The Etch-a-Sketch Doesn’t Work Like You Think It Does

Some of the best toys are the simplest ones.

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Apr 11 2016, 4:43pm

Image: YouTube/Screenshot

Fuckin' Etch-a-Sketch, how do they work? Not with magnets, apparently.

The Etch-a-Sketch is a lot of things: perennial childhood favorite doodling device, requisite doctor's waiting room toy, thing you resentfully bury in the back of your closet after realizing how artistically ungifted you are.

But contrary to popular belief, there is one thing the nearly 40-year-old toy isn't—a gadget that's powered by magnets.

YouTube channel What's Inside? reveals the truth behind this long-held misconception in a new video. To get to the center of a kid's Etch-a-Sketch, a responsible adult took a reciprocating saw and hacked off a corner until its hollowed-out insides were exposed. When the toy was tipped over, a pretty substantial amount of aluminum powder and polystyrene beads came pouring out, as expected.

Aluminum powder is the dark the pigment that appears on the screen of an Etch-a-Sketch when you manipulate the two knobs in each lower corner. Something inside the device—which we always assumed to be some sort of magnetic stylus—pushes the powder around and results in "etches" on the screen.

However, when the experimenters held a magnet over the aluminum powder to confirm that this was, indeed, the case, the powder wasn't attracted to the magnet at all. We know that iron, nickel, cobalt, and steel are metals capable of sticking to a magnet, but aluminum isn't one of them. Clearly, some other force is responsible for making an Etch-a-Sketch work.


As it turns out, below a layer of plastic and glass (uh, that's definitely not kid-safe), is a type of plotting device joined by a metal pointer. When you turn an Etch-a-Sketch's knobs, the aluminum powder that coats the inside of the screen is displaced by the pointer, creating negative space that appears on the outside as a dark line. The polystyrene beads mixed in with the aluminum powder help to evenly coat the surface of the screen, allowing you to start with a clean surface every time, just by giving the toy a good shake.

Image: YouTube/Screenshot

One of the reasons why a lot of us might have falsely believed the Etch-a-Sketch employed the use of magnets is because we were confusing it with another childhood toy, the Magna Doodle, which works pretty much the way you think it does. The Magna Doodle's magnetic stylus attracts a thick, magnetic liquid inside the casing, and wipes clean with a sliding magnet that functions as an eraser.

So there you have it. The Etch-a-Sketch hasn't changed much in the last few decades it's been around, but this new revelation about how, exactly, it works makes us want to pick one up again.