Categories: Arts & Culture

The Meccano Men

PCHOO! – Meccano collector Clayton Lohm demonstrates the use of his automatic ping-pong ball launcher at his St. Albert home. The launcher is one of many functional models he's made over the years. The launcher acts like an automatic pitching machine and can hurl balls several metres — although they take forever to find afterward

Clayton Lohm’s basement is a mechanical zoo, one that springs to life with a turn of a crank or a flip of a switch.

He can make a metallic cat with an umbrella spin on a pedestal, for example, or a sheet-metal fox whirl about on the ground, playing the bells. He can fly a tiny helicopter in a circle, move coal through a fully automated miniature factory, or have a mecha-spider tap-dance across the table.

All of these working models are made from thousands of tiny metal nuts, bolts, and strips, assembled over many hours from a toy that’s been around for about 115 years: Meccano.

A retired computer technician, Lohm is one of a handful of people in Alberta that actively builds with and collects Meccano – the popular construction toy.

“It’s kind of the original recyclable toy,” says the St. Albert resident, predating Lego by decades and still going strong after more than a century.

Lohm says he’s spent about $30,000 on Meccano over the last 20 years, and now has enough components to fill several tool chests. He pulls out drawer after drawer of panels, girders, rods, and gears in blue, red, yellow and black, all stacked in neat rows.

Whereas Lego is all about bricks and sculptures, Meccano’s focus is metal strips and mechanisms, Lohm says. Since everything is made out of precision-cut metal, you can make extremely complex and accurate mechanisms with it.

Mechanics made easy

Ron Bodnar also has a lot of Meccano. The co-owner of the Bodnar Group in Edmonton, he estimates that he has about a metric tonne of Meccano in his collection, some of which is more than a century old.

“I had a No. 2 set when I was a young lad,” he says, referring to one of the entry-level Meccano sets, and he always wanted the bigger, more complex ones he saw his classmates using. He later bought his son a No. 8 set, only to end up spending more time playing with it than his son did.

Today, Bodnar makes his living collecting, restoring, and selling vintage Meccano sets (in addition to classic cars and Coca-Cola memorabilia). He also exhibits it in a 15,000 square-foot private museum in southern Edmonton.

Included in the museum’s collection are blimps, airplanes, towering cranes, a metre-tall Ferris wheel and other working Meccano models made by the late Gordon Frank – a well-known Meccano enthusiast who used to live near St. Albert.

Meccano is a construction toy set that spread throughout the British Empire in the early 1900s, Bodnar says.

Considered to be one of the world’s oldest construction sets, Meccano was first invented in 1898 by an English bookkeeper named Frank Hornby, reports the official Meccano website.

Hornby had been making sheet-metal toys for his sons but was frustrated that he had to custom-make every part in them. During a snowy train ride on Christmas Eve, he got the idea to make uniform, interchangeable parts that kids could use to make their own toys. He patented the system in 1901 and started selling it under the name “Mechanics Made Easy” the next year. He gave it its current name in 1907, building the first Meccano factory soon after.

This was back in the days of the Industrial Revolution where bridges, trains, and cranes were under construction everywhere, said David Williams, Edmonton resident and editor of the Canadian Modelling Association for Meccano and Allied Systems’ official magazine. Meccano caught on because it let kids build all these amazing structures, and it was soon the toy of choice in pre-World-War Britain.

Bodnar says Meccano was extremely popular and was available in all the major stores. As it was tough for kids to be able to afford all the components, Meccano was sold as a series of “sets” that built upon each other so that you could build more complex projects.

The basic Set 0 came in a box the size of a paperback containing about 15 components, for example. The top-tier Set 10 had over a thousand bits in it and came with its own wooden tool chest. Available for $2.50 to $95 back in the day, these vintage sets can be worth up to $8,000 today, Bodnar said.

The earliest pieces were made of tin and had square corners, collector Graham Jost explains on the International Society of Meccanomen website. Round-cornered steel pieces arrived by 1908, followed by nickel-plating from 1914 to 1926. Paint came in at this point, resulting in red or green bits followed by blue with gold crosshatching in 1934 to 1941, red and green again after the Second World War, and variants of yellow, black, and blue from the mid-’60s onwards.

Complex, yet fun

The fun of Meccano lies in its complexity, Williams says – you can build pretty much anything with it, so long as you have the parts.

Lohm is currently working on a scale model of an 1880s block-setting crane, for example. Made of thousands of shiny metal girders and brass gears, it’s well over two metres long and will be a functioning model when it’s done.

“It’s kind of the Holy Grail of Meccano,” he says of this model, as it was on the cover of the Meccano manual back in the 1950s.

Lohm has previously constructed a ping-pong ball launcher, which growls and rattles as it spits balls all over his basement, a “useless box” (a small red box that, when you flick its switch, shoots out a finger to flip the switch back off), and a motorized model of King Ghidorah (a three-headed dragon and Godzilla foe).

Some of these projects, such as his giant block-setting crane, have taken months of work. Many need frequent maintenance and adjustment: the attitude control lever of his tiny helicopter falls apart soon after takeoff, for example (to Lohm’s amusement), while the jerky moves of the spinning fox signals a need for a tune-up.

“It takes a long time to build something, and your gratification comes with fiddling with it and getting it to work,” Lohm says.

But that also means it’s tough to get youths raised on fast-paced television, video games, and Lego interested in Meccano.

“The future of the hobby is an issue,” Bodnar says, as the youngest people in it nowadays tend to be in their 50s.

Modern Meccano sets use a lot more plastic and electronic parts and often incorporate smartphone-controlled motors, allowing you to build, say, a metre-tall robot dinosaur, Williams says. This new emphasis on robotics could make Meccano more attractive to youths.

For his part, Lohm says he plans to keep collecting and building with Meccano until he’s too blind or arthritic to thread the bolts.

“I guess I’m kind of one of those people who never entirely grew up,” he says, noting that he also collects comic books. Meccano is just one of the many ways he’s kept busy during retirement.

“You have to grow older, but you don’t have to grow up.”

Kevin Ma: Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.