2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Frank Hornby, the creative genius behind the Meccano building system.
By day, Hornby worked as an accountant, but his creative imagination led to his spending many happy leisure hours in his home workshop. He was making toy models for his children when he hit upon the elegantly simple idea behind what would become Meccano: simple, identical elements stamped from metal could be bolted together in many different ways to form different models. Hornby further realized that, by perforating the structural pieces, he could not only make assembly easier (pre-drilled holes meant more precision) but also increase the strength and stability of the finished models (the holes meant each model used less metal overall, as well as acting as supports for axles).
By 1902, Hornby’s Mechanics Made Easy was in production. Within 5 years, demand had outstripped the capabilities of his parts suppliers, and Hornby acquired his own factory premises in Liverpool. The name was changed in order to broaden the product’s appeal in non-English-speaking countries, and with the registration of the trademark in 1907, Meccano was born.
When we first opened in 1985, we had a gentleman customer who had been an avid Meccano fan all his life, and who vividly remembered saving part of his weekly pay packet as a youngster in England during the thirties so that he could, periodically, buy a new set of Meccano. At the time, the sets were sold as a series of sets, each with one accessory set that, when added, equaled the next set up (i.e. set 5 plus 5A equaled set 6). This meant that the initial purchase didn’t have to be enormously expensive–a good thing during the Depression and afterwards–and that enthusiasts could grow their collection slowly. The customer did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and figured that, when one compared the percentage of his pay packet that the Meccano had represented to today’s cost as a percentage of a minimum-wage day’s wages, the Meccano had–allowing for inflation–been roughly the same cost then as it was some fifty years later!
The real beauty of Meccano was in the open-ended construction possibilities that it offered. If you could think it up–and you had enough Meccano–you could build it, an idea cleverly exploited by one of Meccano’s ad campaigns.
Meccano is still going strong in the 21st century.The basic sets are now marketed in a different way–they are now divided into 5-model, 10-model, 20-model sets, and so on–and they are no longer made in England, but the basic pieces are entirely compatible with those of any set sold in the past. Engineers, inventors, and hobbyists still use Meccano to build prototypical machines and models. Meccano is so much more than “just a toy”!
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to work on the robots I’m building to assist me in my plans for world domination …
If you can think it up, you can build it. Thanks, Meccano!