The Life Story of Meccano (1932), Part 5

From The Brighton Toy and Model Index

"The Life Story of Meccano", by Frank Hornby (Part 5), transcribed from Meccano Magazine, 1932

Part 5: Meccano in Engineering

Last month I referred to the increasing use that is being made of Meccano by inventors, engineers and engineering firms, scientists and school-masters, and I promised to refer to a few notable instances in which Meccano had proved of service. There are so many of these, and they are so varied in character, that I find it difficult to know which to select for the purpose. In one respect all are alike – they show how rapidly and effectively Meccano is replacing the older methods of model-making.

Formerly an inventor or an engineer who wished to try out in miniature form a new idea had only two possible courses open to him. He must himself go through the laborious process of making special parts in wood or metal, as I had to do before I invented Meccano; or have these parts made for him, which necessarily involved considerable expense. In very few cases was the model thus built quite satisfactory. Almost always many changes had to be made, involving the preparation of new parts, for it was seldom that the existing parts could be modified to suit the purpose. Frequently, too, the idea ultimately turned out to be impracticable, and then all the time and money spent on the model were wasted. Meccano has opened up entirely new possibilities in this direction. In the first place it provides ready-made parts with which any mechanical movement can be reproduced. Then, if the result is not at first satisfactory, almost endless modifications may be made by substituting here and there larger or smaller parts, or parts of a different type. In the end, if the scheme is sound Meccano will enable it to be demonstrated in practical working form; or if it proves unsound, the parts all remain available for further experiments, nothing being lost or wasted.

More than this, inventors have told me how Meccano has actually given them new ideas when they were at a loss as to how to produce certain results. While pondering over the problem they have suddenly caught sight of a part that immediately suggested the solution, and very soon the desired end was achieved. This is not in the least surprising, for with a large Meccano outfit an inventor has spread out before him in miniature almost all the resources of modern engineering.

One of the most recent uses of Meccano by engineers has already been described in the “M.M.” This occurred in connection with the design by M.R.S. Ltd., of Liverpool, of a giant lorry capable of carrying across London the huge girders required in the erection of the Cumberland Palace Hotel now being built near the Marble Arch. Among these girders was one weighing 99 ¼ tons, and measuring 68 ft. In length, 10 ft. 4in. in depth, and 2ft. 4 in. in thickness. The designing of a lorry capable of handling such a load presented great difficulties, and the problem was solved only after many experiments with models built from Meccano parts, which ultimately led to the discovery of a new principle of steering. In addition, a Meccano scale model of the lorry and its trailer was used to work out in Liverpool on a miniature course the details of the journey through London streets. Illustrations and details of the remarkable Meccano model of this huge lorry appear elsewhere in this issue.

Going back a few years, Meccano enthusiasts who visited the Amusement Park at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, will remember the wonderful "Golden Glide" constructed by A. & F. Pears Ltd., the famous soap manufacturers. This Glide consisted of a journey of nearly a quarter-of-a-mile through alternate scenes of beauty and of horror, and at speeds varying from a gentle glide to a swift downward rush. The apparatus, which has been described as a masterpiece in engineering, was designed by Mr. C. E. Cannon, and the original model of it was worked out entirely with Meccano.

Mr F. Dutton, Superintendent of Signals and Motor Transport of the South African Railways, developed the Stronach-Dutton locomotive tractor from models in Meccano. This tractor was designed specially for use in thinly-populated countries like South Africa, the idea being to utilise the low tractive resistance of vehicles running on rails and high tractive effort of solid rubber tyres on roads. In a letter expressing his appreciation of the Meccano parts Mr. Dutton says: “I think their adaptability and accuracy are astonishing. They furnish not only ‘Engineering for Boys,’ but apparatus of the most useful description for designers, inventors and experimenters. I think that the Meccano System is simply wonderful, and the interchangeability and precision of the various items are indeed extraordinary.”

By way of contrast to this I may mention that Mr. W. R. Dunlop, the inventor of an egg-grading machine for use in connection with the ministry of Agriculture Egg Marketing Scheme, worked out his ideas with the aid of Meccano parts.

I was particularly interested some time ago to learn that the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, of Liverpool, had worked out in Meccano, with complete success, a new type of bale-lifter, and had found Meccano of such value in developing machines in model form that they had purchased a large outfit for the use of their engineers.

