Meccano and the instructive box

HISTORY OF TECHNOLOGY. Frank Hornby wanted to create toys that taught his sons something about mechanical engineering. A few decades later, he had built a worldwide empire of sheet metal – and educated an entire generation of future engineers.

It has been said that before World War II, the world looked like Meccano. The things that surrounded us were made of metal instead of plastic. Society was mechanical rather than electronic. The aesthetics were angular and gnarled rather than softly rounded.

But at the end of the 19th century, of course, Frank Hornby was not aware that he was about to create a product that would define the first half of the coming century. All he wanted to do was build toys for his two sons – because his modest accountant’s salary was barely enough to support the family, let alone provide him with expensive entertainment.

In the shed outside their yard in Liverpool, the handy Hornby conjured up models of bridges and vehicles, constructed from pieces of sheet metal that he cut, bent and shaped manually. But he could not shake off the feeling that he was a little wasteful with his scarce resources. Wouldn’t it be more economical if the toys could be disassembled when the boys were tired of them, to be “recycled” in the form of new models?

Even today, the Meccano is a popular toy, but perhaps more so for the now-aged target group of yesteryear. Special conventions are also arranged today, where usually adult designers are seen to show off their impressive creations. Photo: PHILIP DUNN / REX / TT

On trial, Frank Hornby set up – and still manufactures by hand – a system with standardized metal pieces of 2.5, 5.5 and 12.5 inches. Along these he then drilled series of regular holes. The holes allowed the metal pieces to be assembled in any configuration, using screws and nuts.

The result worked beyond expectations. Frank Hornby was certainly not a young man – he was approaching 40, at a time when most Britons did not live much longer than that. He had a career to focus on, a family to support. But still he was so elated by his new invention that he could not help but dream of a mass-produced version.

In January 1901, he borrowed £ 5 from his boss at the import company where he worked – and used them to finance a patent application. He called his product Mechanics Made Easy, with the explanatory subtitle An Adaptable Mechanical Toy.

Advertisement for Meccano, Christmas 1921. Photo: HERITAGE / TT

Full of confidence, he set out in search of partners who could fabricate his metallic building blocks on a large scale. But the outside world, it would turn out, did not share his enthusiasm. The fact that no one took up the offer to collaborate with Hornby, who could not afford to resign to invest fully in Mechanics Made Easy, could have been the death knell for the entire project.

But instead, his employer again took pity on him, offering Hornby an empty premises to run the business in, as well as financial support. Thanks to this, Hornby appeared serious enough to convince external manufacturers to give him a chance. As early as the following year, 1902, the first Mechanics Made Easy kits landed on British store shelves. Each box contained 16 pieces of metal, which could be assembled into twelve different models (all on a train theme).

A whole new era

At first, Mechanics Made Easy remained a relatively modest business. The number of kits was limited, and the company did not make a profit. The building blocks themselves were also of poor quality to be able to support Hornby’s grand visions of fostering the engineering spirit among all British children.

But in 1907, the curves finally began to turn upwards – so much so that suppliers had trouble meeting demand. Hornby now decided to resign from his regular job and ensure the quality of his product by establishing his own production instead. In June of that year, his first small factory opened its doors near the port of Liverpool, ready to pounce on thicker, more stable steel-plated nickel-plated steel kits.

To mark that he now brought his toy into a whole new era, he also gave it a new, gossipy name: Meccano.

Frank Hornby had had to wait a long time – by this time he was almost 50 years old – but this time the success did not wait. Sales of the new, more stable, expanded kits skyrocketed, and within a couple of years, his small hobby business had turned into a world phenomenon. In the 1910s, Meccano was exported to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and India. In addition, factories were opened in France, Germany, Spain and Argentina – in addition to another factory at home in Liverpool. Meccano, which had been invented during a massive expansion phase in Liverpool’s history, now became in itself a reason why the city continued to expand. The new toy factory became the UK’s largest – a mega-complex with just over 2,500 employees.

