The Hornby Trains prototype
The company date this prototype to the First World War.
Accounts of this period differ: Some commentators say that Meccano was unaffected by WW1, while the company's own literature says that it was kept busy with War work. Similarly, it's been said that Frank Hornby was inspired to build the prototype by the appearance of the side pieces in the Meccano range ... but we know from the original 1901 patent that Hornby was fairly obsessed with building trains from Meccano from the very beginning.
Meccano Ltd.'s description
To begin at the real beginning we should have to take you back to the time of the 1914-18 War. There were only a few toys available during those terrible days. Although there were a few Meccano Outfits -- but not nearly enough to go round -- there were no toy trains at all, because before 1914 that kind of toy had always come from the Continent, and when hostilities broke out our supplies were stopped. From all sides came the suggestion that Meccano Limited should produce clockwork trains, but at that time this was quite out of the question as almost our entire plant was engaged on war work. We did design a Meccano model of a locomotive, however, and we are giving you a peep of it. We treasure this little model more than you can imagine and we wouldn't sell it to anybody!
Although it is true that this Meccano model would not run under its own power, it looked very realistic and gave us an idea that we shelved away, to develop when the war was over. It was this first idea that was to bear abundant fruit later. As soon as our machines were released from war work we set to work on our scheme and began to design our first train. It was decided that he train should be called the 'Hornby Train', after the late Frank Hornby, the inventor of Meccano -- a famous name that has always stood for efficiency and high quality.
From the first day it was sold, the Hornby Train was a remarkable success and the demand grew enormously every year. Soon we commenced to design larger locomotives, and also additional rolling stock, signals, stations, rails, etc. Every year we added more and more accessories to the Hornby System until we had built up a comprehensive system of railway practice in miniature ...