Meccano is a model construction system comprising re-usable metal strips, plates, angle girders, wheels, axles and gears, with nuts and bolts to connect the pieces. It enables the building of working models and mechanical devices.
Meccano was invented in 1901 in England by Frank Hornby and manufactured by the British company, Meccano Ltd, between 1908 and 1980. It is now manufactured in France and China. "Erector Sets" currently sold in the USA are actually Meccano sets manufactured by Meccano S.N. of France, part of the Nikko Group of Japan.
First Meccano sets
In 1901 Frank Hornby, a clerk from Liverpool, England, invented and patented a new toy called "Mechanics Made Easy" that was based on the principles of mechanical engineering. It was a model construction kit consisting of perforated metal strips, plates and girders, with wheels, pulleys, gears, shaft collars and axles for mechanisms and motion, and nuts and bolts to connect the pieces. The perforations were at a standard ½ inch (12.7 mm) spacing, the axles were 8-gauge, and the nuts and bolts used 5/32 inch BSW threads. The only tools required to assemble models were a screwdriver and spanners (wrenches). It was more than just a toy: it was educational, teaching basic mechanical principles like levers and gearing.
The parts for Hornby's new construction kit were initially supplied by outside manufacturers, but as demand began to exceed supply, Hornby set up his own factory in Duke Street, Liverpool. As the construction kits gained in popularity they soon became known as Meccano and went on sale across the world. In September 1907, Hornby registered the Meccano trade mark, and in May 1908, he formed Meccano Ltd. To keep pace with demand, a new Meccano factory was built in Binns Road, Liverpool in 1914, which became Meccano Ltd's headquarters for the next 60 years. Hornby also established Meccano factories in France, Spain and Argentina. The word "Meccano" was thought to have been derived from the phrase "Make and Know".
The first construction sets had parts that were rather crudely made: the metal strips and plates had a tinplate finish, were not rounded at the ends and were not very sturdy. But manufacturing methods were improving all the time and by 1907 the quality and appearance had improved considerably: the metal strips were now made of thicker steel with rounded ends and were nickel-plated, while the wheels and gears were machined from brass.
The first sets under the new Meccano name were numbered 1 to 6. In 1922 the No. 7 Meccano Outfit was introduced, which was the largest set of its day, and the most sought after because of its model building capabilities and prestige.
In 1926, to mark the 25th anniversary of his patent, Hornby introduced "Meccano in Colours" with the familiar red and green coloured Meccano pieces. Initially plates were a light red and items like the braced girders were a pea-green. However, the following year strips and girders were painted dark green, the plates Burgundy red, while the wheels and gears remained brass. In 1934 the Meccano pieces changed colour again: the strips and girders became gold while the plates were changed to blue with gold criss-cross lines on them, but only on one side, the reverse remaining plain blue. This new colour scheme was only available in Great Britain until the end of the Second World War in 1945. The old red and green sets were still produced for the export market and were re-introduced in Great Britain after the war.
In 1958 the colours were changed slightly to what become known as 'light red and green' but this incarnation had the shortest lifespan as the colours changed dramatically in 1964 to the black and yellow colour scheme. However, this light red and green period did see the introduction of about 90 new parts, more modern packaging, a new cabinet was introduced for the number 10 set, the first plastic parts were introduced, and the "exploded diagram" instructions made their debut.
In 1934 the nine basic Meccano outfits (numbered 00 to 7) were replaced by eleven outfits, labelled 0, A to H, K and L, the old No. 7 Outfit becoming the L Outfit. This L Outfit is often regarded as the best of the largest Meccano outfits. In 1937 the alphabetical outfit series was replaced by a numeric series, 0 to 10, the L Outfit being replaced by the smaller No. 10 Outfit. Although reduced in size from the L Outfit, the No. 10 Outfit became Meccano's flagship set and remained relatively unchanged until it was discontinued a half-century later in 1992. Accessory sets were retained, numbered 1A to 9A, that converted a set to the next in the series (for example, accessory set 6A would convert a No. 6 set to a No. 7 set). As had been the case from early days, Meccano Ltd would also supply individual Meccano parts to complement existing sets.
World War II interrupted the production of Meccano in England when the Binns Road factory converted to manufacturing for the war effort. The Korean War in 1950 also disrupted production due to a metal shortage and it was not until the mid-1950s that Meccano production returned to normal with new parts being added to all the sets.
In the early 1960s Meccano Ltd experienced financial problems and was purchased by Lines Bros Ltd (Tri-ang) in 1964. In an attempt to redefine Meccano's image, the colour scheme was changed again, this time to yellow and black plates, with silver strips and girders. The silver was soon replaced by zinc in 1967 when it was found that the silver pieces marked easily. The colours of yellow and black were chosen because they were the colours typically used by most large construction vehicles of the day.
