The hottest toy this year is the Zhu Zhu Pet. But, once upon a time, all-metal building sets were the must-have item. In fact, Erector and Meccano sets inspired many generations of engineers.

Recently, while shopping in a toy store for one of my young nephews [looking for a Zhu Zhu Pet!], I came across a cool model of the Empire State Building that requires a lot of good old-fashioned hands-on assembly. The Erector Set prompted me to think back to an article that I wrote seven years ago about the virtues of the metal construction toys (see “Toys That Launched Careers”).

Once upon a time, all-metal building sets, such as Erector and its English cousin, Meccano, inspired thousand of engineers. I was happy to see one on my shopping adventure and wondered how many lucky kids will be assembling miniature versions of New York City’s world-famous skyscraper later this month, rather than playing with a robotic rodent.

I spent many happy [and often frustrating] hours playing “engineer” with an Erector Set that originally belonged to my older brother. Some pieces were missing, so that always added to my assembly challenge.

My dream model was a ski lift. I designed and built tall support towers, including a pulley mechanism. Unfortunately, I was never able to see my idea to fruition. I never seemed to have enough parts to pull off my creation (the tiny screws and nuts also had a tendency to easily disappear). In addition, I had to contend with Chip, my inquisitive English Springer Spaniel, who always liked to be in the midst of any floor-based activity.

I always wanted to build a parachute jump like the famous one that thrilled generations at Chicago’s famous Riverview Park. I saw the Pair-O-Chutes thrill ride during several boyhood visits to the amusement park, but I was too small to purchase a ticket. A similar ride existed at Coney Island-it was left over from the 1939 New York World’s Fair (the last time I visited Coney, the rusted framework of the tower was still standing).

In addition to playing with an Erector Set, I had an opportunity to experiment with Meccano during family visits to Ireland. I fondly recall spending some cold, rainy afternoons playing with one of my cousin’s old Meccano sets. With its distinctive green, red and yellow color scheme, Meccano always seemed different (it was warmer and friendlier) than the cold, silver-colored Erector girders and plates I was familiar with back home. But, the overall enjoyment and sense of accomplishment was very similar.

Do you have any fond recollections of using an Erector, Meccano \(or some other type of metal construction toy? Did it spark your interest in engineering or whet your appetite for manufacturing? Do you remember building any specific models? Have you ever used a metal construction toy to create a prototype model?