Rethinking The Etch-A-Sketch

Sunday, March 9th, 2014 by kylebickoff

This week I went to the Media Archaeology Lab and chose to work with some new materials. I wanted to find something obscure, forgotten, and ideally a dead end. Then I found The Etch-A-Sketch Animator. This system is from 1986, and one can quickly tell. I was not quite sure what to make of the device, so I used my natural instincts. I created on the digital medium, what I find the digital world is most successful at circulating—cat memes. I recreated, as I could, Nyan Cat: the greatest of all cat memes. Nyan Cat him/herself may indeed be 8-bit, but I chose to work in this 2-bit medium of black/white, on/off, 1/0. In this binary dot-matrix interface, I recreated Nyan Cat, who became no longer ‘neon.’ Rather, a binary cat emerges, a Byan Cat, if you will.



But jests aside, such interfaces have a propensity for re-creating the familiar, the known, the producible/reproducible, and that which brings one joy. As a child, I never had an Etch-A-Sketch Animator, but I did have a traditional Etch-A-Sketch. Within this frame I used the magnetic particles to create, what I will describe now as, binary images. Ultimately, this Etch-A-Sketch Animator may be forgotten and a technological dead-end, but it functions here as a piece of technology that forces the user to rethink the experience with an interface, and similar interfaces. The Etch-A-Sketch Animator, self-consciously digital, forces one to reconsider the traditional Etch-A-Sketch. The Etch-A-Sketch, produced in 1960, may pre-date the digital. But this ever-present childhood play toy, I argue, popularizes a lineographic, binary writing surface for the masses. This 1960s toy propagates the binary frame, predating the home computer, but preparing an entire generation for the adoption of a new binary interface in the first monochromatic computer monitors.


5 comments on “Rethinking The Etch-A-Sketch

  1. A nice bit of artistry! And a very interesting post. I’ve never thought about the etch-a-sketch as predating the digital, but it does very much set up a screen with the magnetic particles as pixels–even though the traditional etch-a-sketch is very “physical,” so to say.

    I think there was a Cracked photoplasty a few months back that imagined modern games in older systems…for a laugh, of course, but it does make you reflect on both in ways I don’t think you otherwise could.

  2. dparker90 says:

    Byan cat is awesome. Does the Etch-A-Sketch Animator allow you to save your work? I see there’s a “save button” on it, so I’m assuming you can. Does that mean that there’s some sort of hard drive on it? If so, it’s an interesting contrast from the original ephemeral Etch-A-Sketch.

  3. kylebickoff says:


    There is a save button. There is a way to save different screens, then animate them to create a moving image. There’s something like storage for 12 different screens? I would assume it is flash memory. It’s almost like AnimAction for the Vectrex!! (Except bitmapped and not vector graphics).

    It was very fun, though I admit I had a bit of trouble trying to create intelligible moving images. I was able to make copies of the screens. I admit, my own cat-designing skills are lacking–but this device still has the potential to create interesting works! But I’m sure with a manual it would be far more user-friendly.

  4. Just bought one of these and am desperate for a manual. If you learn of a link for one online, or even in a physical library, I would be muuuuch obliged.

    • Lori Emerson says:

      I wish we had access to a manual ourselves but unfortunately I haven’t come across anything yet! If we do, I’ll try to make a point of making a scan of it and will put it up on the MAL catalog on our website.

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