The Life Story of Meccano (1932), Part 1

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"The Life Story of Meccano", by Frank Hornby (Part 1), transcribed from Meccano Magazine, 1932

Part 1: Origins and Inspirations

   EVERY normal healthy boy has hobbies, and I often think that the earnestness and thoroughness with which he follows them is an index to the kind of man he will make when he grows up. A boy without a hobby always seems to me to lead an aimless and rather miserable existence; and whenever I come across such a boy I long to sit down beside him and talk to him, find out what his interests are, and start him off then and there on a suitable hobby. It always gives me the pleasure to see a boy following his hobbies with keenness, trying to find out more about them and to improve his knowledge and skill in every possible way. I know that this keenness will become part of the boy's nature, and that when he grows up he will tackle the serious things of life in the same splendid spirit.

   In my boyhood days my primitive workshop was my hobby. I think that most boys take up their hobbies in the first place through some kind of accident; and I have always realised that the accident that first aroused my interest in mechanics was the reading of a book that I had given to me. This book contained the life stories of famous inventors, and described the dificulties that they encountered in working out their ideas before success ultimately crowned their efforts. I was very young at the time, and this was one of my first books. Nothing that I have read since has exercised such a strong and lasting influence on me. I read many of the chapters over and over again, and as I did so there grew up in me a great desire to succeed as these great men had done. Of all the stories in this book the one that fascinated me most was that of Palissy and his discovery of a white glaze for earthenware.

   I used to read with unfailing enthusiasm of how Palissy struggled on in the face of failure after failure. I well remember how I used to picture him sitting by his furnace day and night, and how excited I used to be at the point where, when all his fuel was exhausted, he broke up chairs and tables and tore down shelves to feed his furnace!

   It was one thing to decide to become an inventor, but quite another to know how to set about it. At that time perpetual motion was being very widely discussed, and I conceived the idea of trying to invent a machine that should solve the problem. I felt that if I could make such a machine I should have accomplished something very wonderful. I certainly should! I little knew when I set to work that I was attempting an impossible task, and it was fortunate that this was so, for I worked away in my little workshop with the utmost enthusiasm and also began to study the principles of mechanics. In the end I failed, as thousands had done before me: but in the effort I had learned something of engineering, and had considerably improved my mechanical skill.

   After my setback in regard to perpetual motion I turned my attention to simpler and more practical matters, and during the next few years I produced a number of small inventions. Most of them were of little or no practical use, but the perfecting each one was a source of the utmost pleasure and excitement. I have forgotten now what most of these inventions were about, but I do remember one of them - a submarine, which on being placed on the water and set going submerged itself and continued to propel itself for some distance under the water. There was just one little flaw in this invention - the vessel would not come to the surface again of its own accord! And so my submarine never brought me fame or fortune.

   At this period my little workshop was my paradise where I spent my spare time in working out all kinds of ideas as they came to me. Although I was happy at my work I had many dificulties to face. I was badly handicapped by the lack of suitable tools, those I possessed being so few and so crude that, however much care I took over a job, the result was often disappointing. In spite of this I do not think I was ever really discouraged. Often I used to pick up my book and read once more of the difficulties with which James Watt had to contend.

   He could not get his engines made properly. When the parts arrived, often after weeks of delay, he found that the cylinder was not true, or that the pipes leaked. He adopted all kinds of schemes to stop up the leaks, but often the work had all to be done over again. He persevered, however, and finally succeeded; and I determined that I also would succeed. Tools I must have, and the only way of obtaining them that I could see was to save all the money I could, and as it accumulated buy one thing at a time. This was slow work, and I despaired of ever becoming the owner of such things as a lathe and a drilling machine. Ultimately I got most of the tools that I really needed, but the weary waiting turned my thoughts in the direction of interchangeable parts that could be used for a variety of purposes, instead of parts that had to be made specially for each particular job. Looking back over those days I can trace in those vague ideas the germ of the Meccano system.

   After I was married and had boys of my own I still made models as eagerly and enthusiastically as ever; and when my boys were old enough it was my delight to make mechanical toys for them and join in their play. We were always working and playing together, always thinking out something new; and most of my spare moments were spent in planning out new ideas and games. By this time I had a fairly good equipment of tools, but I still felt that a great deal of time and labour was wasted in laboriously making parts that would only serve for one particular model, and were useless for the next model I devised.

