The Toys That Built American
WHEN I WAS A CHILD, I took great pleasure in playing with tin cans from my mother’s kitchen shelves, sometimes gathering a variety of them in the middle of the floor to build ever-taller walls and towers. My earliest constructions may have been inspired by those display stacks in the corner grocery store, where seemingly countless numbers of identical cans of soup or vegetables were arranged like bricks, in staggered rows because the tin cans didn’t nestle bottom into top the way today’s aluminum ones do. My first efforts were primitive bridges of no more than a few steps of cans, which rose from and descended to the floor as if symbolizing the essence of all children’s construction projects: built up only to soon come down. As my ambitions grew with my motor skills, I deviated from the monotonous grocery-store model of displaying just one thing and began to erect tin-can Towers of Babel comprising the whole variety of provisions available to me.
Beginning with the largest-diameter can—more often than not it contained tomato juice—I’d select progressively smaller ones to nestle onto it. An alphabet soup of labels and a beef stew of can sizes and shapes began to rise with the tower, often to be topped off daringly with a tall jar of olives as a beacon. These towers were limited by the number of cans whose bases could fit within the tops of others.
Then I began to heighten my towers by alternating large- and small-diameter cans, sometimes sandwiching a can of tuna fish or sardines between cans of cream of mushroom or chicken soup, thus adding balconylike projections to the tower. This building technique enabled two or more same-diameter cans to go into a tower, thus greatly increasing the potential height I could reach with my limited choice of structural components. Of course, these taller towers, which I had to stand beside and reach up to complete, were also shakier and more prone to collapse than my earlier ones, but that just made their completion all the more satisfying.
When I had mastered tin cans, I found more challenging building materials. The empty cartons that our groceries had come in were always fun to work with, and kitchen chairs and bedroom sheets became tents draped between trees in a dark forest. Many an older engineer, looking back on his—there are very few older female engineers—childhood recalls assembling and disassembling all sorts of things around the house, from large grocery orders to small appliances. And even today, with deliberately crafted construction toys easily available, children still find adventure in corrugated boxes that make forts and houses and in blocks and cans that make steps and towers. There are manufactured toys, however, that have enabled children to build beyond the kitchen and the pantry and the nursery and the lawn.
Many engineers who grew up in Britain remember playing with Meccano sets as boys. Meccano’s forerunner, Mechanics Made Easy (originally called Simplified Mechanics), is considered the original metal construction toy. It began as collections of wheels and axles and perforated tin-plate strips that could be assembled with nuts and bolts into all sorts of real or imagined things. The idea of a model-building toy with interchangeable and reusable parts apparently came to its inventor, Frank Hornby, during a railway journey, and by 1900 he had developed it to the point where he wanted to market it. An employee of a Liverpool cattle dealer and also an amateur inventor, Hornby patented his toy system in Britain in 1901. He said he wanted to encourage children like his sons, for whom he had developed his toy, to be constructive rather than destructive, and he came up with the pieces by imagining the different parts needed to build a crane, perhaps inspired by ones he saw at the Liverpool docks and railroad yards.
Hornby didn’t have enough money to manufacture his invention, so he went into partnership with his employer, David Elliott. By Christmas 1906 the toy was being demonstrated in large stores in Liverpool and London and widely advertised, and the next year Hornby gave up his cattle-dealing job, set up a factory of his own, and began to extricate himself from Elliott. He changed the toy’s name to Meccano, an Esperanto-like word he coined to make the increasingly widely distributed product sound more international.
Seven- or eight-year-old boys who showed a mechanical or inventive streak—or whose parents wished they did- often received a Christmas or birthday gift of a Meccano beginner set. Many a budding engineer looked forward to getting the next larger set each year and building more ambitious things. In time Meccano added gears and motors to its advanced sets, but all the earliest ones were strictly static or hand-cranked. As a boy accumulated the sets, he gathered a growing stock of parts, until he could build things not even in Meccano Magazine (or its American counterpart, Meccano Engineer). Meccano sponsored model-building contests and local clubs where boys could compare notes and strengthen their loyalty to their hobby.
ENGINEERS WHO GREW UP IN AMERICA ARE MORE likely to remember the Erector set, which appeared for the first time in 1913. Its inventor, Alfred Carlton Gilbert, said he had the idea for it in 1911; whether he did so independent of Meccano is open to speculation, given events in his life. An Olympic athlete (he tied for a gold medal in the pole vault in the 1908 Games) and a Yale Medical School graduate, he was also a skilled magician. While he was at Yale, he came to realize that many of his classmates wanted to learn a little magic without spending time practicing, and in 1907 he teamed up with John Pétrie, a New Haven mechanic and amateur magician, to design, make, and sell boxed magic tricks. In 1909, with a $5,000 loan from Gilbert’s father, he and Pétrie formed the Mysto Manufacturing Company, and upon graduation Gilbert did not go into medicine but rather devoted all his time to making and selling magic tricks and kits. He traveled widely and talked to toy buyers for stores, and by his own account he found that there weren’t many good toys being made, and most of those there were came from Germany. He didn’t mention that at least one came from Britain.
