In 1901, a clerk from Liverpool invented a new construction kit toy called ‘Mechanics Made Easy.’ His name was Frank Hornby, and his kit was made up of metal strips with holes pierced through them, along with girders, plates, axles, nuts, bolts and screws!
The kits came with very basic instructions, so that children would need to use their engineering initiative to put them together.
Whilst external manufacturers supplied the pieces for the very first few construction kits, as demand starting ramping up, it became clear to Hornby that he needed to begin producing them himself. And so he opened up a factory in his hometown of Liverpool.
The Meccano name
For shorthand, the kits started becoming known as Meccano, and so Hornby registered the trade mark for this name in September 1907. Less than a year later, he had founded Meccano Limited. To keep up with demand, the company moved to a larger factory in Binns Road, Liverpool in 1914, and this became the Meccano HQ for the next 60 years.
The quality of the kits was improving all the time. Whilst the pieces had been crudely made and tin-plated as first, they were now nickel-plated, made of thicker steel, and had safer rounded ends.
In 1919, Frank Hornby launched the Meccano Guild to encourage boys of all ages to become part of a central organisation. The Meccano Magazine was a monthly hobby magazine, that was mailed to to members of the Guild to keep everyone informed of each others activities. The magazine ran until 1981.
In 1920, Meccano Ltd produced a clockwork O gauge model train under new brand Hornby Trains.
In 1926, Mr Hornby marked the 25th anniversary of his company by releasing ‘Meccano in Colour’. This meant the introduction of red and green coloured pieces, which went on to be synonymous with the Meccano brand.
In 1934, Meccano Ltd introduced a line of die-cast model cars under the trade mark Dinky Toys. Months later, they released a construction kit for younger children called Dinky Builder, which used pink tones to try to invite girls into what had been a very boy-dominated market.
In was only two years later that Frank Hornby, the company’s founder, passed away.
All of the original Meccano kits released between 1907 and 1964 were numbered 1-10. Kit 10 enjoyed 90 new parts, a more modern take on packaging, the first ever plastic parts, and far more detailed instruction manuals.
Lots of changing hands
Between 1964 and 2013, Meccano went through several changes in ownership. Each new owner brought something new into the mix, and helped to transform Meccano ever-more-so into the brand we recognise today:
In 1964, Meccano Ltd was purchased by Tri-ang, who changed the sets’ colours once again, and introduced some electronic parts.
When Tri-ang went into liquidation in 1971, Airfix swooped in to buy Meccano’s UK business. They ended up closing down the Liverpool Meccano factory in 1978, and it became solely produced in France.
In 1981, General Mills bought Airfix and, as a result, ended up in control of the entire Meccano franchise. They released entirely new sets called Meccano Junior.
General Mills exited the toy sector in 1985, and Meccano was sold to Marc Rebibo, a French accountant. He released three Premier Meccano sets and two Motor sets before selling Meccano to Dominque Duvauchelle in 1989. At this point, allen head bolts and themed kits such as ‘Construction and Agriculture’ and ‘Space’ were introduced.
In 2000 Japanese radio controlled toy manufacturers Nikko purchased 49% of the company and released some successful sets worldwide including the ‘Crazy Inventor’ and ‘Future Master’ ranges. But in 2007 it sold back its interests in the company.
Finally, in 2013, Canadian toy company Spin Master acquired the Meccano brand, and they own it to this day, although it is still manufactured in France and China.