Toy aeroplane construction kit and packaging, 'Meccano Aeroplane Constructor No.2 Outfit', paper/metal, made by Meccano Ltd, Liverpool, England, 1931-1941
This toy sea plane, painted with Royal Air Force roundels and fin stripes, was assembled from the boxed construction kit, which includes interchangeable parts to allow a range of planes to be made.
Meccano was the best known and most popular construction toy of the first half of the twentieth century. Invented in England by Frank Hornby in 1901, the perforated metal strips were inspired by full size metal girders which could be joined together and strengthened with cross bracing. Whereas German toy manufacturers of the time were building a range of miniature mechanised lathes, pumps, circuits and engines, Meccano gave children the components and technology to actually design and make their own machinery: working model cranes, tip wagons, cars, aeroplanes, swing bridges, machine tools and locomotives in miniature. Remarkably complex models were possible, including the Meccano clock which kept accurate time and the loom which wove material for ties and hat bands. The Meccano motor chassis with Ackerman steering, gearbox and clutch so closely resembled a car that it was used to teach students the principles of motor mechanics. The only tools required were a tiny screwdriver and spanner. This all appealed to middle-class parents, especially in the industrial areas of Britain, who were keen to provide boys with a technical and mechanical education at a time when mechanical and civil engineering practice was at the peak of its success. The construction of railways, ships, aircraft and engineering marvels at the time represented the culmination of decades of invention. Meccano also came onto the market at a time when education theorists were beginning to advocate 'learning by doing' and the British were regularly told that their scientific education was lamentably inferior to the German system.
Meccano was exported all around the world, especially to Commonwealth countries, and inspired a worldwide club intended not only to interest boys in engineering but also 'to make every boy's life brighter and happier' and 'to foster clean mindedness, truthfulness, ambition and initiative in boys'. There is no doubt that Meccano spawned a generation of technically-minded adults and engineers; it was also used in engineering firms for model building and by inventors for working out ideas, just as computers are used today. By the 1960s rival plastic construction toys, which were cheaper and aimed at both boys and girls, took away much of the Meccano market and the firm closed its Binns Road factory in Liverpool in 1979. Nevertheless, Meccano continues to be made in various countries, and adult devotees still meet and display their models.
Assistant Curator, Science & Industry
In addition to the standard outfits produced by Meccano, a series of special purpose kits were introduced during the great expansion of the Meccano product range during the first half of the 1930s. These comprised the Aeroplane Constructor Outfit, Motor Car Constructor Outfit, Mechanised Army, Electrical Outfit, Elektron, Kemex, Hornby System of Mechanical Demonstration, Steam Engine, Dinky Builder and the X Series. After the Second World War came the Clock Kit, Gears 'A' and Gears 'B' Outfits, Mechanisms Outfit and Elektrikit.
The first of the special purpose outfits was the 'Aeroplane Constructor Outfit No.1' which appeared in 1931. Later a larger set, the 'Aeroplane Constructor Outfit No.2' was released and allowed various types of aircraft to be produced by using a selection of interchangeable parts. The aircraft was finished either in camouflage or blue and cream with British national markings. The sets for export incorporated corrugated body and wing section.
By 1934 the first two kits were reissued as 'Special' outfits. As aviation was undergoing rapid development at the time the Meccano models had to keep pace and the 'Special' kits allowed for more models to be built. With the Meccano Special No.1 Aeroplane Constructor Outfit, 20 realistic models of different types of aircraft could be made. The range of special parts in this set included main planes fitted with ailerons, tail planes with elevators, a movable rudder, and radial engine cowling. The outfit was available in three different colour combinations, red and cream, blue and white and green and cream. A special manual of instructions was included showing 44 Meccano model aeroplanes together with photographs and their prototypes. It also contained a section devoted to flying a real aeroplane and explained how the most difficult stunts were achieved. Meccano also advertised for purchase aeroplane hangars with double doors especially designed to house Meccano model aeroplanes.
Two types of aero clockwork motors were also available separately and could be fitted into the fuselage of Meccano Aeroplane Constructor models. To add realism to the model the No.1 aero clockwork motor rotated the propeller at high speed. The No.2 motor both rotated the propeller and drove the landing wheels so that the model could taxi along the floor. An adjustable tail wheel was also available with the No.2 motor.
Production of the Aeroplane Constructor outfits continued until 1941.
