The Life Story of Meccano (1932), Part 2

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"The Life Story of Meccano", by Frank Hornby (Part 2), transcribed from Meccano Magazine, 1932.

Part 2 - Imitations, originality, and early production

Last month I described the earliest stages of development of the Meccano system, and referred to the fact that few articles ever made have had to fight against so much imitation.

I think that probably the greatest number of imitations of the Meccano system have emanated from America, and the complete history of the rise and downfall of them all would fill a large volume. The first to make its appearance was introduced under the name of the "American Model Builder". This was almost an exact duplication of Meccano, not only in regard to the design of the parts, but even to the precise contents of each outfit. The Meccano Manual, the compilation of which had taken me years of thought and study, was copied almost in its entirety; and in fact, except for the inferior finish of the parts and the generally less attractive arrangement, one of these imitation outfits might easily have been taken for a genuine Meccano Outfit.

You may imagine the deep concern I felt when I discovered that all for which I had worked and striven for so many years had been misappropriated by a newcomer, whose sole intention was to rob me of the business I had built up. I immediately sailed to New York and had a consultation with a well-known firm of attorneys in regard to the steps to be taken to put an end to this grossly unfair form of trading. It seemed to me that such a flagrant breach of the laws of copyrights and patents could very quickly be ended, and I felt sure that I should soon be able to compel the manufacturers of the imitation system to withdraw their outfits from the market. I was destined to have a bitter experience of the slowness of the law, however. The case lasted for no less than nine years and cost my company many thousands of pounds ; but it ended in the final and complete establishment of our copyrights, patents, and other privileges.

Since the conclusion of the case against the "American Model Builder", which was tried before the United States Circuit Court of Appeal, I have had the briefs, the transcripts of record of the evidence, and documents connected with the proceedings collected together and bound. They are too bulky to be included in one book, and therefore they are made up into four large volumes, looking like so many big family Bibles! The case was considered of the utmost importance in America, and was closely followed by the legal profession. The final judgement was both sweeping emphatic, and in my opinion it stands as the finest possible tribute to the originality and sterling qualities of the Meccano System.

The late Hon. H. C. Hollister, United States District Judge, in delivering his opinion, spoke of Meccano as a “ toy of great utility and educational value, stimulating the imagination, appealing to a boy's creative faculties, that not only gives enjoyment, but is highly instructive." He went on to say that the "American Model Builder" was in his opinion not only a fraud on the public, but also a fraud on Meccano Limited. He further said that the "Meccano Manual is not unlike a key by which the really wonderful treasures contained in the various parts of the outfits may be unlocked." I do not think that a more equitable judgement was ever delivered.

Throughout the whole proceedings, although these were often wearisome and tedious, the most painstaking efforts were made by the judges to arrive at the truth in what proved to be an extremely complicated case. Although I was a stranger and a foreigner in the country, and the proceedings were against a firm of American nationality, a spirit of the utmost fairness characterised the entire proceedings, and left me with a high opinion of many sides of American law procedure. The decision in this case naturally had its effect upon the many other imitators that had sprung up, and one by one they dropped out and disappeared from the market.

Imitators sprang up also in Europe. One of the earliest of these systems consisted essentially of bars of wood perforated at regular intervals with holes, and capable of being fastened together in various positions by metal pins passed through these holes. By means of this system it was possible to build a variety of houses and other fixed structures, but it was impossible to, construct engineering models or mechanisms that worked. No matter how the parts were joined to one another, the result in every case was a fixed position - there was no means of producing movement. The opening words of the patent specification of this system read:-

" The subject of the invention is a toy building set, by means of which structures can be put up closely resembling real structures erected by carpenters … " This phrase places it beyond all possible doubt that the object of this system was to produce fixed structures based on the principles of carpentering. Meccano, on the other hand, is designed to produce working structures built on the principles of engineering.

My claim was, and is, that Meccano is the original application of 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 English patent for my invention on 9th January, 1901 - more than two years before the above mentioned patent was granted for the wooden unmechanical system

In the course of the next few years the German manufacturers who at that time largely dominated the toy business in this country became alarmed at the success of Meccano, and an avalanche of imitations followed. They all went badly astray, however, for they left the path of engineering and introduced makeshift fastenings, couplings, and odd contrivances of all kinds, that they evidently thought were good enough for a toy that was to be played with by boys. Many of these German imitations had some vogue on the Continent before Meccano became well known there. The best that can be said of them is that they had attractive labels on the box lids. One or two of them tried to get a footing in this country but neither the public nor the dealers would pay any attention to them, so that little was heard of them.

