Frank Hornby was the famous British inventor, businessman and politician who revolutionized the concept of toy-making through engineering principles. His father was a provisions merchant which may have roused his curiosity about the working of different things. At the tender age of sixteen he left school, as he did not believe in traditional education and started working as a cashier for his father. After his father’s death Frank worked as a bookkeeper for David High Elliot. It was during this time, he started making toys in a workshop constructed at home from sheet metal. Later he realized the advantage of separate interchangeable parts, which can be assembled and bolted to create a number of models with the same components. Hornby, realizing the potential of his discovery decided to market his products and also obtained a patent for his designs. Initially the business was set up as ‘Mechanics Made Easy’ and it soon began flourishing. The toys were enjoyable, different and educational for children and eventually the brand adopted the name ‘Meccano’. The renowned entrepreneur had no engineering degree or conventional education, but it was his strong desire which led to the birth of ‘Meccano’. Later he also delved into other products like Dinky toys and Hornby train models. He was a MP for the Conservative party in later years and died a millionaire.
Childhood & Early Life
Born on 15th May, 1863, in Liverpool, Frank Hornby was the son of Martha and John Oswald Hornby.
At the age of 16 he left school, and began working as a cashier in his father’s business. Later he disclosed that he did not believe in traditional education and was quite inspired after reading self-help by Samuel Smiles.
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In 1899 after his father died, the family business was closed, and Hornby took a job as a bookkeeper with David Hugh Elliot in his meat importing business in Liverpool.
During his tenure with David, precisely in 1899, Hornby started making toys, especially for his two little boys in a workshop he had set up at home. The toys were made from simple materials often from a long sheet metal.
Initially, the pieces were not interchangeable, but he soon realized the potential of interchangeable components that can be bolted together in different fashion every time to make a new model.
By 1900, Hornby had simplified the designs, and instead of making permanent fixtures he created parts that could be joined in different manner using bolts and nuts. He knew that he was ready to market his products.
In 1901, by borrowing a small amount of money from David Elliot, Hornby bought a patent for his products. This invention later came to be known as ‘Improvements in Toy or Educational Devices for Children and Young People’. Elliot realized the immense potential in this business started to back him up financially, and a business partnership started.
Hornby was also backed by Henry Selby Hele-Shaw who was the Head of Department in Engineering in the ‘University of Liverpool’, and thus Hornby could procure all the supplies needed for manufacturing the toys.
In 1902, ‘Mechanics Made Easy’ came into the picture. The company sold 16 different pieces and a leaflet was handed which explained how 12 different models could be made from those 16 odd parts. The following year, they sold 1500 sets, but the company failed to break even.
In 1904, new parts were introduced and they were packaged with instructions written in both English and French to increase its reach among the customers.
It was in 1907, that they first started making profit; Hornby left the job at Elliot’s and with the help of a loan started manufacturing his own toy parts.
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The boom in production led to the birth of ‘Meccano Ltd.’ in 1908; Elliot left the business making Hornby the sole proprietor. The business grew over the years and with the help of his son, Hornby established business in Paris and Berlin.
In 1907, Hornby made the ‘Hornby System of Mechanical Demonstration’, and the clockwork motors.
He continued to design more toys and in 1927, he invented the ‘O gauge clockwork trains’. Soon the set was complete with trackside accessories and English village setting.
In 1934, he introduced the die-cast vehicles in the form ‘Dinky toys’ and now there are over 200 different products in this range.
He dabbled with politics in the 1930s and served as a MP of the conservative party for Everton.
Hornby revolutionized the concept of toy-making based on engineering principles. He devised the concept of creating different models with the same components which are not only interchangeable but flexible and can be bolted together without bolts and screws. He founded the toy manufacturing company ‘Meccano Ltd.’ and also introduced clockwork trains and Dinky toys.
Personal Life & Legacy
On 15th January, 1887, Hornby got married to Clara walker Godefroy, who was a school teacher. They had two sons Douglas and Roland and a daughter Patricia.
During the 1930s he was declared a millionaire and owned a huge mansion in Maghull, and travelled in a chauffeur-driven limousine to work.
He breathed his last on September 21, 1936 in Lancashire, England. His son Roland introduced the ‘Hornby Dublo Model’, a railway system, two years later in the honor of the great inventor.