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Short History of Metal Constructional Systems
1888 - 1918
(By Tony Knowles)
1888 - Gustav Lilienthal patented a constructional system to make model buildings (the Patent is in his brother's name, Otto). Wooden Strips with equispaced holes were used, joined by wire Clips secured by Wedges. Sets were marketed c1890 but were not a commercial success. In one model, a Windmill, an Axle was used to allow the sails to rotate, but this idea was not included in the Patent, and the part was not used in any other models.
1890's - A number of ideas for constructional toys were patented, usually to make bridges or other structures. Both Richter & Keller sold sets with metal parts to make bridge spans that sat on towers made from their stone Blocks.
1890 - Georg & Paul Keller patented metal parts which pushed together to make bridges, and sets were available from about 1891.
1892 - A patent by Julian Weiss in 1892 proposed bridges made from metal parts, including Slotted Strips, joined by Nuts & Bolts (N&B).
1895 or 1897 - Richter sold bridge sets that included parts similar to those in the Weiss patent. These sets were only sold for about a year and were perhaps too expensive or too complex.
1901 - Richter patented and marketed a range of braced side frame & roadway parts for bridge spans, held together by N&B. Later, perhaps about 1905, the range was simplified, and redesigned to clip together.
1901 - Frank Hornby patented MECHANICS MADE EASY (MME), later renamed MECCANO, and marketed a set late in that year. The Patent claims related to the use of metal strips with equispaced holes, and to models made from a variety of parts including wheels & axles. The really important & novel ideas were first, the use of wheels & axles to allow models to move, and secondly, the use of the holes for both Bolts to join the parts and as a bearing for the Axles. Curiously neither of these aspects were explicitly claimed in the Patent.
The main parts in the Set were tinplate Strips with the edged rolled over to give stiffness, an Angle Bracket, and cast brass Pulley, Flanged, & Bush Wheels, machined as necessary. The Wheels could be held fast on the Axles by a special, tongued Spring Clip. Strips were 1/2" wide and the holes at 1/2" pitch. The thread used was 5/32" BSW.
[Johann Korbuly from Vienna also applied for a patent in 1901, but 10 months after Hornby. His parts were wooden, joined by dowels, but otherwise his system, called MATADOR, was better developed in some ways initially than MME, with Perforated Plates as well as Strips, and Gears as well as Wheels & Pulleys. It survives to this day.]
c1903 - Gears & a Pawl added to MME.
1903 - Another early metal system, patented in 1901, was the German PIONIR for making architectural models. The parts clipped or slid together and models consisted of black frameworks with red & yellow infill Panels, Windows, etc. The system only lasted until 1905.
c1905 - The first competition for MME - Franz Walther in Germany marketed a simple, rather poor system called INGENIEUR with a mix of wooden & metal parts held together with bifurcated paper clips.
1910 (but perhaps earlier) - The first real competition - Walther introduced STABIL, which was to develop into a major system. It included a number of wooden parts, but most were later replaced by metal ones. STABIL N&B had the same thread as MECCANO but the systems were not compatible because the STABIL hole pitch was 12.5mm, against 12.7 (1/2") for MECCANO. The other major difference was that Screwed Rods were used as axles and Wheels of all sorts were locked on to them by a Nut on each side. This avoided the clumsy Clip still used at that time in MME but made assembly of mechanisms rather tedious. Also it was not ideal to have the Screwed Rods running in Strips. Later tubular Bearing Brackets were added to overcome this problem and eventually some smooth Axles and parts with bosses as well.
1907 - MME was renamed MECCANO (after being called SIMPLIFIED MECHANICS for a short period in 1907). By that time the Strips were made from steel strip, nickel plated, and a few other parts, including Angle Girders, had been introduced. Flanged Plates were added soon after. Sets were being exported and manuals in English & French are known.
1908 - saw the introduction of the HORNBY SYSTEM OF MECHANICAL DEMONSTRATION, with sets aimed at schools & colleges and parts for models showing many mechanical principles. It seems to have been discontinued around 1912.
