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In a High-Tech World, Humble Etch a Sketch Endures

10 Jul 2015 by Teresa Meek

Happy Etch A Sketch Day!

The boomer staple turns 55 on Sunday, and unlike Barbie — who has cycled through 150 careers and countless wardrobes since 1959 — this toy remains pretty much the same as it was when the Ohio Art Company took it off the hands of French inventor André Cassagnes, who had unsuccessfully tried to peddle it at a German toy fair.

Who knows why a toy becomes a hit? This one was an instant sensation that kept Ohio Art’s factory cranking it out until noon on Christmas Eve in 1960 so that Santa could fill his sleigh and deliver it all across America.

Etch A Sketch continued to hold its own during the tumultuous ‘60s, when Barbie found Ken and stole away to her Dreamhouse, G.I. Joe charged onto the scene and the Easy-Bake Oven burned pizzas as families sat glued to their Magnavoxes watching the Vietnam War.

From NERF Balls to the Cabbage Patch

The next decade produced NERF balls for rainy-day, mock-football passes (the name stands for non-expanding recreational foam, in case you ever wondered) and the dastardly Rubik’s Cube, invented by a Hungarian architecture professor who took over a month to figure out the solution to his own contraption. He originally designed it to teach architecture students about spatial relations.

Approximately one in seven people alive has now played with a Rubik’s Cube, according to the product’s website, which also calls it “one of the most infuriating and engaging inventions ever conceived.”

The 1980s brought the Cabbage Patch Kids craze, with frantic parents pushing, shoving and even knocking each other down to get a doll as the 1983 Christmas shopping season began. What was so appealing about the big-headed, homely-looking stuffed dolls that neither walked nor talked? It’s hard to say, but the population of Cabbage Patch Kids ballooned to about 75 million by 1989, a number the United States itself didn’t reach until 1900. Even today, the Kids’ Facebook page has 497,981Likes.

The ‘80s also brought us Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, My Little Pony and Glow Sticks, not to be confused with the plush Glo Worm night light that later morphed into a board game.

In the ‘90s, Cabbage Patch Kids were supplanted by Beany Babies, plush stuffed animals that were mostly affordable, though special editions sold for thousands of dollars — and still do. The ‘90s was also the decade of giggly Tickle Me Elmo and the Super Soaker gun, invented by NASA engineer Lonnie Johnson, which blasted water as far as 50 feet to douse unlucky opponents.

Today’s smart toys

In the 2000s — maybe to compete with video games or maybe just because — toys have taken a decidedly high-tech turn.

Mattel’s Mindflex  uses a wireless EEG headset to read players’ brainwave activity, which guides a ball through a series of obstacles.

Modular Robotics’ Cubelets are designed for the budding robot builder. Some cubes travel horizontally, while others spin or flash lights. Kids can put them together to create a bot that skedaddles across the tabletop in response to a hand signal — or an exhale.

Forget battery control — today’s kids power their Wowwee R.E.V. and Anki Overdrive racecars with smartphones.

Speaking of smart, Elemental Path is creating toys powered by IBM’s Watson, no less. They will talk with their pint-sized owners, adapting to the kids’ lingo and knowledge as they evolve over time.

Even Barbie is carving out time from her busy life to interact with kids. The new Hello Barbie is programmed to speak and listen, storing information about kids’ love of fuchsia and hatred of spinach for future scintillating discussions.

Through it all, Etch A Sketch continues to sell, and kids continue to fiddle with its old fashioned knobs to create their own fresh works of art. If your kids think the red plastic toy is too yesterday, remind them that it’s now available as an app for Apple and Android devices.