Meccanolåda. Photo: REX / TT

Meccano’s marketing took hold of the product’s biggest trump card: the space for almost unlimited creativity, rooted in the mechanical engineering principles of reality. With the kits’ sets of steel beams, gears, blocks, shafts and levers, it was possible to create fully functional small machines. “Let your boy use his hands and his brain to build his own toys,” exclaimed an early ad. With Meccano, any boy can build hundreds of real, functional models in shiny steel – bridges, cars, cranes that lift real loads, looms that weave real ties and bows, and spinning lathes. Building with Meccano is fantastically simple, and endlessly fascinating. ”

To encourage creative construction, the company sponsored Meccano competitions, where ingenious young engineers designed working Ferris wheels, automatic drawing machines whose robotic arms drew patterns on pieces of paper, and other mechanical wonders.

But above all, in the 1910s, Meccano Magazine was founded – the monthly magazine that would spread Frank Hornby’s gospel to all corners of the world. Here Hornby showed that he saw himself as an educator rather than an inventor. Just as he designed his first sheet metal models to both entertain and teach his young sons, he wanted to do the same with Meccano for generations of boys around the world.

Meccano Magazine marketed its Swedish edition with the following description:

“Boys who are awake and show interest in their surroundings are usually the happiest and most successful. Meccano Magazine is the ideal magazine for these boys. Month after month, the magazine contains nicely written articles, excellently illustrated with current images. The content includes mechanical engineering in all industries, railways, road transport, aviation and shipping. Inventions and scientific discoveries are easily understood. As the magazine has an appealing layout, and the articles are real and credible, the magazine has received enthusiastic approval from the technical and scientific world. ”

The idea was also to raise “Meccano boys” who were expected to be helpful and obedient. Local Meccano clubs gathered in a special guild, which would help spread community and togetherness among boys around the world. Here a little boy constructs a train, around the year 1950. Photo: MARY EVANS PICTURE / TT

In other words, a very small universe was now created around Meccano – a universe whose whole purpose was to nurture a new generation of curious, driven, optimistic (and exclusively male) engineers. There was even an official description of how “a Meccano boy undertakes to be”: obedient, truthful, patient, persevering, helpful – and “pure in thought and appearance”. Frank Hornby fatherly proclaimed that in the Meccano Guild (an overarching organization that connected all the local Meccano clubs of the world) “even the loneliest boy could participate and experience the common joy.”

Meccano Magazine gave these boys a future to long for – or perhaps to long for creating themselves. Here, in the newspaper’s dizzying report on what was to come (it was thought), wonderful multi-storey planes whizzed around a world completely prickly with skyscrapers, which in turn were connected by free-hanging highways.

When Frank Hornby once again decided to change careers in the early 1930s, it was a worldwide empire of sheet metal he left behind. The last years of his life he devoted instead to politics; From 1931 to 1935 he was elected a Conservative member of the British Parliament. In 1936 he died, 73 years old, multimillionaire and something of a national hero.

But just like its very building blocks, it was where the empire was built to last.

Meccano’s golden age

What is usually considered Meccano’s golden age did not actually occur until after Hornby’s time at the company. From the early 1930s to the 1960s, the popularity was at its greatest, and construction kits based on modern cars and aircraft were introduced, as well as new flexible building blocks and special parts.

The idea with Meccano was that the toy would educate the engineers of the future, and then with a special focus on the males. Photo: HISTORY / REX / TT

It was also now that the most beloved and coveted Meccano boxes ever were launched: the L variant (also known as No. 7), and No. 10. The latter was literally a huge treasure chest filled with all conceivable Meccano parts, as in many eyes are still the holy grail of the Meccano collection (and now worth tens of thousands of kronor in complete condition).

Today – several decades, changes of ownership and controversy later – Meccano is an anachronism. What used to be a breathtaking glimpse of the future has been reduced to a touch of antique curiosity. And the apple-cheeked boys who formed the original target group have turned into gray-haired uncles, who still keep their Meccano clubs alive and meet at conventions where they show each other their most spectacular creations.

An exhibitor named George Illingworth shows off his Meccano model of a fire truck at the London Model Engineering Exhibition in January 2020. Photo: AP / TT

But perhaps the most important legacy is not nostalgia for the brand itself. Without Frank Hornby really succeeding with his approach: to raise a generation (or rather several) of young men who opened their eyes to engineering – and then set out and changed the world. Countless are the engineers who found their original calling in rattling cardboard boxes that were unpacked with great reverence on Christmas Eve and birthdays.

The world may not look like Meccano anymore. But it would never have looked like it does today if it were not for Meccano.


Source: Nyteknik – Senaste nytt by www.nyteknik.se.

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