Today, arts, crafts and Meccano sets. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that
make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Arts and Crafts were everyone's passion as we entered
the 20th century. Industrialization was blanketing the known world and we
struggle to keep some of what we were losing. And yet, those arts an 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, 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. (If you're old enough, you'll see what he was
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 realized 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 a famous engineer at the University of Liverpool,
Henry Selby Hele-Shaw. 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 a new name. These were now Meccano
sets, and they are so even today. Here in America, we older people remember building not
Meccano, but Erector, sets. A. C. Gilbert began selling
sets in 1913. By the mid-'30s they, along with Gilbert's chemistry sets, and more, were
teaching us all abut the wonders of technology and science.
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
That finally yielded to simper assembly. Tinker Toys had been competing with them all along.
Then, in 1958, the modern Lego block was released. 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 that company 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.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Hornby, F. (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
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
Above, a vintage Meccano
set. Below, a motorcycle model build from a modern Meccano
(These images courtesy of Wikipedia, Tinker Toy photo by JHL)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H.