The Man Who Makes the World Shake

For Bill Killgallon, life isn't black or white. It's all about navigating the grey area.

Killgallon is chairman of The Ohio Art Company, the toy maker behind Etch A Sketch. Since its invention in the last 1950s, the iconic doodling toy has captivated children and adults worldwide. Some 150 million of the toys have been sold.

What's its enduring appeal? "It's just magic. 'How the devil does this thing work?' That was my reaction when I was in college, when my father showed me the product for the first time," Killgallon told Off The Cuff.

Etch A Sketch was the outcome of a happy accident. In 1957, Andre Cassagnes, a French electrical technician, was installing a light-switch plate at the factory where he worked. The factory made decorative wall coverings – some of them coated with metallic powders. When he peeled the decal off the brand new plate, static cling attracted metal particles to it. Cassagnes noticed that when he wrote on one side of the decal, his pencil marks were visible on the other side. As if by magic, the pencil had raked visible lines through the particles of powder that were on the reverse side.

Cassagnes turned his eureka moment into a simple prototype for a toy: a small, shallow plastic case housing aluminum dust. A plate of glass covered the front of the frame. He inserted a stylus into the frame, and attached it to a joystick which you could control from outside the device. When you moved the joystick, the stylus scraped the grey dust off the inside of the glass cover, and made visible lines. Voila! Killgallon brought Cassagnes' original prototype with him to our studio for show-and-tell.

Kilgallon's father, William Casley Killgallon came across the device at a toy fair in the late '50s and bought the patent for a $15,000 advance. Cassagnes perfected the model with the help of Ohio Art's chief engineer. It was designed to look like a contemporary TV set - two knobs at the bottom replaced the original joystick. When you shook the toy, the plastic beads inside wiped the slate clean. The Etch A Sketch has changed little since then. Cassagnes died in January of this year.

Generations have marveled at its simple technology, doodling their ephemeral masterpiece, shaking, starting over. But the Etch A Sketch isn't easy to master. Ask any child who's lobbed it at the wall in frustration.

The learning curve is steep, even for the company's chairman. "Well, I learned how to do my name years ago. But the most complicated for me is a circle. And I've been trying for 53 years and haven't made a circle yet,"Killgallon said.

Killgallon had a brief detour on Wall Street , before joining his father's company. He worked in quality control, testing the Etch A Sketch units on the production line at Ohio Art, based in Bryan. "We spank it to life just like a child. Then I had to see if if it operated properly. And I would write my name, Bill, on it and shake it. And then we would pass it." He became chairman of the Ohio Art Company in 1989.

In 2001, Killgallon and his brother Larry Killgallon, the president and chief operating officer of the company, decided to move the manufacturing plant for Etch A Sketch overseas. One factor was an aging workforce and dearth of local, younger employees with similar skills to run the production line. "We strategized for three or four years," said Bill Killgallon, choking up at the memory. "It was a traumatic experience."

But Etch A Sketch received an unexpected boost in sales during the 2012 presidential campaign, when a senior adviser to Mitt Romney, Eric Fehrnstrom, made an infamous gaffe in describing his boss's evolving campaign strategy. "Everything changes," Mr. Fehrnstrom said. "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again." Romney's rivals framed the comment as a metaphor for Romney's shifting positions on a number of issues.

"We had calls from politicians. We had calls from media, " Kilgallon recalled," so my brother and I answered phone calls, literally, for three or four days. We weren't attending to any other business. "

Ohio Art promptly issued a limited edition blue (for Democrat) Etch A Sketch to vie with the traditional (red for Republican) toy. "I don't know how many millions of dollars of free publicity we received then," Killgallon said. "It was good for Etch A Sketch, not so good for Mr. Romney."

Killgallon himself had a brief stint in politics before joining Ohio Art full-time. He was a director for Richard Nixon's presidential campaign. He found the political process a "lesson in hypocrisy." He returned to toys. "The toy business is a lot more fun," he said.