Freeway in Houston, Texas













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by JOHN H. LIENHARD
Erector Sets


Taken from an ad in a 1917 issue of Boy's Life



Our pursuit of the idea of structure has wandered further and further from beams and girders. And we could take it a lot further still. We could talk about the structure of societies, of grammar, of protein molecules, of non-Euclidean space. We’ve said nothing about Thomas Kuhn’s famous study of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Yet we’ve said too little about beams and girders themselves.  To see why we apply the word structure to abstract organizations of ideas, we need only look at the beams and girders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- that epoch of heroic building.  

We became conditioned to see skyscrapers, dams, ships, airplanes and automobiles everywhere around us. So structure turned from thing into metaphor.  And here we encounter a strange contradiction. As structure infused our lives, we both abstracted it and let it become part of shorthand language of children. The agent that put structures of beams and girders in children’s vocabularies was The Arts and Crafts Movement.

That movement had arisen in the wake of Great Britain’s earlier era of industrialization. Then it took firm root here in America. As industries blanketed the western world, the Arts and Crafts Movement was the center of a struggle to keep some of what we were losing. Yet those arts and crafts rapidly took on the texture of the very world they were trying to keep at bay.  

Take the case of Frank Hornby: Hornby was born in Liverpool in 1863.  He left school at sixteen to work as a shipping clerk in his father's supply business.  Then he married, and when he had children, he began making toys for them.  Well, not toys, but parts from which they could build their own toys.  He cut metal strips with rows of holes for bolts.  He added wheels, shafts, pulleys.

Now, if you're old enough, you'll see where this was headed. Hornby had, perhaps unwittingly, tied into two major impulses at once.  One was the rising fascination with arts and crafts.  The other was every child's creative curiosity ... "If I screw these pieces together like this, then put a crank on this pulley here, I'll have a machine to haul my blocks from here to there."



By 1901, he'd seen that he could make and sell boxed sets of such parts.  He gave them the catchy name, Improvements in Toy or Education Devices for Children and Young People.  The sets were endorsed by academics.  By 1903, Hornby had trimmed the name to Mechanics Made Easy, and his sales were outrunning the supplier's ability to keep up.

Four years later, Hornby had his own company and the clumsy old name was now down to simply: Meccano sets. And so they remain, even today.  Here in America, we older people remember building not Meccano, but Erector, sets.  A. C. Gilbert began selling Erector sets in 1913.  By the mid-30s they, along with Gilbert's chemistry sets and more, were teaching us all the fun of building things.

The first Meccano and Erector sets provided spring-driven motors.  By the time I was building with them, they included a small electric motor.  That motor had open wiring so we could see how it worked.  The sets also had a screwdriver and a small wrench, since we had to bolt everything together.

That finally yielded to simpler assembly.  Tinker Toys had been competing with them all along.  Then, 1958 gave us the modern Lego block.  Erector sets went out of business nine years later.  But (not to fear) you can still buy one; it's now made by a Japanese company operating in France.  And the name it bears is none other than Meccano!

Frank Hornby became rich.  He even did an undistinguished stint in the House of Commons before he died in 1936.  More important, he had, by then, started yet another industry: A series of scale model cars -- the so-called Dinky Toys.  They were overtaken by America's Matchbox cars. But Hornby's first legacy, his Meccano sets have somehow survived all the way into this brave new world of the third Millennium.

Sorting through a box the other day, I found some of my old toys -- a lead soldier, a stuffed dog, a set of blocks.  In a rush, they brought back the sensate connection we feel with our childhood playthings: The satisfying fit of Lincoln Logs.  The thwump of a really well-made sling-shot, model-airplane dope, snowballs, sleds, and my first bike.  But more than anything, my memory caught the ozone smell created by the electric motor for my erector set. It wafted its magic once again.  

What a vast formative influence toys are! Our toys said, “Here are the tools: you decide how to use them!”  That’s how our word structure entered the world from the bottom up. We children of the 20th century saw every human enterprise in terms of beams and girders. We saw our world and everything in it as a built world.



Sources:

F. Hornby, (1863-1936) The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 6, pp. 124-124. See also the Wikipedia entry on Hornby.

See also, the Wikipedia entries for Meccano sets and Erector sets.

C. Gibson, A History of British Dinky Toys. (London: Model Aeronautical Press,Ltd., 1966). See also the Wikipedia entries on both Dinky Toys and Matchbox Toys.

Collectible Toys and Games of the Twenties and Thirties from Sears, Roebuck and Co. Catalogs (James Spero, ed.). New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1988. (I find it intriguing, in this context, that the name Spero means "I hope" in either Italian or Latin.)

In a recent op ed piece in the engineering education journal, engineer/historian Henry Petroski emphasizes the importance of toys: H. Petroski, Back to the Future. Prism, Vol. 9, no. 5, Jan. 2000.

And in this source, the former director of the University of Minnesota's Institute of Technology joins with his wife to bring us a study of early mechanical toys. A. Spilhaus and K. Spilhaus, Mechanical Toys: How Old Toys Work. (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1989). 


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