They’re considered playthings, but they’ve launched the careers of generations of engineers. The Erector set and its English cousin, Meccano, are the ultimate assembly toys. They allow users to design and build a wide variety of machines, structures and vehicles. Over the last 100 years, themetal construction setshave contributed to numerous inventions and prototype products.

Many engineers trace their mechanical roots to the day when they first set eyes on an Erector or Meccano set. At one time, the bright red metal box that Erector sets were packaged in was a common sight under Christmas trees. It was a must-have toy, similar to the way kids today crave GameBoy or Nintendo sets.

Henry Petroski, a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University (Durham, NC), says many engineers who are more than 40 years old spent their formative years playing with metal construction toys, such as Erector and Meccano. He believes that experience led to a tactile sense of engineering that many of today’s engineering school graduates lack.

“The budding engineer once had to wrestle with the nuts and bolts of Erector sets, always planning ahead to be sure the fingers could reach behind the parts of the construction crane, delivery truck or bridge being assembled,” recalls Petroski in an article published in the May-June 1999 issue ofAmerican Scientistmagazine. “With a screwdriver and a wrench we were expected to see the task through from beginning to end.

According to Petroski, “The supreme design challenge came when we had only a picture in our mind’s eye of some great bridge or tower of our own devising, some great structure whose lines changed as we used up the parts in the Erector set,” adds Petroski. “Our British counterparts have similar recollections of Meccano sets. These were the toys that built engineers.

“Judging from my own experience with today’s affluent first- and second-year engineering students, many of them appear to have led deprived childhoods when it comes to having learned the innards of machines by taking them apart and putting them together again,” laments Petroski. “As a rule, today’s future engineers play electronic games rather than design them. Because they have not had the tactile experience of being mechanics, they also seem to lack the visual sense that develops from it. Thus, when asked to draw a machine part they are at a loss for lines.”

Meccano is the oldest of the two rivals and predates Erector by 12 years. Frank Hornby (1863-1936) received a British patent in 1901 for a tin-plated metal building kit dubbed “Mechanics Made Easy.” He developed a 0.5-inch wide flat metal strip in varying lengths with evenly spaced holes that could be fastened together with nuts and bolts. Hornby started with a sheet of copper and drilled holes at 0.5-inch intervals. By adding gears, pulleys, brackets, axles and wheels to girders and plates, end users could construct many different types of models.

The thin metal pieces could be assembled into a wide variety of bridges, cranes, loading docks, elevators, robots, trucks, ships, airplanes, locomotives, conveyors, machine tools, power plants and amusement park rides. With patience and creativity, it was possible to build elaborate shipyard cranes and large suspension bridges, plus historic monuments, such as the Eiffel Tower. Meccano featured a green, red and yellow color scheme, which gave the models a distinctive look.

Hornby built a huge factory in Liverpool, England, and exported Meccano worldwide, thanks to a large marketing campaign. His company also manufactured a popular line of Hornby electric trains, Dinky Toy die-cast vehicles and Scalextric slot cars. According to Anthony McReavy, author of a recently published book entitledThe Toy Story: The Life and Times of Inventor Frank Hornby(Ebury Press), Hornby became very wealthy and was elected to Parliament in 1931.

In 1916, Hornby began publishing Meccano magazine, which featured articles on the latest transportation, engineering and manufacturing feats around the world. Typical articles had headlines such as: “Coaling Large Steamships,” “How Gears and Gear Units are Made,” “Giant Tanker for Iranian Oilfields, “Electric Welding Machinery” and “Building a Giant Locomotive.” The monthly magazine was published for 56 years and inspired many readers to pursue a career in engineering.

The name Meccano is synonymous with metal construction toys in all corners of the world except the United States, where its biggest competitor for many years was the venerable Erector set.

Alfred C. Gilbert (1884-1962) claims he got the idea for Erector in 1911 while traveling on a train between New York City and New Haven, CT, where he received an M.D. from Yale University. He observed construction workers erecting support towers and steel beams for an electrical power line.

Gilbert also may have seen a Meccano set while in England several years earlier. He was very athletic and was the first person in the world to clear 13 feet in the pole vault. At the 1908 Olympics in London, Gilbert won a gold medal by using an innovative bamboo pole. Gilbert also was an amateur magician who developed and sold magic tricks under the name “Mysto Magic” to support his way through college.

Gilbert launched his “Mysto Erector Structural Steel Builder” line in 1913 backed by the first major advertising campaign for a toy. The Erector set quickly became one of the most popular toys of all time.

Although it looked similar to Meccano, Erector was more realistic and had a number of technical advantages. For instance, the 1-inch wide steel beams were not flat--they were bent lengthwise at a 90-degree angle. Four strips nested side-to-side formed a very sturdy, square, hollow support beam. A groove was added on each edge of the girders to enhance their strength and usefulness.

Erector sets were originally available in eight different sizes--ranging from the simple #1 set to the complex #8 set--priced from 50 cents to $25. Each set came with an instruction manual illustrating the models that could be built. Due to overwhelming response, Gilbert soon featured more than 300 different models and boasted that “Erector builds the most models.”

