Friday, March 22, 2013

Let’s go fly a kite. (Farewell, André Cassagnes)

Kites were one of those toys – like pogo sticks and scooters – that were supposedly popular with kids when I was one, but which weren’t. They seemed to be the realm of the synthetic, slightly off, and mostly pukey boys and girls we saw on TV, or of the kids depicted in books from the 1930’s and 1940’s: boys in knickerbockers, girls playing in dresses. (Who played in a dress?)

Not that there were no kites around. Unlike pogo sticks and scooters, which I don’t believe I ever saw in real life as a child, we did occasionally try to make and fly a kite.

The kite kits we used cost ten cents at Woolworth’s or Aubuchon’s Hardware, and, even by a dime’s standard, were pretty flimsy. A couple of balsa wood struts and some thin tissue paper that ripped if you so much as glanced at it. I remember trying to make kites, but I don’t recall ever getting one airborne until I was in college, when kites had something of a revival. There were sturdier kites around – made with thin plastic, not thin tissue paper – and every once in a while, my friends and I would go fly a kite. I’ve also done an occasional kite-fly since – maybe once a decade or so (in decades with an “r” in them).

I will say that when I do see “real” kite-flyers on the beach, I always enjoy watching them in action.

In any event, I was touched to read the obituary of André Cassagnes that was published in The Economist a month or so ago. M. Cassagnes was a French kite maker – or, as the French would have it, fabricant de cerf-volant - whose creations:

…were masterpieces: great cellular wheels 13 feet in diameter, a double wheel called “the Crown”, clocks, castles, star-shapes made of tetrahedrons, and five interlocking rings in honour of the Olympic games. No kitemaker was more celebrated in France, and he was closely followed, too, in Germany and America. He had invented a plastic connection that allowed his floating constructions of nylon and aluminium to be assembled and disassembled in a trice. He had also devised a kite-ferry that could run up a line, fold the kite’s wings, slide down the line, reopen them, then climb again, in perpetual motion, like a butterfly. Few stunts were more impressive.

A far cry from the ten-cent kites from Aubuchon’s…

Kites aside, there was one other thing that M. Cassagnes was well – if not well enough – known for: he invented the Etch-a-Sketch.

This toy, licensed in 1960, sold more than 100m units worldwide in 50 years and earned a place in America’s National Toy Hall of Fame, alongside Barbie and Mr Potato Head.

And, of course, figured rather prominently in a 2012 American election meme.

As is so often the case when the little guy comes up with something cool, Etch-a-Sketch fame and fortune flowed to others

He could not afford to buy the patent, so a man called Arthur Grandjean did the paperwork and got his name on it. His name, too, went into the Toy Hall of Fame. Mrs Cassagnes was intensely frustrated by this. Her husband however, never seemed to mind much.

He had his kites to think about.

Still, I was thinking that it’s about time that the Toy Hall of Fame gave M. Cassagnes the credit he’s owed.

But, The Economist aside (or perhaps because of) they’ve apparently done so already:

French electrical technician André Cassagnes applied his experience with the clinging properties of an electrostatic charge to invent a mechanical drawing toy with no spare parts. He called his creation L’Ecran Magique, the magic screen. Introduced at the International Toy Fair in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1959, the gadget failed to draw much attention. Numerous manufacturers passed over a chance to pick up the new toy, concluding that Cassagnes wanted too much money for it. However, the Ohio Art Company took a second look and invested $25,000, more than they had ever paid for a license. Ohio Art renamed the toy “Etch A Sketch” and began mass production later that year. (Source: Toy Hall of Fame)

Nary a mention of the not-so-grand Arthur Grandjean.

So, attention has been paid, justice has been served, wrongs have been righted.

Adieu, André Cassagnes.

I hope that there’s an afterlife, if only so you can be flying your cerfs-volants, and sketching out new ideas on L’Ecran Magique.


For those who took French, and want to know how “flying deer” got to be the French word for kite, you can find the etymology here.

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