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Frank Hornby: Google Doodle tracks down story of toy maker behind train sets and Meccano to celebrate 150th birthday

  • @matildbattersby

The search engine Google is celebrating the 150th birthday of visionary toy maker Frank Hornby, whose model railways, Meccano sets and Dinky toys are still being played with by children today.

Born in Liverpool on 15 May 1863, Hornby was behind three of the most popular toy lines of the 20th century despite having no formal engineering training.

The son of a merchant left school at 16 and worked as a cashier in his father’s business before marrying schoolteacher Clara Walker Godefroy in 1887.

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The couple had three children, sons Roland and Douglas, and daughter Patricia. After his father’s death in 1899 the business closed and Hornby became a clerk at a meat export business.

Around this time Hornby began making toys for his sons with offcuts from sheet metal. He built toy bridges, trucks and other models of engineering equipment that fascinated him.

He soon designed various models that could be made from the same components made up differently - attaching them with nuts and bolts, making the construction relatively simple.

After two years of work Hornby considered the set of toy parts worth marketing and, having borrowed £5 from his meat business employer David Elliot, patented the invention on in January 1902 as “Improvements in Toy or Educational Devices for Children and Young People”.

Elliot and Hornby became business partners and the construction toy evolved into “Mechanics Made Easy”, securing contracts with manufacturers to supply the toy parts. The first sets when on sale in 1902 and in 1903 1,500 of the sets were sold, although no profit was made.

Hornby gave up his day job managing the books for Elliot in 1907 when demand for “Mechanics Made Easy” outstripped the ability of his manufacturers to supply the parts.

In September that year Hornby registered his famous “Meccano” trademark and used the name on all future toy sets. Elliot decided not to join the new company, Meccano Ltd, which formed in May 1908, leaving Hornby as sole proprieter.

Meccano’s turnover for the 1910 financial year was £12,000. His son Roland joined the business, and when the operation began exporting to Europe, he opened Meccano France Ltd in Paris. Two offices in Germany soon followed.

Having dabbled in politics in later life, Hornby died of a heart condition and diabetes in Maghull, near Liverpool, on 21 September 1936. Two years previously he had set up Dinky Toys to manufacture miniature model cars and trucks.

In 1938 his son Roland launched the Hornby Dublo model railway system - a posthumous honour to his father.

Enthusiasts around the world still collect Hornby train sets, Dinky Toys and Meccano models. The modern business also make Scalextric cars and Airfix kits.