Picture Credit: “Meccano” by thenoodleator is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Meccano is a model construction system created around 1900 by Frank Hornby, who was a clerk in Liverpool. He also invented Hornby Trains and Dinky Toys.  In 1902, Hornby started calling his model construction toys Mechanics Made Easy and he sold them in sets with parts supplied by external businesses in Liverpool. A few year later, he established his first factory and changed the name of the toys to Meccano, which he thought would be better, and established his first factory. 

In September 1907, Hornby registered the Meccano trademark, and the next year he formed Meccano Ltd. To keep pace with demand, a new Meccano factory was built in Binns Road, Liverpool in 1914, which became their headquarters for the next 60 years. Hornby also established factories in France, Spain and Argentina. An office was opened in Berlin where Märklin began to manufacture Meccano under licence.

The first sets under the new Meccano name were numbered 1 to 6. In 1922 the No. 7 Meccano Outfit was introduced, which was the largest set of its day, and the most sought after because of its model building capabilities and prestige.

In 1926, to mark the 25th anniversary of his patent, Hornby introduced “Meccano in Colours” with the familiar red and green-coloured Meccano pieces.

What was it?
The Meccano model construction kit consisted of re-usable perforated metal strips, plates and girders, with wheels, pulleys, gears, shaft collars and axles for mechanisms and motion, and nuts and bolts and set screws to connect the pieces together. It was more than just a toy: it was educational, teaching basic mechanical principles like levers and gearing. It provided curious kids all over England with construction sets that enabled them to explore the principles of mechanical engineering, using metal nuts and bolts, young thinkers could build with limitless possibilities. The only tools required were a screwdriver and spanners.

By the early 1960s Meccano Ltd began experiencing financial problems, in spite of exports worth over £1m, and was bought out by Lines Bros Ltd (Tri-ang), Meccano’s biggest competitor, in February 1964. This purchase included both the British and French Meccano factories. Sweeping changes were implemented, including the removal from office of the last members of the Hornby family and applying the Hornby name to the Tri-ang plastic trains. In 1970 Lines Brothers changed the company name to Meccano-Tri-ang.

In 1971, the Lines Brothers Tri-ang group went into voluntary liquidation and Meccano-Tri-ang was eventually sold to Airfix industries in 1972, the company name reverting to Meccano Ltd. At the same time, General Mills, a United States toy manufacturer, purchased the majority of shares of Meccano France S.A., renaming the French company Miro-Meccano.

The new Meccano
With competition from other manufacturers from around the world and the increasing popularity of television, Meccano Ltd’s dominance of the toy market diminished sharply. To cut their losses, Airfix closed Meccano Ltd’s flagship Binns Road factory in Liverpool in November 1979, bringing to an end three-quarters of a century of British toy making. The manufacture of Meccano, however, still continued in France. Airfix was eventually liquidated two years later and in 1981 General Mills purchased Meccano Ltd UK, giving it complete control of the Meccano franchise. It shifted all Meccano and Airfix operations to France and completely revamped the Miro-Meccano construction sets.

In August 1985 French accountant Marc Rebibo bought Miro-Meccano from General Mills, reverted the French company name to Meccano S.A. and reintroduced some of the discontinued Meccano sets. In 1989 Rebibo was bought out by Finamec (Financière de Serbie), who continued the manufacture of Meccano in France. In 1990 Meccano France purchased the “Erector” trademark in the U.S.A. and started selling Meccano sets marked “Erector Meccano” in the U.S.A.

By 2000, Meccano France was faltering and was bought out in May 2000 by the Japanese toy company Nikko, who continue to manufacture Meccano sets in France and China, although very different from the Meccano originally manufactured by the Binns Road factory.  In 2013, the Meccano brand was acquired by the Canadian toy company Spin Master.  In 1913, a very similar construction set had been introduced in the United States under the brand name Erector. In 2000, the new owners of Meccano bought the Erector brand and unified its presence worldwide.

Hornby wrote a number of pieces of literature marketing his creation and continuing to spark interest, including the Meccano Magazine and two full-length books. The book Frank Hornby, the Boy Who Made $1,000,000 With a Toy was written and published by Hornby in 1915. Hornby started the Meccano Magazine in 1916, publishing the first issue in black and white. The magazine told the story of Meccano’s beginnings, written by Frank Hornby himself. In 1919 the Meccano Guild was founded to serve as an umbrella organisation for all the local Meccano clubs, with the Meccano Magazine serving as the club magazine.

Brighton Toy and Model Museum 
Brighton Toy and Model Museum is an independent toy museum. Its collection focuses on toys and models produced in the UK and Europe up until the mid-20th Century and occupies four thousand square feet of floor space within four of the early Victorian arches supporting the forecourt of Brighton railway station. Founded in 1991, the museum holds over ten thousand toys and models, including model train collections, puppets, Corgi, Dinky, Budgie Toys, construction toys and radio-controlled aircraft.

The display area includes large operational model railway layouts (in 0- and 00-gauge) and displays of period pieces from manufacturers and brands including Bing, Bassett-Lowke, Georges Carette, Dinky, Hornby Trains, Märklin, Meccano, Pelham Puppets and Steiff. It also includes individually engineered working models including a quarter-scale traction engine, a steamroller and a Spitfire fighter plane in the lobby.

Martin Pollins
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