By 1912 MECCANO was clearly a success. Sets had been exported to America since 1909 and toy makers there started to think about making competing products. Similarly in Europe MECCANO was becoming more widely available, and in 1912 Märklin started to make MECCANO parts under licence. STABIL too was successful and was being exported, sometimes under different names - it was sold in France under the name ARTS ET MÉTIERS for example, and the name DEN LILLE INGENIØR was used in Denmark in the 1920s.
1912-18 in North America
Unless otherwise stated all systems in this Section were from the U.S.A. During this period several potentially important systems appeared. Most used 8-32 N&B (about the MECCANO size but not compatible because of the different thread form) in 1/2" pitch holes, and most were variations on the MECCANO theme. All had nickeled parts unless otherwise stated, and all the main ones included an Electric Motor in some sets, or offered one as an accessory.
1912 - The AMERICAN MODEL BUILDER (AMB) system was launched in 1912. It was a fairly blatant copy of MECCANO but was well made and included an important innovation, the Wheels has tapped bosses to secure then to the Axles. As with most later U.S. systems, a smaller 6-32 Screw was used for the bosses, but Meccano, when it followed suit soon afterwards, used the standard size thread, an important factor in some mechanisms. Another AMB first was chain drives with Sprockets and Ladder Chain. It was exported to Spain as EL CONSTRUCTOR AMERICANO DE MODELOS MECÁNICOS.
1912 (or perhaps 1913) - STRUKTIRON, made by Ives, was introduced, and was the most original of the new systems in this period. Smaller 1/8" holes were used and 4-36 N&B. There was a good range of black finished parts and the Strips featured alternate holes and long slots. There were no Angle Girders though and so making large models adequately rigid was a problem.
1913 - Gilbert introduced his ERECTOR. The main novelty was to use Girders (like 1" wide Single-Braced Girders) as the main structural elements. They had formed edges to give stiffness and were designed so that 4 Girders would interlock to form a square girder, held by a Long Bolt through at each end. This was a heavily advertised feature and it did give a strong member, but the number of parts needed meant that it was seldom used in models from any but the largest sets. Conventional 5 & 9h Strips with 1/2" pitch holes were also used. Other ERECTOR parts were course-toothed Gears, Sprocket Chain (which ran on the Gears), and a Spoked Pulley of nearly 3" diameter - a great improvement as MECCANO, AMB, and most of the other new systems, had largish Vehicles running around on absurdly small Wheels. Some of the parts were nickeled but the Girders were plain steel. In the first few years very small sets were called TOY BUILDER and didn't include Girders.
1913 - STRUCTO had a good range of Plates, and cast Gears, Wheels, & Pulleys. Braced Girders were added in 1916, a little after Meccano's, but they differed in being flanged. The parts were tin plated and though originally shiny, they, like nearly all tinned parts, have aged to a darkish grey.
c1914 - STERLING was similar looking to AMB but with Plates more like STRUCTO. The parts were offered nickel plated or in an 'antique copper' finish - black with diagonal bands of copper about 1" apart.
c1915 - MASTER BUILDER The parts included several useful small Gusset Plates, Formed Strips, a 3" Disc Wheel with a formed rim, and a 4" long Tube of about 1" diameter, purpose unknown.
c1915 - ENGINEERO. Presumably to be different, the limited range of parts had diamond-shaped holes, and 'V' nicks in the edges of the Strips & Angle Girders between the holes. The parts were tin plated.
Mid 1910s - MODELIT, with Perforated Plates and a range of Angle Girders which were bolted to the Plates to give flanged plates. Later parts had alternate round & square holes in most pieces, and their pitch was reduced to 7/16". No doubt this was to distinguish the system from the competition and make the parts non-compatible.
1916 - BRIK-TOR A Gilbert architectural system with small pressed sheet steel 'Bricks' & Windows etc which slid down vertical Rods fixed in Bases. Roofs were made in a similar way. Lasted until 1921.
1917-18 (possibly) - CASTLE BUILDER, A Canadian system with many similarities to AMERICAN MODEL BUILDER.