In 1970 electronic parts were introduced, and the current black coloured plates were changed to blue. The range of sets was reduced by one with the deletion of the old No. 9 set and the renumbering of the old No. 0 to 8 sets to No. 1 to 9. The No. 10 set remained unchanged.
Lines Brothers went into voluntary liquidation in 1971 and Airfix Industries purchased Meccano Ltd in 1972. In 1973 outfits 1 to 10 were still available, but new kits were added: Army Multikit, Highway Multikit, Plastic Meccano, Pocket Meccano and two Clock Kits.
In 1978 the range of Meccano sets was further reduced and changed with the replacement of the No. 2 to 8 sets by six completely new sets, labelled A and 1 to 5. The old No. 9 and 10 sets were left largely unchanged. While some Airfix divisions were profitable, particularly their model kits, they needed to save money. With unions threatening all out industrial action if there were any job losses, Airfix shut down the Binns Road factory, bringing to an end the manufacture of Meccano in England. Meccano was, however, still being manufactured in France, although under the ownership of General Mills, a United States toy manufacturer since 1972.
In 1981 General Mills bought up Airfix Industries and with it what was left of Meccano Ltd UK, giving it complete control of the Meccano franchise. All the existing Meccano sets were scrapped and a totally new range of sets were designed for production in France called "Meccano Junior". These new sets included many plastic parts and could only build small models.
In 1985 General Mills left the toy business completely selling off their toy divisions. Meccano was sold out to a French accountant, Marc Rebibo, and, once again, all existing Meccano sets were scrapped. The "Meccano Junior" sets were replaced with three "Premier Meccano" sets and two "Motor" sets (including a six-speed motor) were introduced. Due to demand, the old Meccano No. 5 to 10 sets from 1981 were re-introduced.
In 1989 Marc Rebibo sold what remained of Meccano to Dominique Duvauchelle. Allen head zinc plated steel bolts replaced the original slot-headed brass-plated bolts and the "Plastic Meccano Junior" sets were brought back. With younger model builders in mind, many theme sets were also introduced, including a "Construction and Agricultural" series, "Space" models and "Dynamic" sets. The old-style No. 5 to 10 sets remained in production until 1992.
In 1994 additional theme sets were introduced and a pull-back friction motor was added to the Plastic Meccano System. In 1996 "Action Control" sets with infrared controls were added and 1999 saw the introduction of a "Motion System" range of sets that changed the look of Meccano completely. There were six one-model sets, two five-model sets, and five new sets numbered 10 to 50, the 20 to 50 sets being motorized. A complete change from the normal practice (sticking to a single majority colour) was that every set had its own colour scheme, often in bright neon colours.
In 2000 Nikko, a Japanese toy manufacturer, purchased 49 per cent of Meccano and took on its marketing internationally through its established channels for radio-controlled toys. Development and design remained with the 51% of Meccano SN, based in Calais, France. Nikko launched a successful range of new sets, including "Crazy Inventors" and the "Future Master" range. Significantly, Nikko radio control and programmable electronics started to appear in the System. However, under commercial pressure, Nikko sold its interest in the Meccano name and System back to Meccano SN, the French parent company, in August 2007. Meccano is now manufactured in France and China.
Meccano today is very different from its heyday in the 1930s to 1950s. The target market of youngsters has not changed significantly. However, the mass market, instant-appeal approach does not always satisfy serious Meccano enthusiasts. For example, it is often difficult to obtain original spares.
Many parts were introduced since the Liverpool factory closed under the French-and-Japanese running of the company. These included plastic parts, can motors, and modern battery holders. Metal became an expensive raw material to work with and many of the metal parts were replaced with plastic parts. Allen (hex-headed) zinc electroplated steel bolts replaced the slotted bolts. Some Meccano modellers enthusiastically embrace the changes and new parts. However, the "purists" look down on these new parts. Some enthusiasts set self-imposed limits on using only parts deemed to be traditional and steer clear of those parts viewed as “not truly Meccano”.
Original specialist parts, such as very long (up to 2 foot) angle girders, loom shuttles, printing rollers, etc. often required for large Super Models are becoming more difficult to obtain. There are replica manufacturers who satisfy the needs of enthusiasts who wish to build models requiring these parts.
What has remained the same during all these years is the Imperial ½ inch perforation spacing and the 5/32 inch whitworth thread for nuts and bolts (and other threaded parts). These unchanged standards and complete interchangeability of parts results in many modern models functioning perfectly with Meccano components that are more than 100 years old and vice versa. Indeed, old and new parts can be intermixed with impunity, the only problem being the odd mixture of colour schemes.