In 1915, Gilbert received a gold medal at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco for the Erector set’s technical and scientific advances. In 1916, when sales surpassed $1 million, Gilbert changed the name of his company from Mysto to the A.C. Gilbert Co. In 1924, Gilbert converted Erector to 0.5-inch wide strips to permit the assembly of more complex and detailed models.

The Erector set achieved phenomenal success. “Toys often mirror the times and the Erector set really fit the era,” says Bruce Watson, author of a recently published biography on Gilbert entitledThe Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made(Viking-Penguin). “It was an age of industrial marvels, such as the Panama Canal, the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge. Erector mirrored that world.”

During his lifetime, Gilbert received 150 patents and established the Toy Manufacturers Association of America. He built a large factory in New Haven and became a multimillionaire, despite the Great Depression. By the late 1930s, the A.C. Gilbert Co. was the world’s largest toy manufacturer. In addition to Erector sets, its product line included American Flyer trains, chemistry sets, magic tricks and glass-blowing kits. In the early 1950s, Gilbert also produced an atomic energy laboratory.

Gilbert equipped his Erector sets with small electric motors capable of real-world applications. “He believed that providing a means of animating models would give them an added sense of realism that would elevate them beyond the level of mere toys,” says Watson.

According to William Brown, director of the Eli Whitney Museum (Hamden, CT), the low-voltage motor was the heart of an Erector set. “Gilbert was incredibly important in establishing the small motor in the mechanical vocabulary of Americans,” claims Brown, who has a large collection of Erector memorabilia on display in his museum. “He was instrumental in reorganizing factories from systems of centralized to decentralized power.”

At one time, Gilbert’s company was the largest manufacturer of fractional horsepower electric motors in the world. Because the toy business was highly seasonal, Gilbert began producing small appliances to keep his factory operating all year round.

“A.C. Gilbert actually was an appliance company that made toys,” notes Brown. “The company assembled more than 200 different types of fans, in addition to hair dryers, mixers, vacuums and other household items, under the Polar Cub brand name. The company also made products for Sears Roebuck and other retailers.”

During World War I, Gilbert was hailed by the press as “the man who saved Christmas.” The Council on National Defense had considered placing a ban on toy purchases. It argued that parents and grandparents should support America’s war effort by buying Liberty bonds instead of toys. The council held a special meeting and allotted only 15 minutes to decide the fate of Christmas. However, Gilbert argued that toys were vital to the nation’s morale.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert told the secretaries of Commerce, Interior, Navy and War. As he went on, Gilbert began to unpack several bags of toys, which the bureaucrats immediately began to play with. When the meeting finally ended, 3 hours later, the council decided against the ban on toys. A movie about the event is scheduled to air on CBS on Dec. 15, starring Jason Alexander and Ed Asner.

Gilbert was an expert at marketing and publicity. He created an image that appealed equally to kids and their parents. “Gilbert used personal appeal and spoke directly to the market,” says Watson. “He was part father and part mentor. His famous ad slogan was, ‘Hello boys! Make lots of toys!’” Gilbert was the first toy manufacturer to market his products year round, rather than just at Christmas.

“Gilbert did a great job of advertising,” says Bill Bean, author ofGreenberg’s Guide to Gilbert Erector Sets(Greenberg Publishing Co.). “He ran full-page ads in national magazines, such as TheSaturday Evening Post,Popular ScienceandBoys Life. He knew how to appeal to people who liked to build things.” Bean is a retired insurance executive in Dayton, OH, who has acquired the world’s largest collection of Erector sets and memorabilia.

Gilbert staged competitions that generated more than 50,000 entries. He also created lavishly illustrated catalogs that captured the imagination of several generations. According to Bean, original Erector ads, catalogs and manual are very valuable.

Erector sets have launched the careers the hundreds of engineers. They also have inspired numerous inventions. For instance, during World War II, the prototype for the temporary Bailey bridge was built from an Erector set. In the late 1940s, when Dr. William Sewell set out to build a bypass device that would allow him to open a heart for surgery, he used an Erector set. Today, the world’s first artificial heart is on display at the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC).

In the early 1950s, a mechanical engineer at General Motors who was developing an automated piston casting machine used an Erector set. More recently, a Disney “imagineer” used metal Erector components to make a prototype of a new ride at the California Adventure theme park.

Ironically, Gilbert’s archrival, Meccano, acquired the rights to the Erector brand name after he passed away in the early 1960s. It subsequently went through several different owners and faced stiff competition from television and newer assembly toys that featured easier to use plastic parts, such as Legos, which debuted in 1958.

The interlocking Lego bricks “were quicker, faster and easier to build with,” says Bean. Users could build models in hours rather than days, which appealed to people with short attention spans or limited amounts of creativity. “To the Erector set veteran, Legos seem more like puzzles than construction toys,” scoffs Petroski.

Erector sets are currently marketed by Brio Corp. (Germantown, WI). In addition to the traditional metal strips and plates, the new products feature colorful plastic parts, such as gears and wheels.

Vintage Erector and Meccano sets are popular with adult collectors because of their nostalgia. “Old Erector sets are highly collectable these days,” says Bean. “While common sets in average condition from the 1960s and earlier are still very affordable, the large and rarer sets command prices in the hundreds, even thousands of dollars.” Numerous clubs and dealers exist in many parts of the world.