Meccano facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts
Meccano locomotive
A train made using Meccanos

Meccano is a model construction kit comprising re-usable metal strips, plates, angle girders, wheels, axles and gears, with nuts and bolts to connect the pieces. It is a versatile constructional medium enabling the building of a variety 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. Currently it is manufactured in France and China.

History

The 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 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 setup 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. 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.

Meccano's heyday

Meccano No7 Instructions (front)
Instruction book for the 1956 Meccano No. 7 and 8 Outfits, showing a model of a walking drag line excavator built with the familiar red and green Meccano pieces of the time.

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.

Takeovers

In the early 1960s Meccano Ltd began experiencing 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 for the first time 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. 1 to 8 sets to No. 2 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 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. By 1980 Airfix themselves were in financial trouble and, in an attempt to cut their losses, they 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.

The new Meccano

In 1981 General Mills bought what was left of Meccano Ltd UK, giving it now 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. Thus Meccano's concept of "Engineering in Miniature" was now completely lost and it was reduced to nothing more than a toy.

Meccano motorcycle3
Meccano model motorcycle built with the Meccano Motion System 50 set.

In 1985 General Mills 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 Francois 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 norm was that every set had its own colour scheme.

In 2000 Meccano was bought out by Nikko, a Japanese toy manufacturer, and once again new sets were launched, including "Crazy Inventors" and the "Future Master" range. Nikko currently manufactures Meccano in France and China.

Meccano today is very different from its heyday in the 1930s to 1950s and purists look down on the modern French- and Chinese-made Meccano, for several reasons: the plates are thinner, or plastic; the bolts are hex-headed galvanised steel; and new specialized pieces have been introduced (plastic gears, electric motors, battery boxes) which many consider as not "true" Meccano. Large or specialist parts for the Meccano Super Models, such as very long (up to 2 foot) angle girders, loom shuttles, printing rollers, etc are becoming ever more difficult to obtain - some very rare original parts are particularly valuable to collectors. Most of the currently available electric Meccano motors are also small DC models designed to run on domestic batteries, and can only deliver a fraction of the torque of earlier electric motors such as the particularly well known E15R and E20R universal motors, which could be run from a mains transformer or, in the case of the E15R, a 12V car battery. But what has remained the same after all these years is the Imperial ½ inch perforation spacing and the 5/32 inch nut and bolt whitworth threads.

Capabilities

Meccano model Steam shovel excavator
Meccano model of a steam shovel excavator powered by a restored 1929 Meccano steam engine, built by Chris in 2004.

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"

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 well beyond the scope of any individual Meccano set ever produced.

Meccano is a very versatile constructional medium. Just about any mechanical device can be built with it, from working cranes to automatic gearboxes. It can even be used to prototype new ideas and inventions. The capability of Meccano to produce models is limited only by the imagination and ingenuity of the modeller.

In 2002 and 2005 (respectively), Tim Robinson constructed working Meccano models of Charles Babbage's Difference Engines.

The largest Meccano model ever built was a giant Ferris Wheel, made by Meccano S.A. in France in 1990. It was modelled after the original 1893 wheel built by George Ferris at the World Colombian 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 is 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) 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.

Popularity

Meccano Centennial Poster
Meccano Centennial poster and stamp issued in 2001 to celebrate one hundred years of Meccano. It shows the famous Meccano blocksetting crane with a portrait of Frank Hornby, Meccano's inventor.

By the late 1920s Meccano had become an international household name. Meccano clubs started forming around the world and in 1930 Frank Hornby launched the Meccano Guild to amalgamate these clubs. In 1989, The International Society of Meccanomen was founded in England and boasts some 600 members in over 30 countries.

Publications devoted fully or in part to Meccano included Meccano Magazine from 1916 to 1981, Constructor Quarterly and numerous Special Model Leaflets, aimed at serious enthusiasts, on how to construct very large, complex models and machines, some using many more parts than an entire Set 10. These large models were sometimes referred to as the Meccano Super Models, often popular at Meccano and other model engineering exhibitions and sometimes as showpieces for retailers.

Even today, over a hundred years since its inception, there are still thousands of Meccano enthusiasts world-wide, with hundreds of websites covering every conceivable aspect of Meccano history, model building instructions and nostalgia. Individuals and companies world-wide still manufacture replicas of various parts, some long out of production. There is an annual World Meccano Exhibition at Skegness in England every year around July. This is one of the few products in existence to have such a long-running success.

Many people today look back at their childhood with fond memories of Meccano model building, and the careers many people chose were influenced by their experience and knowledge gained from "playing" with Meccano.

Images for kids


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