The current range of Meccano electric motors are small DC types designed to run on domestic batteries. These are low-torque high-speed "can" motors. These are inexpensive and suitable for small models that a child might construct from the standard range of sets. Adult enthusiasts tend to use a wider range of high-performance motors that are better suited to powering large models. During Meccano's heyday, the electric motors available were universal wound (for use on DC or AC supplies). Particularly well known were the E020, E20R and E15R universal motors, and issued after the Second World War. These could be run from a mains transformer or, in the case of the E15R, a 12V car battery. Earlier there had been short-lived (and potentially lethal) mains motors designed for DC mains with a domestic lightbulb in series to drop the voltage, followed by motors of the post-War pattern but wound for 4.5 or 6V DC and suited to lead/acid accumulator power. These, as well as the latter accumulator are now rare if in good condition.
For many years, live steam engines were made and sold under the Meccano brand, although they were not made by Meccano. Earlier examples were just vertical steam engines, typical of the time, sold under the Meccano name. The first to be specially designed for Meccano was introduced in 1928. This was a vertically boilered engine in a chassis designed to facilitate it being integrated into Meccano models. From 1965-76, Mamod made a steam engine for Meccano, the design of which was based on the 1928 version, with a similar chassis but using a standard Mamod horizontal boiler and engine parts. The model had no official model number, being known simply as the Meccano steam engine. However, it has since become generally known as the MEC1. Even after it was no longer being sold under the Meccano name, Mamod continued to manufacture the same model (with minor differences) until 1985, under their own name with the model number SP3.
Some model construction kits are compatible with Meccano. One example is the Swiss brand Stokys, which has been manufactured since 1941. Their elements are mainly made of thick stable metal in order to fit to the general approach of Swiss Quality. Other examples are Exacto and Metallus.
Meccano has always had several compatible products on the market (such as X-Series Meccano, Plastic Meccano, Mogul Toys and Speed-Play). In 2007, a plastic robot named "Spykee" arrived. The robot is controlled using a WiFi interface and has a webcam but cannot climb stairs as is sometimes claimed. It can also be controlled over the Internet and configured as a security camera. The robot is primarily packaged in a single plastic base component and comprises additional bolt-on plastic parts that are present for aesthetic purposes only (i.e. the arms do not function). The robot base does include some standard Meccano hole spacing. By September 2008, the Spykee robot family numbers five, with each robot having different capabilities.
Since the 1930s, construction kits compatible with Meccano were manufactured in the Soviet Union. They did not have a uniform colour scheme, parts could be in any color. Usually the strips and girders were not painted, and the plates could be either unpainted or painted in red, yellow, and blue. In the 1970s, plastic parts were introduced. The "Krugozor" (English: "Outlook"; Russian: "Кругозор") plant in Moscow produced some sets which included electrical motors and gears. The largest set of the 1970s–1980s was called "Yunost-3" (Russian: "Юность-3") and contained about 200 parts. The "Yunost" ("Adolescence") series were practically identical to Meccano sets with the same number, but there is no evidence of larger sets (equivalent to No. 4 or larger) being produced. There were instructions for building 44 models. Today, many similar kits, mostly Russian and Chinese-produced, are being sold in Russia.
Unlike the Czech Merkur sets, the Soviet ones used mixed Metric and Imperial measurements. The spacing between holes was 12.7 mm, or 1/2 inch, the hole diameter was 4.3 mm, or 1/6 inch. The nuts and bolts included were Metric.
With a Meccano set there was a wide range of models that could be built. Here are the models for which instructions were given in the largest set of the late 1950s, the "Outfit 10":
- "Railway Service Crane", "Sports Motor Car", "Coal Tipper", "Cargo Ship", "Double Decker Bus", "Lifting Shovel", "Blocksetting Crane", "Beam Bridge", "Dumper Truck", "Automatic Gantry Crane", "Automatic Snow Loader", "4-4-0 Passenger Locomotive"
On top of these there were instruction leaflets available for:
- "Combine Harvester", "The Eiffel Tower", "Showman’s Traction Engine", "Twin-Cylinder Motor Cycle Engine", "Trench Digger", "Bottom Dump Truck", "Road Surfacing Machine", "Mechanical Loading Shovel"
It has been said that the instructions sometimes contained deliberate errors to challenge the ingenuity of its users. However, those involved in their production maintain such errors were accidental, and are no more common than the unintentional errors in other modelling plans.
