150 years of Frank Hornby, the man who gave the world ‘Meccano,’ ‘Dinky Toys,’ and model railways was celebrated in 2013. This great man offered the world, especially boys in the days when we knew what boys were, education re engineering, fun and enjoyment through dinky cars, and huge pleasure which many still enjoy through model railways. What a man. He deserves a knighthood in my humble, and correct, opinion.
Being technically deficient I found Meccano a bit of a trial. The idea was simple enough, strips of metal with holes in, held together by screws and nuts, formed into a useful machine by following a simple diagram. The simple idea failed whenever I touched it. No two sides ever matched, bits were missing, anything that looked like it may work always had one item missing. Once built it was often impossible to undo the screws that someone had inserted with a power drill! My dad enjoyed it, he made a model Ski Lift that was excellent for a kid like me. The Steam engine that was made many years later ran around the house quite happily. My little cranes and conveyor belts were like Spanish building projects, never completed!
However many went on to great things through this ‘toy.’ The budding Kingdom Brunel’s of this world learnt much about engineering and making Forth Road Bridges that blocked their mothers house for months on end. Frank Hornby himself made a fortune, and deservedly so. After many years of trial and effort he eventually sold ‘Meccano’ worldwide.
During the 1920s Hornby introduced his ‘O’ gauge clockwork railway. Twice the size of the trains that were to come later this sold reasonably well, well enough to encourage the introduction of trackside accompaniment, cars, houses, people. These items became known as ‘Dinky Toys’ and as such became a favourite in every child’s home ever since! Basic cast metal toys stayed popular until the early sixties when Perspex windows, seats and steering wheels, were added. Kids of the sixties did not know the hardships we endured! Today old men enthusiasts collect aged Dinkies, sometimes paying over £50 for a dingy Dinky! Rare models still in their boxes can raise huge sums, but not from me. Since 1933 the cars dominated a boy child’s play. Today I do not see them so obvious in shops. Why have tastes changed? Political Correctness perhaps? Recently one company offered ‘Boys Toys’ and ‘Girls Toys,’ and received a flood of complaints, from mothers, as if they had done something wrong! No longer can we claim a toy to be for one sex or another, even though boys still prefer boys toys, and girls prefer girls toys. Social engineering does not amend human nature, stupid mothers!
The greatest thing Hornby ever achieved however came after his death! The great ‘Hornby Dublo’ 00 Scale electric railways! The electric train set became every boys dream! Nothing could compare to having a train set, especially when the surroundings could be changed at will (easy, being made of shoe boxes and other objects) and the mind could develop layouts according to your own desire, until at least someone wanted the table back! Bah! My greatest mistake as a spoiled brat was to get rid of the train set and fall for the Scalextric racing cars rubbish! Did I think I was growing up perhaps? What appeared as great fun was, like all racing cars, boring! The train set enlarged the mind, the cars just fell off the track at high speed. There is of course many such railway layouts run today by men of certain age who ought to know better. The lure of the railway gets a grip and much money and many web forums are dedicated to (cough) mature men playing with railways. Not my thing today, but how I wish I had kept my set all those years ago.
Frank Hornby was born in Liverpool of middle class leaning parents in 1863. He left school at 16 to work in his dad’s provision business. After his father died the business closed and when working for a meat importer he developed the ‘Meccano’ theme in his own time. His boss encouraged and supported this financially at first but it was not until 1907 that the name was established as his own business. By the beginning of the Great War offices were established in Paris, Mexico and Berlin! By the thirties he was a millionaire and the business well established. He died in 1936 of a combination of heart disease and diabetes.
He left many happy little boys of all ages behind him.