500+ degrees (Fahrenheit), enough to melt a steel padlock.

In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

In 1989, some three decades after King had earned his doctorate, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

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Who Is 'The Real McCoy'?

Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Ypsilanti Historical Society, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After taking a cool, carbonated sip of champagne from the Champagne region of France, you might say, “Ah, now that’s the real McCoy.” Sparkling wine from anywhere else is technically just sparkling wine.

The phrase “the real McCoy,” which can be used to describe any genuine version of something, has several possible origin stories. And while none of them mention champagne, a few do involve other types of alcohol.

According to HowStuffWorks, the earliest known recorded instance of the saying was an 1856 reference to whisky in the Scottish National Dictionary—"A drappie [drop] o' the real MacKay”—and by 1870, a pair of whisky distillers by the name of McKay had adopted the slogan “the real McKay” for their products. As the theory goes, the phrase made its long journey across the pond, where it eventually evolved into the Americanized “McCoy.”

Another theory suggests “the real McCoy” originated in the United States during Prohibition. In 1920, Florida-based rum runner Bill McCoy was the first enterprising individual to stock a ship with alcohol in the Caribbean, sail to New York, and idle at least three miles offshore, where he could sell his wares legally in what was then considered international waters. Since McCoy didn’t water down his alcohol with substances like prune juice, wood alcohol, and even turpentine, people believe his customers started calling his top-notch product “the real McCoy.” There’s no definitive proof that this origin story is true, but The Real McCoy rum distillery was founded on the notion.

There are also a couple other leading theories that have nothing to do with alcohol. In 1872, inventor Elijah McCoy patented a self-regulating machine that lubricated parts of a steam engine without the need for manual maintenance, allowing trains to run continuously for much longer distances. According to Snopes, the invention’s success spawned a plethora of poor-quality imitations, which led railroad personnel to refer to McCoy’s machines as “the real McCoy.”

Elijah McCoy’s invention modernized the transportation industry, but he wasn’t the only 19th-century McCoy who packed a punch. The other was welterweight champion Norman Selby, better known as Kid McCoy. In one story, McCoy decked a drunken bar patron to prove that he really was the famous boxer, prompting others to christen him “the real McCoy.” In another, his alleged penchant for throwing fights caused the press to start calling him “the real McCoy” to acknowledge when he was actually trying to win. And yet another simply suggests that the boxer’s popularity birthed so many McCoy-wannabes that Selby started to specify that he was, in fact, the real McCoy.

So which “the real McCoy” origin story is the real McCoy? The 1856 Scottish mention of “the real MacKay” came before Elijah McCoy’s railroad invention, Kid McCoy’s boxing career, and Bill McCoy’s rum-running escapades, but it’s possible that the phrase just gained popularity in different spheres at different times.

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