Since this time, enthusiasts such as G. Maurice Morris and MW Models have taken to publishing their own model plans, ranging from small models up to large and complex machines.
In 1934, Meccano began to be used in the construction of differential analysers, a type of analogue computer used to solve differential equations which has long since become obsolete. Though invented on paper in the 19th century, the first such machine had only been built in 1931, and normally they would be built by specialist manufacturers, at great cost. For example, in 1947, UCLA in the USA installed a differential analyser built for them by General Electric at a cost of $125,000. However, a "proof of concept" model of a differential analyser which made extensive use of Meccano parts was built at Manchester University, UK, in 1934, by Douglas Hartree and Arthur Porter: use of Meccano meant that the machine was cheap to build, and it proved "accurate enough for the solution of many scientific problems". This machine is now in the Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London, England. A similar machine built by J.B. Bratt at Cambridge University in 1935 is now in the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) collection in Auckland, New Zealand. A memorandum written for the British military's Armament Research Department in 1944 describes how this same machine was modified during World War II for improved reliability and enhanced capability, and identifies its wartime applications as including research on the flow of heat, explosive detonations, and simulations of transmission lines. After a lengthy period of neglect, a restoration effort began in 2003, and a successful "full run through" of this machine was completed on December 16, 2008.
In 2005, Tim Robinson displayed his own Meccano differential analyser at the Computer History Museum, at Mountain View, California, USA, and Robinson has also built and exhibited two models of Charles Babbage's difference engine, also using Meccano.
In 1990, Meccano S.A. built a giant Ferris Wheel, in France. It was modelled after the original 1893 wheel built by George Ferris at the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago and was shipped to the United States to promote "Erector Meccano" after Meccano S.A. had bought out the "Erector" trade name and began selling Meccano sets in the U.S.A. It went on display in New York City after which it was purchased by Ripley's Believe It or Not! and put on display in their St. Augustine, Florida museum. The model, (at the time) the largest (by size) is 6.5 metres (21.3 ft) high, weighs 544 kilograms (1,200 pounds), was made from 19,507 pieces, 50,560 nuts and bolts, and took 1,239 hours to construct. At this mass and size, some deviation from Meccano-only parts was a necessity, to prevent it collapsing (mainly in the structural spokes). The largest model by mass would certainly be in contention but some models have topped 600 kg.
A recent large model, weighing approximately 500 kg and 23m long, was built in September 2009 by TV presenter James May and a team of volunteers from the engineering department of the University of Liverpool, who created a Meccano bridge spanning the Leeds and Liverpool Canal in Liverpool. As with other models of this size and weight some non-Meccano parts were used. It was built from "[about] 100,000 pieces of real Meccano", taking 1,100 hours, and consisted of a 9 metre (29.5 ft) "swing bridge" section, and a 12 metre (39.4 ft) "drawbridge" section.
Meccano remains a very versatile constructional medium. Almost any mechanical device can be built with it, from structures, to complex working cranes, automatic gearboxes or clocks. Meccano is frequently used to prototype new ideas and inventions. Model realisation using Meccano is limited mainly by the imagination and ingenuity of the builder.
Frank Hornby launched the Meccano Guild in 1919, to encourage boys of all ages -as well as early clubs- to become part of a central organisation, which oversaw club formation, and set guidelines for club proceedings. The Meccano Magazine was used as a means to keep Guild clubs informed of each other's activities (as well as encourage the sales of Meccano).
The International Society of Meccanomen was founded in 1989 in England, nine years after the Liverpool factory closed. This organisation is considered the modern replacement of the Guild system and now has some 600 members in over 30 countries.
Today, over a hundred years since its inception, there are thousands of Meccano enthusiasts worldwide, many clubs and hundreds of websites covering Meccano history, model building instructions and nostalgia. Individuals and companies worldwide still manufacture parts, some long out of production. There are annual Meccano exhibitions around the world, notably in France (at a different venue around May each year) and at Skegness in England (around July every year). Many notable shows also take place in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand each year to name a few.
Publications devoted fully or in part to Meccano included Meccano Magazine from 1916 to 1981, and numerous Special Model Leaflets aimed at serious enthusiasts, on how to construct very large, complex models and machines. Some models use many more parts than an entire Set 10. The original large models from the 1930s model leaflets are called the Meccano Super Models, often popular at Meccano and other model engineering exhibitions and sometimes used as nostalgic showpieces by retailers. Modern dedicated publications include: Constructor Quarterly, The International Meccanoman and the ModelPlans series of instructions. These feature large model instructions and ideas for enthusiasts. There are also a myriad of club-generated periodicals, featuring Meccano content and keeping enthusiasts in touch.