Bridges have always played an important part in Meccano model-building, owing the fact that they lend themselves to a wide variety of designs, and can be produced with remarkable accuracy even with small Meccano outfits. Not long ago, the capability of Meccano in this respect was put to practical use in the United States. On this occasion large-scale models built from standard parts were used to demonstrate the possibilities of proposed bridges in New York, for which the sanction of United States War Department had to be obtained. The point that was in dispute was whether or not some of the piers of the proposed two bridges, one at Elizabeth and the other at Perth Amboy, across the “Arthur Kill” channel, might prove to be serious obstructions to river traffic. At the request of a committee formed by authorities in favour of the scheme, scale Meccano models were built and placed on exhibition during the hearing of the case before the War Department. The models, one of which was 21 ft. in length, were placed on wooden bases covered with plate glass to represent water, and depths of the river at various points were plainly marked. In addition, scale models representing various types of vessels were placed on the glass river. These models proved of great assistance in demonstrating that the objections to the bridges were not well founded, and ultimately construction was sanctioned by the War Department, the engineers of which commented very favourably on the models and the purpose they had commented very favourably on the models and the purpose they had served. After the hearing, one of the model bridges was displayed at the Staten Island Ferry House, where it was inspected by many thousands of people.

Turning now to scientific applications, Professor C. V. Boys, F.R.S., has used Meccano in making apparatus and instruments. In a paper read before the Society of Gas Engineers he described the particular application of Meccano to his work, and in the course of his remarks said: “This is the third time recently within my knowledge where the admirable fittings of the Meccano firm, made and sold for toys, have found a place in a highly-refined scientific instrument.”

A series of models of quite unusual interest were specially designed and constructed for Professor E.N. da C. Andrade, D.Sc., for use in connection with the Christmas Lectures that he delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, London, in December, 1927 and January, 1928. These models included a “Baltic” tank locomotive with Walschaerts valve gear, and demonstration models of Stephenson’s link motion and Joy’s valve gear. In referring to these models Professor Andrade wrote: “The locomotive model is magnificent, and will certainly ensure the success of my third lecture.” On another occasion Professor Andrade wrote: “Meccano is the finest toy not only that I know, but that I can imagine, and fully deserves all the success it has had.”

Further afield, Dr. Ernest Bade, the well-known United States expert in microscopical work, his constructed in Meccano, with perfect success, a variety of devices for use in scientific work in connection with microscope. Some of these devices have been described in past issues of the “M.M.,” and among them one of the most interesting a microtome, an instrument for cutting extremely thin slices of plant and animal tissue, a view of which I illustrate here. Instruments of this type are costly to buy on account of the great precision they must possess; yet the Meccano model not only cuts with perfect accuracy sections as thin as two thousandths of an inch, but also is entirely automatic in action, whereas many of the manufactured instruments require manipulation of the blade. The only non-Meccano parts in the whole model are an ordinary safety razor blade and a small tube for holding the specimen to be cut.

Among the many letters from schoolmasters that I have received I will only mention the following two from masters at London County Council Schools. Mr. Percy L. Blackman, Surrey Square School S.E.17, writes : “It may interest you to know that I often make use of Meccano in the ordinary science lessons in which I specialise. I am sure that far too little time is given in present-day elementary science teaching to mechanical principles; and in the teaching of these I find Meccano an unrivalled assistant. The last hour on Friday afternoons I often use in allowing boys to bring their Meccano sets and make models, and display the working to less fortunate boys.”

The other interesting letter comes from Mr. W.F. Abrahams, science teacher, Boys Department, Mawbey Road School, S.E.1, who says: “ You will perhaps be interested in the photograph enclosed illustrating a turbine wheel constructed by the older boys in order to encourage the younger boys in the study of science. The smaller boys are encouraged to construct simple models with their Meccano parts, and at periods a little competition is held at school, when all their constructed models are seen by them working for an hour or so on the home-made shafting. The older boys find Meccano parts most useful in constructing their own models to illustrate scientific principles; indeed, there are few of our lessons in which some Meccano parts cannot be utilised.”

I have already referred to the value of Meccano to the blind. Mr. R Elton Laing, L.C.P., Headmaster, Yorkshire School for the Blind, who employs Meccano systematically in his teaching, says: “One afternoon per week is now set aside for the use of Meccano and the making of models to be employed in some of the lessons that will fall due in the following week. This afternoon has come to be called ‘Meccano afternoon,’ and I think I am right in saying that it is the busiest and happiest afternoon of the whole week. The whir of the motor is a never-ending source of delight to the younger boys, and excitement runs high when the eager hands have brought a model to completion and, by means of the motor, set it to work just like the real thing. I am now thoroughly convinced that Meccano is indispensable for the teaching of the blind along practical and at the same time interesting lines. Nowadays when our school prize day comes around and I ask what sort of prize the winner would like, the answer in many cases is certain to be – ‘A Meccano outfit, please, sir.’”