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Random Access Memories: Etch A Sketch

Knocking on heaven's draw

Ah, the art of drawing without lifting your pencil – but using two knobs. Helpful. Blame the French

The original artform of lineography was big in France in the 17th century , and the Etch A Sketch was designed by a Frenchman , André Cassagnes. But the mechanics are really interesting – like a steampunk iPad. You twiddle knobs, driving pulleys and cables, this drags a plotter across the screen’s rear, removing aluminium powder to reveal the darkness within.

You don’t need Wi-Fi , you don’t need batteries – you just need imagination!

Nice slogan. How about ‘You don’t need circles, because it can’t draw them’?

True, the plotter is designed for horizontal and vertical movement, but it can be ‘hacked’. Twist both knobs evenly and the plotter moves diagonally. With practice, you can draw circles and more besides. We’ve seen folks fashion monochrome impressionist art on one of these things. Last year, though, Etch A Sketch finally enabled people to draw circles with ease by way of the Etch A Sketch Revolution, which drives home its reason for existence with a circular display. Naturally, it all works by adding two more knobs.

Great, more knobs! You’d think tech would have moved on in 60 years

They did twice try to, ahem, shake things up with the Etch A Sketch Animator. The first one had a dot-matrix display and barely any memory; the follow-up ditched the knobs for a touchpad, and so we don’t talk about that.

Neither’s output would have terrified Pixar… which is ironic, since the classic Etch A Sketch’s cameo in Toy Story sparked a sales boost that s aved it from oblivion. Today, the original mechanics live on, bringing joy to millions…at least until you unsportingly shake their masterpieces away when they’re not looking.