A tribute to this classic toy, which turns out to have been more than just a toy all along. For generations of post-war kids, Etch a Sketch® was the first mouse, according to this alternative history of PC computing and GUI.
Not many people know this, but classic children’s toy Etch a Sketch® plays a prominent role in human history. In fact, seen through the lens of modern computing history it’s responsible for introducing generations of kids to the amazing possibilities of the technological age.
To understand how this simple toy first pulled together by a French electrician came to be the gateway device for millions of techno kids, let’s go back in time.
Some background on why the Etch a Sketch® speaks to human nature
As humans, we love changing things but we love controlling things even more. Not to trivialise human existence or anything, we can nevertheless sum it up like this: control means power, and power makes us think we are invincible.
That’s probably why, since the beginning of time, humans have been driven to make an impact on their surroundings. The switch to farming from hunting and gathering was the first great impact…land was cleared and centuries later entire forests were hacked down and burned in order to make way for crops.
Other important impacts our species has put into action have been world travel, disease prevention, and the dissemination and storage of information. It’s this last item on the list that we’re concerned with here, and where you’ll come to see the magnificent symbolic place in history held by non other than the beloved Etch a Sketch®. I’ll proclaim it again: a French invention.
From early childhood on, we longingly ache to control what’s important
Knowing all this about human development and impact, it comes as no surprise that mastery over technology is an omnipresent desire. From childhood, we see the machines of our lives everywhere we look: kids are given LeapFrog, their first computer. They see how their parents are glued to smart phones, PCs, laptops, etc. They learn to turn to the Web for everything. The learn that access to computers is the key to just about everything.
But it’s not just the current batch of kids that are growing up wanting access to computers. Their parents and even some of their youngish grandparents had their generation’s version of tech toys that brought alive the idea that they could control the world of technology.
They had the Etch a Sketch®.
Today’s kids have LeapFrog. Yesterday’s kids had the Etch a Sketch®
The desire to master our surroundings and control what’s important can clearly be demonstrated in no better way than by looking at the Etch a Sketch®. Think about it: kids back then knew about computers too, only they were something Mom or Dad used at work, or something they saw in the movie War Games. The important idea here is that beginning in the 1980s, kids knew that somehow, someday, a monitor screen would be their window to the world.
The annoying thing about computers back then was that you had to type in commands (in computer language) to make the computer do anything. This involved learning BASIC if you were a Gen X kid, the first generation to have access to personal computers.
Since most young children weren’t taking after school BASIC primers in their spare time, they had to settle for the next best thing. That, of course, was the Etch a Sketch®.
Etch a Sketch® provided an intuitive, visual means to controlling technology, without having to learn programming or even keyboarding.
Etch a Sketch® was the world’s first GUI
The Etch a Sketch® brought alive for kids the thrilling concept that you can make something appear on a screen without having to type commands. We now have the mouse and touch screens to relieve us from the burden of typing but long ago, kids made things happen with the Etch a Sketch®. It was the first graphic user interface (GUI).
OK, so what they produced was usually just a mess of lines scratched in aluminum powder on the Etch a Sketch® screen…but to them it felt like they were making important things happen, just like Matthew Broderick did in War Games. So did I …
How the Etch a Sketch® has quietly mirrored computer evolution for decades
Then along the way, Etch a Sketch® developers gradually added features which mimicked the real world of PC development. This coaxed kids into the computer generation, whether they knew it or not. Soon, 6-year-olds were familiar with the concept of computer memory, screen pixels, and file storage, just from using the latest Etch a Sketch® model.
In fact, a quick look at the development of Etch a Sketch® over the years reveals that it has paralleled the evolution of the home PC…let’s take a look:
- Like computers, Etch a Sketch® was first sold to the mass market in the early 1960s.
- Starting in the 1980s, the Etch a Sketch® was connected to the idea of mimicking home computing.
- In 1986 The Etch a Sketch® Animator was introduced. There was dot matrix resolution and a few kilobytes of memory.
- In 1989 the Etch a Sketch® Animator 2000 was introduced. Now there’s a stylus plus LCD screen. Kids could animate several frames and save them on memory cartridges. There were also games they could buy.
- In 1993 we got Etch a Sketch® Color. This was shortly after the Apple II was introduced in 1987, the first real colour monitor for home PCS. Color really took off in the 1990s, though.
- With Etch a Sketch® Wired, kids can now enjoy Plug and Play drawing on their TV sets, complete with sound effects.
So, next time you come across an old Etch a Sketch® or you see a new model on display for the current generation, you might think differently about its place in our modern tech history. Long live the Etch a Sketch®!