Much of Gilbert’s travel was on the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, which was being electrified at the time. The conversion involved erecting steel columns and girders to support overhead electrical lines, and Gilbert became fascinated with the process. So he, like Hornby, was inspired on a train. Arriving home after his train ride one evening, he began to cut cardboard into an assortment of sizes and shapes that could be assembled with nuts and bolts to make machines and structures. When a machinist formed his cardboard prototypes in metal, Gilbert found them insufficiently rigid and difficult to make into the box girders he’d seen on the railroad, so he came up with the idea of putting a groove along each edge of the pieces. This not only enabled them to fit together to form realistic box girders but also added stiffness. By 1911 the Erector set had essentially been created, if not manufactured, packaged, or sold.
IT SEEMED NATURAL TO Gilbert that Mysto should add the Erector set to its magic line, since he expected growth in magic itself to be limited. But his partners in Mysto didn’t want to diversify, so with his father’s encouragement he continued to develop Erector on his own, and with his father’s backing he soon bought out his partners. He had Mysto offering Erector sets for sale by Christmas 1913. Meccano was already on the market, of course, but Erector’s girdershaped parts, gears, and electric motors made it an instant success. In 1916 Mysto was renamed the A. C. Gilbert Company, and in time it bought the American arm of Meccano. Gilbert himself retired in 1956, and Erector sets disappeared from American toy stores in the early 1980s, pushed out partly by the flood of electronic toys. The European Meccano company reintroduced Erector sets in America in 1991, but without A. C. Gilbert’s famous grooved girder pieces.
Engineering was in its heroic age when Meccano and Erector were introduced. After the triumphant completion of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 and Scotland’s Forth Bridge in 1890, ever more ambitious bridges were being conceived, designed, and built throughout America and Britain. A 1904 manual for Mechanics Made Easy included directions for a sixteen-foot-long model of the famous Firth of Forth cantilever bridge. Within the space of less than fifteen years beginning in 1889, the Eiffel Tower was erected, Chicago responded with its Ferris wheel, which was copied all over the world, the automobile proliferated, and the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. In 1913, the year Erector sets first appeared under Christmas trees, the steelframed Woolworth Building, the world’s tallest, went up in New York City, and in Central America the Panama Canal neared completion. Meccano and Erector models could be made of all these structures. There cannot have been a better time for toys celebrating engineers and engineering.
Both Frank Hornby and A. C. Gilbert recognized the glamour of engineering, but Gilbert seems to have exploited it more in advertising. An early catalogue presented Erector as “the only model-building toy in which the girders themselves imitate exactly the steel girders used in modern construction,” and in time Gilbert addressed boys directly in his ads, writing: “I’ll tell you boys, being an engineer is the most exciting thing in the world. And that’s just what you are when you have one of my new Erectors.” He produced manuals full of diagrams of things boys had designed and built and explained why there were no detailed instructions: “It is much more interesting and also instructive to work out these models without being told every step in detail. This is what you will have to do when you become a real engineer.”
Though it is true that real engineers must be inventive and creative in producing new things from standardized parts, it is also true that assembly and construction usually proceed most effectively when those parts are neatly arranged and their assembly is fully planned in advance. The completion of the Crystal Palace in time for London’s 1851 Great Exhibition, for example, relied on thoughtful design and management in which standardized girders and other components were neatly laid out and their order of assembly carefully planned so that work could be done efficiently. In the early twentieth century the construction sites of skyscrapers and bridges had a similar look of order and efficiency. Meccano and Erector sets were packaged with their parts stacked like the girders at the Crystal Palace site.
THE No. 4 ERECtor set of 1915, which sold for five dollars and included a motor, contained 571 parts in a “handsome oak cabinet.” Less advanced kits came in cardboard boxes, but in all of them the pieces were neatly arranged. Today collectors of Erector sets —and in 1996 there were more than 250 members of the Southern California Meccano and Erector Club—take special pride in finding sets in mint condition. Such sets are rare though; few boys who got a Meccano or Erector set for Christmas or a birthday left it undisturbed. Collectors also restore sets. Through the Southern California club’s newsletter, members can purchase flat wire for making clips to reattach parts to one another and to box inserts, and they can buy new cardboard panels and inserts to make the boxes themselves complete.
The careful boy engineers who originally used the sets would hardly have restored them to their original state after completing and then disassembling a model, but they would have taken stock of their parts before embarking on the next project. Building some of the more ambitious models, such as large bridges, working Ferris wheels, and cranes, meant first making sure you had enough parts, and this was done by laying them out in neat piles on a table or the floor. The next important thing was to put together the pieces in the right order. Fastening two folded plates back to back with screws and nuts before attaching the girders needed to connect them with other plates, for example, might mean having to disassemble them because you couldn’t reach far enough into the space between them to continue. Even if a screw could be manipulated into a narrow place, tightening a nut onto it might prove impossible if the bent-wire screwdriver or flat combination-wrench-and-screwdriver tool that came with the Erector set couldn’t be angled just right. One of the cautionary principles of real engineering is not to design a machine or structure requiring the impossible attachment of a part behind something already attached. In this regard, playing with a Meccano or Erector set was certainly real engineering training for future real engineers.
Children who played with cans and boxes and Meccano and Erector sets and grew up to be engineers have seldom forgotten those early experiences. The lessons they learned about how things stand up and how they fall down, about how order is superior to chaos, and about how careful planning is as important as good design- all lessons gathered from childhood construction toys—have made them better engineers. And the old-timers know it. Successful engineers have often acknowledged Meccano and Erector in their speeches and writings many decades after they put away the toys of their youth.