As someone whose email inbox is routinely populated by professional marketers touting the next great gadget or tech toy, I found myself oddly moved by an item on page B8 of today's New York Times. It's an obituary for André Cassagnes, inventor of the Etch a Sketch, who died in a Paris suburb on Jan. 16, at age 86.
As with Michael Sokolski, who invented the Scantron, it seems to have taken a while for word of Cassagnes' death to spread. That's understandable. I had never heard of him, nor even of the Ohio Art Company, which bought the rights to his invention in 1960 and announced his passing 53 years later. The Times couldn't help but highlight the passing role that Cassagnes' creation played in the most recent U.S. presidential campaign, but surely that is eclipsed by the role it has played in the imaginations of generations of kids around the world.
What's remarkable to me is the way in which the Etch a Sketch came to be. It wasn't conceived by a room full of the brightest marketing minds. It wasn't the product of focus-group testing. It wasn't hatched in a startup incubator. It wasn't a minimum viable product. It wasn't a pivot. It wasn't disruptive. It wasn't built at a hackathon. It didn't emerge from a vibrant ecosystem. It wasn't Yammer-meets-Spotify-but-for-visual-artists. Cassagnes didn't decide to be an entrepreneur and then go looking for blue-ocean markets or low-hanging fruit. He didn't go to Stanford, and he didn't intern for Facebook for $5,600 a month. Here is what he did, according to the Times' Margalit Fox:
As a young man, he took a job as an electrical technician in a factory that made Lincrusta, a deeply embossed covering applied to walls and other surfaces to mimic sculptural bas-relief. One day in the late ’50s, as was widely reported afterward, Mr. Cassagnes was installing a light-switch plate at the factory. He peeled the translucent protective decal off the new plate, and happened to make some marks on it in pencil. He noticed that the marks became visible on the reverse side of the decal. ... Mr. Cassagnes spent the next few years perfecting his invention, which was introduced in 1959 at the Nuremberg Toy Fair.
He went on to sell the invention to the Ohio Art Company for $25,000. That was a goodly sum—on the order of $200,000 today. But it's a little disheartening to compare it to the $200 milllion that Zynga paid last year for OMGPOP, makers of the fleetingly popular game Draw Something, a sort of Etch a Sketch-meets-Pictionary-plus-social for the iPhone era.
I'm not saying we should yearn for some sepia-toned time when inventions came about by pure serendipity rather than the self-conscious exertions of a multi-billion-dollar venture-capital industry. No doubt the latter is more conducive, on the whole, to technological progress. Still, in a time of startup buses, tech meetups, and Y Combinators, there is something to admire in a gadget so simple, novel, and magical that it could only have sprung from a moment of joyous, eureka-like inspiration. Rest in peace, Mr. Cassagnes, and thank you.
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