Opie, James (ed) "The Collector's Guide to 20th-Century Toys", Bracken Books, London, 1995.
Meccano was created by Frank Hornby (1863-1936), an amateur inventor and book-keeper employed by a meat importer in Liverpool, England, almost by accident on a train journey in 1900. Hornby is quoted as saying:
'One Christmas Eve I was travelling from London to Birmingham to spend the holiday with a relation who had some children. I had been wondering on the way there what I could do to amuse them. The train stopped ¬? opposite a goods yard and there was a small crane there. It occurred to me that I could make a crane like that for children using strips of steel. I sat in the carriage dreaming about it.'
Hornby soon made the first components in his workshop at home and even borrowed ¬£5 from his employer for the patent registration fee in 1901. The first Meccano was sold in boxed kits as 'Mechanics Made Easy' and appeared ready for Christmas the same year. A move into slightly larger premises in James Street, Liverpool, in partnership with his boss and investor, David Elliott, enabled Hornby to concentrate on improving and marketing the kits in his spare time. It wasn't until 1907 that Hornby could afford financially to work on Meccano full time and the name Meccano was first used. The company went from strength to strength and the kits grew in size.
In 1910 the Hornby System of Mechanical Demonstration was introduced in English schools and from 1912 Meccano (France) Ltd was established in Paris while the German toy manufacturer, M√§rklin, made it under licence and introduced the clockwork motor. The First World War stopped the supply of M√§rklin clockwork motors and American-built 4-volt electric motors were subsequently provided. In 1914 the English factory moved to the famous address familiar to generations of children all over the world, Meccano Ltd, Binns Road, Liverpool, 13, England, where they were to stay for the next 60 years.
English and overseas model-building competitions were initiated by Hornby in 1915 and the first issue of the Meccano Magazine appeared in 1916. Published monthly, the magazine described new models and parts, model building competitions and articles about railways, electricity, inventors and the latest engineering and transport developments. The company exported to many countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and other parts of the British Commonwealth.
Clubs were formed under the guidance of Meccano's Guild Secretary in Liverpool. Each had an adult leader but the positions of Secretary, Treasurer and other officials were held by boys but and as far as possible clubs were conducted by boys. Special awards were given to members for good work in connection with their club and medallions awarded for recruiting members. Meccano also conducted a correspondence service where boys could write to the factory with problems and comments and these were answered personally by Meccano staff.
For individual boys unable to join clubs, the worldwide Meccano Guild and Correspondence Club were founded in 1919. Started at the request of "Meccano boys", its objective was to "bring boys together and to make them feel that they are all members of a great brotherhood, each trying to help others to get the very best out of life". Membership was open to every boy who possessed a Meccano outfit or Hornby train set. Members all over the world wore an enamelled blue and white Guild badge in the lapel of their coats! Years later, in the unrest of the 1930s, membership of the Meccano Guild was spoken of as a junior version of the League of Nations. In an early commercial tie-in, the Jaeger clothing manufacturer produced socks and jumpers with the famous chequerboard patterns as worn by the boys in Meccano advertising. These were advertised as 'The 1929 Jaeger Meccano Jersey'.
Meccano manufacture was halted during the Second World War and did not resume until 1950. Television and later Lego took traditional Meccano markets nevertheless new parts were introduced together with instruction manuals with exploded diagrams. Plastic Meccano was used in primary schools while a last attempt saw the range come with Space Age Meccano and miniature monsters known as Meccanoids. By 1964 the firm, like many others was in financial difficulties struggling with high labour costs and different, newer competitors producing cheaper toys, usually in plastic. The firm was taken over by the Lines brothers, and their Tri-ang range of toys. The Meccano Magazine ceased in 1967 but Frank Hornby's legacy did not end there as the first adult Meccano Club was formed in 1968. In the 1970s the company became part of the Airfix group but the closure of the Liverpool factory in 1979 ended the manufacture of English-built Meccano. The factory was demolished the following year.
In its heyday, Meccano stimulated generations of boys to take up technical careers and was without doubt the finest engineering construction toy ever devised. Meccano is still made today in South America and available in Australia in hobby and electrical shops. Although it is now in the hands of adult enthusiasts, it has been revitalised with numerous Meccano Clubs, exhibitions and newsletters around the world achieving almost cult status. The Internet has also ensured the continued exchange of ideas with more intricate and ingenious models being made than ever before.