The careers many people chose were influenced by their experience and knowledge gained from using the product. Meccano is mentioned in the first chapter of Graham Greene's novel The Power and the Glory.
- "Hornby's 1901 patent". Retrieved 2007-07-17.
- O'Shea, Patrick. "What is Meccano?". Johannesburg Meccano Hobbyists. Retrieved 2007-07-17.
- Instruktion för bygglåda Nr. 2 (in Swedish). Meccano Ltd. 1955.
- Meccano The Thrill of Build-It-Yourself. Meccano Ltd. 1961.
- Contents of Meccano outfits 1962. Meccano Ltd. 1962.
- Book of Models outfit 2. Meccano Ltd. 1971.
- Meccano sarjat ja uutuudet 1973 (outfits and novelties) (in Finnish). Helsinki, Finland: Ky Lelumyynti. 1973.
- Ward, Arthur, The Boys Book of Airfix
- Meccano revives French production BBC News 2010-12-24.
- "James May's Top Toys". 2008-12-17. UKTV. Dave. http://www.selmec.org.uk/article_2006_01_james_mays_top_toys.aspx.
- Robinson, Tim (June 2005), "The Meccano Set Computers A history of differential analyzers made from children’s toys", IEEE Control Systems Magazine 25 (3): 74–83, doi:10.1109/MCS.2005.1432602.
- "UCLA's Bush Analyzer Retires to Smithsonian" (Google News). Computerworld. 1978-01-09. Retrieved 2010-07-22.
- "Differential Analyser". Auckland Meccano Guild. Retrieved 2010-07-21.
- Cairns, W. J., Crank, J., & Lloyd, E. C. Some Improvements in the Construction of a Small Scale Differential Analyser and a Review of Recent Applications, Armament Research Department Theoretical Research Memo. No. 27/44, 1944 (see Robinson, Tim (2008-06-07). "Bibliography". Tim Robinson's Meccano Computing Machinery web site. Retrieved 2010-07-26.). The memorandum is now in The National Archives, UK: "Piece reference DEFE 15/751". The National Archives. Retrieved 2010-07-26. For the "Armament Research Department", see Fort Halstead, and cf. the entry for 1944 in "MoD History of Innovation" (pdf). Ploughshare Innovations Ltd. Retrieved 2010-07-26. It has been said that this machine was used in preparation for Operation Chastise, otherwise known as the "Dam Busters raid" (e.g. in O’Neill, Rob (16 July 2007). "Meccano ‘Dam Busters’ computer stars at MOTAT". Computerworld. Retrieved 2007-07-17.), but see Irwin, William (2009-07). "The Differential Analyser Explained". Auckland Meccano Guild. Retrieved 2010-07-21. "It is rumoured that a differential analyser was used in the development of the "bouncing bomb" by Barnes Wallis for the "Dam Busters" attack on the Ruhr valley hydroelectric dams in WW2. This was first mentioned in MOTAT literature in 1973. However after extensive enquiries and literature searches over the last few years, no evidence can be found that the [differential analyser held by MOTAT], nor any other differential analyser, was used for this purpose. Considering the secrecy surrounding war time activities at the time it could still be possible, but most people from that era are now deceased. Two remaining personalities still alive from that era were consulted, namely Arthur Porter and Maurice Wilkes, but neither could substantiate the rumour"
- Robinson, Tim, Tim Robinson's Differential Analyzer (10 February 2005), Robinson's Difference Engine #1 (3 April 2006), Robinson's Difference Engine #2 (7 May 2006). Tim Robinson's Meccano Computing Machinery web site. Retrieved 2010-07-29.
- "Greatest Meccano Models of the Twentieth Century". The New Zealand Federation of Meccano Modellers. Retrieved 2007-07-17.
- "Meccano bridge challenge". 2009-08-08. Archived from the original on 2012-05-02. Retrieved 2013-02-06.
- "May builds Meccano canal bridge". BBC News. 2009-08-08. Retrieved 2010-05-12. See James May's Toy Stories.
- "Harry Kroto Nobel Prize autobiography". Retrieved 2007-07-17.
- "Meccano Magazine story". Culture Shock. Retrieved 2010-01-05.
- Greene, Graham (2003) . The Power and the Glory. Penguin Classics. p. 12. ISBN 0-14-243730-1.
- Jim Gamble and Bert Love (1986), The Meccano System, London: New Cavendish Books. ISBN 0-904568-36-9.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Meccano|
- Official Meccano website
- "Frank Hornby: The Boy Who Made $1,000,000 With a Toy" — 1915 book online
- London Meccano Club — Guide to London's Meccano clubs and events