Late 1910s (probably during WW1) - 2 more Canadian systems. STRUCTOMODE was generally similar to MECCANO, and may have lasted through the 1920s. CANADIAN STEEL INSTRUCTOR was similar to the first type of MODELIT, and probably disappeared after a few years.
Meccano introduced many new parts during this period, spurred on perhaps by the developing competition. It also took legal action against all its main competitors. This dragged on into the 1920s and their effects come into the next period. The new parts in 1914 included the Flat Bracket, Coupling, & Crank, not spectacular looking perhaps but vital in the construction of miniature engineering models. Among the 1915-16 introductions were the 3" Spoked Wheel, 2" wide Braced Girders (made of thin steel, the first flexible covering material), Sprockets & Chain, more Pulleys & Plates, a Flat Girder, and special parts for Loom models & the Meccanograph. An Electric Motor came in 1916, made by Lionel in the U.S.A. 1918 saw many other useful new parts.
1912-18 in Europe
Not many more or less direct copies of MECCANO are known from this period, perhaps because Hornby readily took legal action to protect his patents & copyright, and judgments came more quickly than in America. The main exception to this was that no action appears to have been taken against STABIL. Why is unclear but Walther had devised a new way of presenting the models in his manuals (with something approaching engineering drawings) and he also maintained that Hornby's patent was invalid anyway.
For whatever reason most new European systems were based on new ideas, though on the whole they were not very successful. Most too were quite small and were never developed.
Date ? - One system that did look very like early MECCANO is DER JUNGE MECHANIKER, apparently German but it is possible it originated in Holland. It had a mix of black & nickel parts and it may have been quite early because at first the Key method of fixing Wheels was used. Bossed parts had been introduced by 1915. The Belgian LE JEUNE MÉCANICIEN appears to be very similar, probably identical, but again no dates are known. There is no evidence of either system after WW1.
1912 - L'INGÉNIEUR CONSTRUCTEUR was a French system made by Jouets de Paris from 1912. It was developed over its lifetime and was renamed ÉCÉPÉ in 1914, and MÉCANIC in 1920. Some of the parts were not copies of MECCANO but with the last change of name Hornby initiated legal action and the system was not sold after 1923.
1912 - Märklin (Germany) started making MECCANO parts under license (with a black metallic finish instead of Meccano's nickel plating). Sets were sold as MECCANO but marked Meccano and Märklin.
1913 - The German FORMATOR (possibly from 1910) had long slots in many of the parts and what appear to be tubular Axles with split ends running in oversize holes in special Brackets. A push-in Plug expanded the split end of the tubular Axle inside the Wheel hub. Also the basic hole pitch was 10mm, perhaps the first systems to use this smaller gauge.
1913 - The German STRUCTATOR, also sold as BING'S CONSTRUCTOR, had 4mm Rods instead of Strips, and they were joined by being pushed into multi-way Unions, with coned Wedges to hold them in place. Structures were wobbly and if the system survived WW1 it was not for long.
1913 - IMPERATOR (ANCHOR in the UK). Another slightly less than ideal German system made by Richter & Co. until the early to mid-1920s. Stays (narrow strips) with split springy ends clipped into various Hubs. Rigid braced or triangulated structures could be made but the parts were not easy to use.
1913 - METALLO TRIGON. Another original, and rather ingenious German system, with the main parts different shaped Triangles. They had small semicircular cutouts along their edges and were joined edge to edge by clamping Washers on Bolts passing through pairs of matching cutouts. Sides of models thus made were usually joined by Double Angle Strips. The Triangles had geometrical properties and the system was advertised as being suitable for school use; it lasted until the mid-1920s.
1913 - PRIMUS ENGINEERING(UK) was well known and well liked during & immediately after WW1. It combined about 50 metal parts, many of which were similar to MECCANO but with some innovations including the Architrave and Trunnion, with about the same number of wooden parts, mainly special parts to make railway rolling stock and stations. In 1915 the Big Wheel outfit was introduced with formed Segments which could be bent to change their curvature, and which were joined to Hubs by wire Spokes. The Segments incorporated a pulley groove and Wheels from 4 to 12" diameter could be made. This was the first attempt to satisfy the need for large circular parts. PRIMUS wasn't developed after WW1 and production ceased in 1926.
