Frank Hornby 150th Anniversary 1863-2013
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Meccano lantern shop display, Brighton Toy and Model Museum
An oriental lantern made from Meccano

Frank Hornby would make toys for his children, and one of his early pieces was a small model crane. In a Victorian world, cranes and bridges and other constructions were notable in that the way that the way were built was part of their character. A metal toy bridge that showed its rivets and joints was in some ways more realistic than one that didn't, and Hornby's first experiments at toymaking focused on making models from nuts and bolts and screwed-together metal strips cut from old biscuit tins. Hornby's inspiration was the realisation that if he made general-purpose strips, he wouldn't have to spend so much time making custom parts — the same pieces could be used in different types of model, and he could start cutting up lots of strips without having to decide in advance what it was that he was going to make.

Hornby started experimenting with strips of a fixed size, with holes punched at regular intervals, with the holes being used either as screwpoints or as mountings for axles or pulleys. The new toy didn't have to be assembled in a factory or built by a parent — the act of building a model was part of the play value. Hornby had created a construction toy.

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With the help of a loan and workspace donated by his employer, Hornby started making sets of the strips and other pieces or general sale, with local engineering companies contracted to supply the parts. His "Mechanics Made Easy" sets were not very successful to start with, and it took a few years for the enterprise to start turning a profit. However, once the sets finally started selling — with the help of a recommendation from H.S. Hele-Shaw (Chair of Engineering at the University College of Liverpool), a commissioned logo and a catchy new name, "Meccano" — sales boomed, and Hornby ended up with a large factory at Binns Road, Liverpool and an international business.

Meccano became part of British culture, and helped to inspire generations of engineers. The sets were rumoured to have been used in projects as diverse as early mechanical computers, the Russian Space Programme, and the British children's television programme, "The Clangers".

However, Hornby wasn't finished ...

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