How Frank Hornby's attempt to make mechanics easy gave millions an interest in engineering
An idea that started life as a home-made Christmas gift has earned a place in engineering history.
One hundred and fifty years ago, one of the most important figures in modern engineering was born ' a builder of cars, bridges, aeroplanes, trains, houses, factories, tanks, cranes and just about anything else that can be built. But you won't find his creations across rivers, at airports or in stations, but under the Christmas tree.
It wasn't an auspicious start in engineering for Frank Hornby. Brought up in a relatively poor family in Liverpool, he was never going to find the funds for university and probably wouldn't have got in in the first place as he hated school. Aged 16 he left to take up the role of cashier in his father's provisioning business. Frank did not lack ambition, having been a devoted follower of the great 19th century self-improver Samuel Smiles and his exhortation: 'Every human being has a great mission to perform, noble faculties to cultivate, a vast destiny to accomplish.'
Hornby's destiny wasn't to lie in bookkeeping, however, but in toys. In 1899 he began making small tin-plate toys for his children. These sheet-metal cranes and trains were not an unusual feature on Christmas morning in many households, but as the century turned Hornby had one, brilliant idea. What if, rather than making toys, he made a set of parts that could be joined together in any form the owner fancied? So he set about cutting out a series of copper strips, half an inch wide with holes drilled every half an inch. These could then be bolted together, have wheels and pulleys attached and be turned into just about anything.
By the end of the year he had put together a kit; all he needed was a great name. That name, as the 1901 patent reads, was 'Improvements in Toy or Educational Devices for Children and Young People'. The real name he came up with was Mechanics Made Easy and the seven shillings and sixpence set even received endorsements from professor of engineering and the inventor of the variable pitch propeller, Henry Hele-Shaw.
Profits remained small, partly because Hornby had to get others to manufacture his parts and they found it difficult to keep up with demand. Rescue came in the unlikely form of the meat importer for whom he now worked, David Elliot. He gave Hornby some empty office space and the two went into business together. In 1907 Hornby took over production and took out a trademark in the name Meccano.
There has probably never been a toy to so influence future generations of engineers, if we exclude the humble building brick, and the toy that could be made into anything gained rapidly in popularity. But Hornby wasn't finished yet. Keen to tell the world about his invention, he and his eldest son began to set up a series of offices abroad as well as licensing the idea to M'rklin in Germany. Since 1891, M'rklin had been making model trains so Hornby began importing their clockwork motors for his construction sets. This gave Frank another idea. The first Hornby train rolled off the production line in 1920.
Now a model railway needs more than trains and track. As any decent train modeller will tell you, you need the landscape ' the hills, the houses, cars and shops. So in 1933 that is exactly what Hornby started making ' a range of die-cast trackside accessories, and another legendary brand was born. Dinky toys had the advantage for those less agile with a spanner of being ready assembled and painted. The down side was that these early models suffered from the scourge of the die-cast collector, zinc pest ' a progressive and untreatable crumbling of the casting due to lead impurities in the zinc alloy.
Meccano, Hornby trains and Dinky toys made Frank Hornby a wealthy man. His great inventions live on, with the most famous iteration of his train set, the 'Dublo' system, first hitting the shelves in 1938 and becoming a regular feature of every child's dream Christmas morning ever since.