Long before Lego hit the toy stores, a metal construction set consisting of reusable metal strips, plates, angle girders, wheels, axles and gears that could be connected using nuts and bolts to make models was all the rage. Every boy wanted this toy, originally known as “Mechanics Made Easy”.
The Meccano system as it became known, was invented by Frank Hornby, a Liverpool clerk in England in 1898. Hornby, born in 1863, was an inventor, a businessman and a politician. He was however also a visionary in toy development and manufacture.
Even though he did not have an engineering background, by 1908 had set up his toy manufacturing company to market Meccano sets and other toys and kits. By the 1930s Hornby’s company became the biggest toy manufacturer in the United Kingdom and was producing the three most popular lines of toys in the 20th century: Meccano, Hornby trains and Dinky toys.
By 1910 Meccano was being exported worldwide. Branches were set up in Paris, Berlin, Spain and Argentina. The German factory was also manufacturing clockwork engines, but when WWI began in 1914 that source dried up so Hornby began making the motors in England.
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In 1934 Meccano introduced Dinky Toys – a new line of diecast miniature model cars and trucks. In the same year, they also introduced a construction toy for younger children called Dinky Builder.
The parts were painted green and pink in an attempt to draw girls into the otherwise boys-only toy market. I wonder how that was received. In 1938 Meccano Ltd launched the 00 gauge Hornby Dublo model railway system in both electric and clockwork train sets.
By the 1960s demand for Meccano products began to decline and the original company passed through many hands before being bought out by a Japanese company, Nikko which continues to manufacture Meccano sets in France and China today, although very different from the Meccano manufactured in Hornby’s Liverpool factory.
The museum is fortunate to have among its collections a model biplane from the 1930s, still in its original box. This item came from the Clarke homestead. Model aeroplanes, particularly after WWI and with the advances being made in aviation, were very popular toys. This model is green and white metal with red, white and blue roundels painted on the wings.
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I recall my brothers receiving Meccano sets for Christmas in the 1950s and how envious I was as these sets were deemed very much a boy’s toy. Other memories are of my late husband trolling through antique stores looking for early Meccano sets and clockwork Hornby trains to add to his growing collection.
I suspect many a stored-away toy box houses an old Meccano set, set aside for the grandchildren.