   One snowy Christmas eve I was making a long railway journey, and as I sat in my corner seat my mind was as usual turning over new schemes for my boys' enjoyment. At that time we were experiencing trouble in our little workshop through lack of a number of small parts for building up a splendid model crane that we were making. I had tried in all directions to buy these parts, but apparently nothing of the kind existed. Clearly it would be a long and monotonous process to make them, and as I thought over the matter in the train I was more impressed than ever before with the waste of time and labour involved in making a part specially for a single purpose. I felt that what was required was parts that could be applied in different ways to many different models, and that could be adjusted to give a variety of movements by alteration of position, etc. In order to do this it was necessary to devise some standard method of fitting one part to any other part; and gradually there came to me the conception of parts all perforated with a series of holes of the same size and at the same distance apart. Such parts, I realised, could be bolted up to a model in different positions and at different angles; and having done their work in one model could be unbolted and applied to another.

   Rapidly this idea became clearer and more definite, and I felt instinctively that I had hit upon the solution of my model-building difficulties. I little thought, however, that this scheme I had worked out in my mind during that railway journey was destined to change the whole course of my life and to develop into a hobby that would bring untold hours of pleasure to boys of every nation and every age throughout the world.

   As soon as I possibly could I set to work to translate my ideas into practice. I began with the simplest parts, and I used copper to make them, because it is a soft metal and was easy for me to work. I quickly realised that making parts more or less at random, simply because I thought they would be useful, would not do. Before any real progress could be made it was necessary to pick out carefully a series of parts of the most useful types and sizes, keeping in mind the relation they would bear to one another when builtThe dimensions of the strips, the size of the holes, and the distance between them that I adopted at that time have never been changed during all the years in which Meccano has existed. I look upon it as very remarkable that I should have been fortunate enough, with so little experiment, to hit upon what proved to be the best standard dimensions.

   Nuts and bolts were my next trouble. I had expected to be able to buy these, but although I sought high and low I could not find any that were suitable for my purpose. Once again I had to fall back on my own resources and make every nut and bolt myself. This job seemed as though it would never end! Now cropped up the dificulty of fastening the strips together at right angles; and for this purpose I devised angle brackets, and I made these also.

   I wanted my models to run on wheels. It was quite an easy matter to fix wheels on rods passed through the holes in the strips, but again arose the old difficulty that no wheels of suitable size and construction could be bought. I had to design my own wheels and have them cast for me in a local brass foundry and then turned in the lathe. The next problem was to fix the wheels on to the rods. The usual collar and set screw would, of course, have been satisfactory, but at that time this seemed to me rather too expensive a type of fitting for my requirements. I therefore set to work to design something less costly, and ultimately produced what I thought then was a very effective substitute. This was the old Meccano key, which clipped on the rod and held the wheel in position. I have no doubt that many readers will remember this part.

   It was a long weary time before I got all my parts ready for trying out, but every day as I laboured on I felt more and more certain that I was proceeding on right lines and that success was ultimately assured. It was a great day for me and for my boys when I built up my first Meccano crane, which ran on wheels and luffed and jibbed splendidly, just in the same manner as a real crane! into models. First of all I determined to deal with the simplest type of part, the strip. After careful thought I decided that I would make all my strips half-an-inch in width, with equal sized holes along the centre at half-inch intervals. I first made a 2 1/2 in. strip, then a 5 1/2 in., and so on up to a 12 1/2 in strip, which, I remember, seemed to me at the time quite an enormous part! It was a long job to make all the strips that I required, but I spurred myself on with the thought of how useful they were all going to be, and so I never got tired of the work.

   It may be imagined what a delight we took in taking the crane to pieces and building it up again several times. Before we attached the jib the base of the crane looked so much like a truck that we added a few more strips and made it into a real truck, and I shall never forget the fun we had playing with the model in this way. At this stage I carefully considered the system that I had developed, and it seemed to to be so good that I consulted a patent agent in regard to obtaining some protection for it. On the advice of this agent I at once took out patents

   I claim that Meccano is the original application of the principles of engineering to a metal constructional or mechanical toy It was on this basis - that is as a metal mechanical system - that I obtained the first patent for my invention, on 9th January, 1901.

  vHere I want to digress for a moment in order to say something about the many imitations of my invention. Probably no article or commodity of outstanding merit was ever produced that was not imitated by envious competitors.

   Meccano is no exception to this - in fact I do not know of any article ever made that has had to submit to so much imitation, most of it unfair and much of it unscrupulous.

   It is very rarely indeed that an imitator meets with real success, for of necessity he is always following in the rear of the article that he is imitating, and is always handicapped by his own lack of initiative.

(to be continued)