I must return now to the time when I took out my first patent. It had by then become my unshakeable opinion that every boy in the country would derive as much pleasure from my system as my own boys did; and I determined that I would leave nothing undone to make it known throughout the length and breadth of the land. If I had foreseen the trouble and difficulties that I was destined to encounter, I do not think that I should have been so eager and so confident. Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether I should ever have tackled the job at all!

I gave the name "Mechanics Made Easy" to my invention, and I was firmly convinced that I had only to show it to manufacturers and dealers for them to be tumbling over one another to be the first to manufacture and sell it. I was quickly undeceived. The dealers considered it to be crude and unattractive in appearance, and were very emphatic that it was not in the least likely to meet with a favourable reception from the public; and the manufacturers would not even look at it. Although these rebuffs were very disappointing, they did not shake my confidence in the ultimate success of my invention. By degrees I succeeded in persuading a few dealers to take it up, in many cases against what they called their "better judgement"! I was convinced that as soon as boys saw the invention and realised its possibilities they would be keen to possess an outfit and to my unbounded joy - and to the astonishment of the majority of dealers - this proved to be the case. For a time progress was very slow, but it increased steadily, and I was now faced with an entirely new problem - that of producing the parts in sufficient quantity.

At first I had the various parts made for me by different manufacturers. This arrangement worked fairly well for a while, but presently, as the system became known and the demand for parts increased, all kinds of troubles developed. I could never rely on all the parts being ready at the same time ; and frequently outfits for which dealers were becoming impatient were held up because one firm had failed to supply a particular part by the time specified. A further and even more serious trouble arose from the fact that there was no uniformity of finish among the parts. Not only was there a wide difference in the quality and appearance of parts made by different firms, but also I could never be sure that two batches of parts made by one firm would be alike. It began to be obvious that only by centralised production in one factory could the parts be turned out in the necessary quantity and with the necessary consistent accuracy and finish. Thus I found myself embarked upon an entirely new adventure. From an inventor I became a manufacturer!

My first factory was a very crude affair - so crude, in fact, that looking back I often wonder how we produced anything at all! It consisted of a single room with a few hand presses, a lathe or two, and a small gas engine which, in spite of its many protests, we succeeded in persuading to provide the necessary power!

The actual production of the parts with our inadequate machinery provided us with plenty of excitement, but this was nothing to the thrills of subsequently cleaning the wheels and other brass parts. When these first come from the presses they are in a dirty and tarnished condition, and order to obtain the brilliant surface that you see in the finished parts when you buy them, they are first dipped in strong acid and afterwards lacquered to prevent further tarnishing. I and my chief assistant used to stay behind in our one-roomed factory after the other employees had gone home, to bring out the acid vats and dip the wheels. We had no proper system of ventilation, with the result that the fumes from the acid often nearly choked us. When matters got too bad we had to suspend operations abruptly, and dash out into the open air to recover, and at the same time give the air in the room a chance to clear again! Gas masks had not been thought of in those days, but they certainly would have been very useful to us! Every now and then I take a walk to the splendidly equipped and perfectly ventilated room in which this process is carried out in the present Meccano factory; and as I watch the work and I recall the difficult days through which we passed in my first factory.

With such a primitive system of production it was inevitable that things should frequently go wrong. As fast as we overcame one difficulty another cropped up at some unexpected point. To use a familiar phrase, we were always "up against it"! In spite of all obstacles, however, we always managed to "deliver the goods".

It was during the time that I was in this factory that I decided to change the name of my outfits from "Mechanics Made Easy" to "Meccano". The latter was a handier and shorter name, and I thought it would enable boys to identify my goods more easily. Also I could register this name, so that no one else could come along at any future time with imitation goods and palm them off on the public as being the real thing. I registered “Meccano” on 14th September, 1907, and in Germany in July, 1912. As a result no one else can ever use the word "Meccano", and of course without this name no parts are genuine.

to be continued