1913 - BILDICO (UK), at first called EREKTIT. Pairs of 1/8" Rods or unperforated Strips were held in Clips and joined to similar assemblies by Cross and Swivel Clips. The parts are not easy to use but good, rigid models could be made. The system probably didn't survive long after WW1.
1913 - KLIPTIKO (UK). Structures were made from a number of straight and curved 3/8" Tubes. They were rolled from thin steel and would push into one another. Clip Tubes, similar but with springy forked ends, were used as cross members, and could also be pushed over the end of the Tubes. A 3 3/4" Wheel and a 2" Pulley would run on the Tubes. This simple system was intended for, and enjoyed by, young children; it lasted, unchanged until WW2.
1913 or 1914 - MODEL BRIDGE, also called THE BRIDGE BUILDER (UK). It was a small set to build a Footbridge with parts like MECCANO, but with only the holes needed for the model. There were other sets for a Crane and a Railway Signal, and this series seems to be the first sets intended to make just one model, and the first to use more 'realistic' parts. The sets were either made by Meccano or under licence, and since nothing later is known of them, they were probably not a success.
Pre-WW1 - MOKO'S SIMPLEX (Germany). Just 5mm Tubes that push into Connectors, and Wheels keyed to the Tubes.
1914 - KLIPIT (UK). This was a Hobbies system with frameworks made of unperforated Wooden Strips held together by spring steel Clips. Other Clips could carry Axles and there were steel Pulleys, Gears, etc. It may have continued into the 1930s, and another similar Hobbies outfit called STRIPWORK is known from 1926. It was basically the same but the wooden Strips were to be nailed together.
1914 - MINIATUR (Germany). This was another system from Walther, with parts similar to STABIL but fewer of them and the holes were at 10mm pitch. It seems not to have been very successful but continued into the 1930s.
1914 - SIMPLICO. A German system with models that looked similar to STRUCTATOR but had tubular Rods which pushed over Pins screwed into tapped holes in Hubs. The name SIMPLICO may have been used only for sets exported to the UK, and the system may have been called TECHNIKUS in Germany. It probably continued into the early 1920s as TECHNICO/TECHNIKO, with solid Rods held in the tapped bores of Connectors which screwed into the Hubs.
1914 - HAPPYNAK (UK). A simple system with rolled Tubes pushed into a base & various rolled Hubs.
1915 - WENEBRICK (UK). This was an architectural system from William Bailey Ltd., the maker of KLIPTIKO, one of the first after PIONIR. Models were made up from brightly decorated, formed, tinplate Bricks, Slates, Windows, Doors, etc, which pushed together to make attractive buildings. It lasted into the 1930s but wasn't as successful as KLIPTIKO, perhaps because the parts became difficult to use if they became bent out of shape.
1915 - BUILDO(UK. Another architectural system, but little known, and no doubt not very successful. Painted card Panels were joined by tiny Bifurcated Clips, and stiffened internally, as necessary, by metal Strips, A/Gs, & Brackets, suitably perforated with 2mm holes. The buildings are in 'Tudor' style at a scale of 1/32, ie 3/8" to the foot.
1916 - (patent date - it may not have appeared until after WW1). PYFYLY (France). An elegant system with 3mm square bamboo Strips which clipped into brass fittings, and bamboo Wheels, etc.
1917 - HAUSSER (Germany) made architectural sets until the late 1920s which allowed a wide range of small models to be made. Frameworks were made of wooden 5mm square wooden Beams joined by metal Brackets which pushed into slits in the Beams. Walls were bright tinprinted Panels which pushed into other slits in the Beams. Roofs were similar but with larger Roof Panels.
1917 - CONSTRUCTOR from France. The structural elements used were Lozenge shaped (16cm long), half & quarter lozenges (Triangles), and Strips. It continued until 1964 but with many changes along the way.