Many years ago when I was a young boy in the late ‘40s, I played with the model construction system called Meccano. Occasionally, for my birthday or Christmas, my parents bought me a Meccano set, starting with the very basic 00 set and progressing to the higher-numbered sets as the years went by and my construction skills increased. The boxes were filled with a variety of green perforated metal struts and panels, wheels, axles, sturdy base plates, gear wheels, right-angled pieces, … nuts and bolts, a spanner and screwdriver, and a booklet that showed a number of standard things I could build—cars, boats, planes, drawbridges, cranes, and so on. There was no end to what I could build. I built cars that I could push along the floor with the appropriate vroom vroom sound effects; cranes that, at first, toppled over until I learnt to widen the base and reduce the angle of the boom; aircraft that flew beautifully but only in my imagination; boats that sank the minute I placed them in a bath full of water; and many other things not included in the booklet but possible with the collection of parts I accumulated. I had hours of fun bolting and unbolting the parts. The nuts and bolts were fiddly but I learnt how to position and hold the bolt just right so as to secure and tighten the nut. Sometimes, my latest creation would stay assembled for friends to admire before disassembly back to its parts ready for the next imaginative construction. At first, each set of parts would be returned to its original box but eventually all the parts finished up in one large box, a jumbled mess, a glorious treasure trove, waiting to be reused.
I enjoyed constructing strange and wonderful creations with my Meccano pieces and, looking back, I realise that the toy, for that is how it was sold, formed a basis for my later understanding of things mechanical and probably influenced my decision to embark on an aeronautical engineering career in the aircraft industry: a move which eventually took me sideways into electronics engineering where I stayed until retirement.
When, in turn, my three children were of a similar age, my wife and I bought them Lego sets. Lego pieces were easier than Meccano pieces for very small fingers to join together and having been weaned on Lego, the children stayed with it as they progressed towards puberty. In those days, Lego was very similar to Meccano in that one bought boxes of standard shapes that could be used and reused constantly. We saw and admired some amazing constructions created by the children and mopped up the tears when a fragile structure collapsed through lack of longitudinal support. But, the creations could always be returned to their constituent parts and, finally, all the Lego parts lived in a single box similar to the final resting place of my Meccano pieces.
Now fast forward to my two youngest grandchildren, Lottie (9) and Emilie (11). Meccano and Lego sets still exist but they have undergone a terrible transformation. Nowadays, one buys a Lego or Meccano set that is pre-designed to build just one construction—an exotic racing car, a sleek rocket ship with many accoutrements, a fighter aircraft bristling with armaments, a dumper truck with a motor-driven tilting dumper bed, …
Emilie has just passed her eleventh birthday and she received a Meccano Flight Jet as one of her presents. She enjoys constructing such models and it will keep her occupied for a few hours but when she’s finished, what then? The model will probably be placed on a shelf in her bedroom along with similar trophies and gather dust until she tires of it and replaces it with something more in keeping with her emergence into teenagery. The reusability of the parts has gone. The parts for the Flight Jet are beautifully crafted but cannot be reused to build, say, a crane.
It was the same a couple of years back with a Lego Frozen Ice Palace kit. Lottie received this for her birthday and together we followed the instructions, built the palace and placed the final creation outside where it was snowing. The palace looked magical, Princess Elsa was standing in the ramparts, suitably frozen, and my granddaughter was pleased but, again, the model is now half-hidden on her dressing table, never to be torn apart so that the pieces can be used to build something else.
I understand why Lego and Meccano create such bespoke models (non-reusable one-off models equate to more sales) but I regret that a young child’s imagination is no longer fired up to create something different, something unique from the parts. You can still buy sets of generic building blocks from Lego (the Lego Classic Creative Sets) but not from Meccano. This is a pity because of the two, Meccano was more inventive. Lego creates very blocky solid structures whereas Meccano offered a variety of bits that stick out, turn angles, introduce space between exostructures, and generally allow more inventive creations.
Lego cranes don’t fall over; Meccano cranes do! Therein lies the difference.