When Bill Killgallon — now chairman of the Ohio Art Company that makes Etch A Sketch — was 21, he got a summer job at the toy company doing quality control.
The iconic red gadgets would roll off the production line in northwestern Ohio. The inside of the Etch A Sketch screen is coated with aluminum powder, which is scraped off with turns of two knobs, leaving behind dark lines on a grey background. Shaking the toy causes plastic beads inside to erase the drawn picture and re-coat the surface with the powder.
"The powder is in the base of the product along with the beads," said Killgallon in a CNBC interview. "And so we would take it and we spank it," said Killgallon, turning over an Etch A Sketch and slapping its backside. "We spank it to life just like a child. ...
"But in those days, we were throwing out more than we were accepting because it's a very difficult product to make. And you have climate control and everything else," Killgallon said.
Hasbro Passed on the Etch Prototype
More than 50 years later, Killgallon is still tinkering with a toy that lets children and adults discover the joy of doodling. In an industry sweating to overcome flat sales by capitalizing on digital platforms such as video games, Etch A Sketch is a low-tech wonder. You turn two knobs and draw. That's it!
Killgallon and his Bryan, Ohio-based team of about 100 employees have been left with the enormous task — and burden — of ensuring the classic toy isn't forgotten among apps and blockbuster-film action figures. Ohio Art's ability to translate the Etch A Sketch for a digital generation will define the toy company's future.
The legacy weighs on employees' minds. Maybe more so since the Etch A Sketch creator's death in January. Andre Cassagnes, who died in a Paris suburb at the age of 86, was working as an electrician in France in the late 1950s, when he stumbled on the idea for a drawing toy with a joystick, glass and aluminum powder. The initial product was called "Magic Screen," a nod to its TV-like appearance. He sold the prototype to Ohio Art and the first toys rolled off the Bryan, Ohio production line in 1960. Since then, more than 100 million have been sold worldwide.
Says Killgallon, "We don't want to destroy the brand."
(See Related Video: The Man Who Makes the World Shake)