Meccano - a metal construction toy from the first half of the 20th century, still much loved by hobbyists and collectors everywhere.
This simple system was the first metal construction toy ever marketed. It was the brain-child of Frank Hornby who hand made the very first components for his children because he wanted them to play with inspiring but educational toys. His children loved them and he quickly saw a business opportunity. Hornby patented his idea in 1901 calling it Meccanics Made Easy and started out along the road to mass production. It wasn't until 1907 that business really started to take off - at this time the trademark Meccano was registered. Meccano is derived from 'make' and 'know' with a spelling change to reflect the mechanical nature of the product.
Meccano consists of a series of metal rods and plates with carefully drilled slots and holes 0.5 inches apart. There were nuts and bolts to fix the pieces together and over time wheels, axles, gears, pulleys and more specialised components were produced to widen the scope of the sets. The sets ranged in size and cost from No 0 to No 10, which was a huge wooden box containing an enormous variety of items. With enough imagination (and the right number of pieces) it was possible to construct models of almost anything. In fact, Douglas R Hartree of Manchester University built an analogue computer largely from Meccano in 1934. Called the Manchester Differential Analyser, it was designed to solve differential equations, and was based on an American design by Vannevar Bush. It can now be seen at the Museum of Transport and Technology, Western Springs in New Zealand - Thanks wertperch.
Frank Hornby was a natural businessman who understood the power of marketing. In 1916 he began production of The Meccano Magazine which was to inspire users the world over. The magazine featured plans and instructions for exciting new models which increased the 'need' for extra parts, and competitions were organised with rich prizes for the winners. Dealers were encouraged to stock individual pieces and also extension kits which would upgrade sets to the next size up.
Another important change which enhanced sales was the introduction of coloured sets. The original pieces were nickel and brass, but Hornby produced red and green sets in 1926, blue and gold in 1934 and military green in 1939 just prior to World War II when production was to stop for a while. By this time Meccano was licensed in many parts of the world and was a highly successful company.
Production resumed after the war, but interest in Meccano, as with so many other toys, dwindled in the 1960s with the advent of television, and the company suffered. In 1979 Meccano Ltd in Liverpool was forced to cease production, although subsidiaries in France and South America continued and produce construction kits to this day. True enthusiasts never die, however, and with the increase in usage of the internet modellers and collectors world wide are able to keep in touch and keep their hobby alive.