Rendering by Anthony in Pro/Desktop 2000

Meccano is a part based construction system invented almost a hundred years ago by Frank Hornby. It uses nuts and bolts and metal components with 0.5 inch spacing to assemble working models, prototype ideas or fantasy items ranging from industrial machinery, automobiles, clocks to robotics or even art. It makes a great engineering tool, to prototype new ideas, designs or just to build something for fun.

The article below describes Meccano from its early days to the present.

THE MAGIC OF MECCANO - a hobby for young and old.

by Patrick O'Shea

Many people with careers in Mechanical Engineering first encountered mechanical technology as children through the medium of the Meccano system. Meccano was the brainchild of Frank Hornby (1863 - 1936), a young clerk who worked for a meat importing company in Liverpool, England at the turn of the last century. The original system "Mechanics Made Easy" was patented by him in 1901 and the Meccano trade mark registered during September 1907. The word "Meccano" is said to be derived from the phrase "Make and Know", an indication of Hornby's keen interest in the education of his children, for whom the first rudimentary parts were hand-cut and finished by him from sheets of metal.

Meccano consists of metal strips, plates, rods, wheels, gears, pulleys and many other mechanical components found in real machinery. This variety of parts enables working scale models of real mechanical equipment to be built, from simple mechanisms to complex "Supermodels". A standard system of holes and slots drilled at ½" intervals in the components facilitates accuracy in construction. The robustness of the parts ensures that they can be used repeatedly to build an array of models as diverse as working clocks, orreries, looms, shipyard container cranes, plate rollers, industrial robots; in fact almost any conceivable type of machinery or transportation.

As the system evolved it kept pace with innovations in the "real" engineering environment, new components were introduced or old ones modified or redesigned enabling modelers to replicate the latest developments in engineering. This is still so.

Frank Hornby was a visionary entrepreneur who understood the value of an interactive relationship with his market. "The Meccano Magazine" -a monthly newsletter was introduced in 1916 which contained articles of interest to budding engineers. It included new plans for models which could be assembled with Meccano, often requiring the purchase of additional parts or a larger outfit. The Meccano Magazine enjoyed a circulation of 50,000 at its peak and was published until 1980. From inception Meccano grew in popularity quickly and enthusiasts formed individual clubs in various parts of the world. During 1919 Frank Hornby launched the Meccano Guild which amalgamated the clubs around the world as one.

Apart from development of new and modified components, Meccano underwent color changes on many occasions - some of which reflected the mood of the time. For example in 1936 it was produced in royal blue with gold cross-hatching to mark the coronation of King George VI following the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII; in 1939 with the impending World War, Meccano was produced in matt green similar to the color of military vehicles then in common use.

By the end of the 1930's Meccano was being produced under license with royalties payable to Frank Hornby's estate, in France, Germany (by Märklin Metall), Spain (by Metaling) and the USA (by Gilbert and sold as Erector). After WWII it was also made in Argentina by the Exacto company.

When the Meccano system produced in Liverpool was at its most popular the outfits ranged from No. 0 to No.10. The largest outfit produced by Meccano was the No.7 offered during the '30's which contained even more parts than the later No.10 - a mammoth outfit presented in a wooden chest containing a huge array of parts. Recreating a No.10 today with original parts in good condition will cost about R20,000 - this may provide an indication of the scope of this fantastic outfit.

Many Supermodels are so complex that not even a No.10 Meccano outfit contains enough parts to complete them. A notable example is the Blocksetting Crane; a behemoth modeled on the real blocksetter which was used around the world to maneuver 40-ton blocks of concrete to create breakwaters during construction of the world's major deep water ports. The Meccano Blocksetting Crane was featured on the covers of a number of the outfits, creating expectations in young minds which far exceeded the extent of the parts contained in the box. The completion of a blocksetter is still considered a significant milestone in the life of a Meccano modeler. The model containing the most parts so far is the Gargantua Crane which took 3½ No.10 outfits to make. It is believed that the largest model (so far) is a 50 meter tall reproduction of the Eiffel Tower, made by the French Meccano factory as a display for marketing purposes.

Because of the need for additional components in varying numbers to complete models not catered for in standard outfits, Meccano Ltd. supplied individual parts which could be purchased through their dealer network, as well as conversion kits which extended a No. 0 to a No. 1, a No. 1 to a No.2 and so on. Original Meccano components are available today through a network of independent dealers around the world. Some of the parts boast intriguing, nostalgia-inducing names such as "Heald for Loom", "Windmill Sail" and "Ship's Funnel", conjuring up images of times gone by and the mechanical wonders of those days which were faithfully reproduced in Meccano.

The advent of television made a serious dent in the popularity of Meccano (and many other practical hobbies). The company felt the effects of this in the mid to late '60's. Strong competition in the lucrative toy market as well as labor problems at the factory in Binns Road, Liverpool, forced Meccano Ltd. to cease production finally in 1979. At that point the company belonged to Airfix Toys (U.K.)Ltd. The French producer of Meccano bought the worldwide rights, stepped up production and relaunched the company as Meccano S.A.

Interest in the Meccano system declined somewhat more with the introduction of the home computer and computer games which captured the imagination of the young. However, the company survived by adopting innovative marketing strategies. Meccano is currently enjoying a worldwide resurgence of interest due, paradoxically, in large part to the computer and the internet. A search on the keyword "Meccano" reveals a large number of web sites dedicated to the hobby and Meccano clubs are still found in many countries.

The International Society of Meccanomen was founded in England in 1989 by Dr. Michael Adler, a Capetonian now residing in Israel. The ISM boasts more than 400 members in 25 countries who communicate with each other through the Internet and by means of a journal which is published three times a year in hard-copy ("treeware") for those without Internet facilities. As the worthy successor to the original Meccano Guild the ISM is attracting new members apace; it's estimated that there are more than 3,500 active Meccano modelers in the world and this number is increasing dramatically because adults who enjoyed Meccano when they were young are rediscovering their passion for this fine hobby which provides a stimulating alternative to television and the computer. So great is the interest in Meccano today that if the factory were to close for good almost every Meccano component ever made would still be available from enthusiasts who produce replica parts and restore original parts in places as far afield as India, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and the U.K.

The capability of Meccano to produce models (or to improve the design or appearance of an existing model) is limited only by the imagination and ingenuity of the modeler. The "magic" of the system is that it continually presents a challenge to the modeler, even when working from plans written by somebody else, to innovate, improvise and improve on any aspect which appears to be unsatisfactory. It provides the opportunity for parents and their children to get involved together in an activity which is rewarding, educational and a lot of fun. The componentry continues to evolve and develop in tandem with innovations in engineering and provides as valid an introduction to mechanical engineering for youngsters today as it did 100 years ago.

The centenary of Meccano was marked in 2001, with celebrations at centers and clubs around the world.

[Meccano is a registered trademark of Meccano S.A., Avenue de Saint Exupéry, 62100 Calais, FRANCE ]