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Dimestore Toy a Counterespionage Tool With AM-Moscow Embassy Bjt

April 8, 1987 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ Magic Slate, a dimestore toy created by a corset factory caretaker, has suddenly become the device du jour in counter-intelligence.

Magic Slates don’t blow up, go fast or even scare the dickens out of the bad guys, but the eraseable memo pads nonetheless came in handy for two congressional delegates trying to outsmart spies during a mission to Moscow.

Rep. Dan Mica, D-Fla., and Rep. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, used the pads to communicate while touring the bug-riddled U.S. Embassy in the Soviet capital.

″We have a new market now - high technology,″ said Kim McLynn, spokeswoman for the Magic Slate manufacturer, Western Publishing Co. ″We always knew they had practical uses, but we never dreamed they’d play a role in national security,″ she added.

When the Racine, Wis., firm heard that the legislators had been advised to take Magic Slates to Moscow, it quickly sent 50 cases - about 2,500 slates - to the State Department.

In a cover letter to President Reagan, Secretary of State George P. Shultz and the CIA, the toymaker gushed:

″We are not often called upon to serve our country’s defense, so we are pleased at the prospect of making a contribution.″

Magic Slates were created in 1923 by R.A. Watkins, a caretaker in an abandoned corset factory in Aurora, Ill.

Watkins had devised a makeshift time sheet out of scraps of corset plastic on wax boards. He took one home for his children to play with, and the rest is history.

Decorated with cartoon characters - Mica and Snowe took Winnie-the-Pooh and Rainbow Brite - the slates originally cost a dime and were marketed as cheap entertainment for children during the Depression.

They’re routinely used as communication tools for hospital patients unable to speak, Ms. McLynn said, and they’re also popular as eraseable household message boards.

But they’re not spy-proof.

″All you have to do is put a piece of paper over it, rub it with a pencil and see what’s left,″ observed Shep Dahl, vice-president for sales at Ohio Art, which makes Etch-A-Sketch.

He maintains that Etch-A-Sketch, while harder to write with, is a better spy-buster. ″All you have to do is shake it and everything on the screen disappears.″

The state-of-the-art Etch-A-Sketch has a computer brain and no off switch, ″which would totally confuse the Russians,″ Dahl ventured. ″It just goes to sleep after three minutes.″

Western Publishing sells some 6 million Magic Slates a year worldwide.

They’re not available in the Soviet Union.

But Syria, a Soviet ally, has a supply.