Ah, the Etch-a-Sketch. Now, while I admit it can (I say ‘it can’ – I personally am only ever able to draw wonky-looking houses on it) produce some extremely clever pictures, for those who aren’t able to get on with its knob-twiddling technique there arrived its slightly simpler cousin Magna Doodle.
Coming complete with a stylus (which is handily attached so it can never get lost) and a variety of magnetic shapes that can be used on the drawing board it is far easier for little people (and underwhelming illustrators like me) to attempt - and succeed at – creating something vaguely artistic.
It was in 1974 that engineers from the Pilot Pen Corporation invented what they described as the ‘dustless chalkboard’. Sold by toy companies Tyco in the US and Fisher Price in the UK, the rights to this inventive little drawing board now rest with The Ohio Art Company, who also own the Etch-a-Sketch.
The Magna Doodle’s popularity has been huge – over 40 million of them have been sold since it was first produced – and it’s easy to understand why. Unlike drawing with pen and paper there’s no mess, no risk of the tops being left off your pens so that they dry up and if you make a mistake, rather than wasting paper, you just slide the magnetic bar across the screen and hey presto! Your picture disappears and you’re left with a brand new, clean surface to start again on.
And they’re not just used as toys, despite being marketed as such. Teachers have used them to encourage their students to read and write – they can practise over and over again without using up resources or leaving that chalk dust covering everything. Team coaches have been known to scribble on them during sports matches, so that they can then hold them up and show the team in action what they want them to do next.
They can also, amazingly, be used underwater, so to that end they are a great aid to communication between divers. Although it has to be said, they are not made to be waterproof and therefore won’t survive repeated dunkings, so if this is what you have planned for your Magna Doodle you may need to buy a supply of them.
The little magnetic drawing board reached a whole new level of fame between 1994 and 2004 when it had a starring role in the sitcom Friends. Hanging on the back of Chandler and Joey’s apartment door it always had something written or drawn on it. Often it was something related to the episode, on other occasions it could be an in-joke to do with one of the crew. It once had an outline of the Seattle skyline in a nod to one of the broadcaster NBC’s other hit shows, Frasier.
So now we know just how much the Magna Doodle is adored, we obviously want to know how it works. Don’t we?
It’s actually a very simple device; a plastic screen that you write on with the accompanying stylus.
Now I’ll admit right now that the nuts and bolts of how something is technically put together isn’t really something my brain seems to be able to grasp, so the actual science part of it goes right over my head. However, if you just want to be able to vaguely understand why you can draw a line on the surface of the Magna Doodle when the stylus isn’t really a pen, then I’ll give it a go…
The screen is made up of three parts: two semi-transparent plastic sheets which sandwich a hexagonal, latticed plastic sheet in the middle.
Right, remember I said that the middle section of the plastic screen was made up of a lattice? Each of those little hexagonal cells is filled with a really thick liquid and lots of tiny, dark magnetic particles. (There are articles on the internet that explain exactly what the liquid is and what the particles are actually made of, so if you are sitting there reading this and gnawing on your fist thinking ‘But why won’t she tell me EXACTLY how the Magna Doodle is constructed?’ then you may be better off looking for one of them.)
When you drag the magnetic tip of the stylus across the outer section of the plastic screen the magnetic particles are pulled to the top of the liquid and can be seen through the outer plastic. The edges of each cell ensure that there is an even distribution of them across the entire screen. The particles remain happily on the top of the liquid in the pattern the stylus drew until the eraser is drawn across the screen.
The eraser handle is at the bottom of the Magna Doodle – slide it from one side to the other and a long bar magnet, which fits snugly out of sight behind the screen, pulls the particles away from the top screen, giving you a nice clean surface to draw on again.
There have been copious variations of the Magna Doodle over the years: many used different colours and magnetic shapes, there were tie-ins with famous characters such as Mickey Mouse, Hello Kitty and Disney, plus a colour version and even a Magna Doodle PC game.
None of these things were really necessary however; the winning factor of Magna Doodle was its minimalism. Being able to draw something, slide the eraser to get rid of it and start again was a brilliantly simplistic concept that appealed to children to do over and over again.