Andre Cassagnes, a French-born engineer and kite designer credited as the inventor of the Etch a Sketch, a toy that was a popular children’s plaything for two generations and became a potent political metaphor in last year’s presidential race, died Jan. 16 near Paris. He was 86.
The death was reported by the Toy Industry Association, which did not disclose the cause.
Equipped with two control knobs that pulled a stylus across a glass screen inside a plastic housing, the device permitted the creation of drawings that could be erased again and again, constantly clearing the way for a new and different idea. Turning it over and giving it a shake wiped an old drawing away, making a place for a new one.
In a country that honors novelty and change, it appeared inevitable that Mr. Cassagnes’s invention — which he designed in the late 1950s — would assume a symbolic role in popular culture beyond its mere ability to provide diversion.
Beyond its internal array of miniature pulleys and its clever exploitation of static electricity, the Etch a Sketch was a contrivance that spoke to the desire to start over “with a clean slate” as well as the need to “go back to the drawing board.”
So of all the toys lodged in childhood memory or stored in the family playroom, few may have been better suited to symbolize the possibility that a candidate would shift stands.
It was not hard to grasp what was meant during the 2012 primaries when an aide to candidate Mitt Romney, a Republican contender, said new positions might later be taken “almost like an Etch a Sketch.”
Romney won the nomination but the statement did nothing to dispel accusations that his principles were not firmly rooted, and it remains to be determined how much the comment impaired his general election prospects.
It was, however, clear that an item produced for children had taken a place in American electoral history.
Andre Cassagnes (pronounced kah-sahn-YEH) was born Sept. 26, 1926, outside of Paris. As a boy, he worked in the family bakery.
Accounts of his career indicate that he later was employed by a French manufacturer that produced picture frame covers and used powdered aluminum. According to the Toledo Blade, he noted that an electrostatic charge held aluminum powder onto glass.
This background and an inventive bent yielded the original Etch a Sketch device. He called it L’Ecran Magique, which translates to the Magic Screen. Another early name for a French version has been given as Telecran, or telescreen.
It was displayed at the Nuremberg Toy Fair in Germany in 1959 and attracted attention from an American firm, the Ohio Art Co. An executive with the Bryan, Ohio-based toy company bought the rights for $25,0000, and the first Etch a Sketch emerged from the company’s assembly line on July 12, 1960, according to Ohio Art.
The Etch a Sketch became one of the best-selling toys of the 1960 holiday season, retailing initially for $6, and has gone on to sell in the tens of millions. Ohio Art maintained the basic Etch a Sketch design for 25 years but later added new shapes, colors, sizes and electronic features. In 2000, production of the Etch a Sketch moved to China.
In 1998, the Etch a Sketch was inducted in the National Toy Hall of Fame, which credits French auto mechanic Arthur Granjean as the inventor.
As the story goes, Mr. Cassagnes lacked the initial funds to apply for a patent, so he borrowed money from an investor who sent his treasurer, Granjean, to pay the application fee. On its Web site, Ohio Art credits Mr. Cassagnes with the toy, which has been featured in the animated “Toy Story” films.
Mr. Cassagnes had other strings to his bow, and in the 1980s was said to be France’s most famous maker of competitive kites. According to the Toy Industry Association, he and his wife, Renee, had three children, Sophie, Patrick and Jean Claude.