Visionary toy manufacturer English inventor, businessman and politician Frank Hornby was born 5 May 1863. although he had no formal engineering training, he was responsible for the invention and production of three of the most popular lines of toys based on engineering principles in the twentieth century: Meccano, Hornby Model Railways and Dinky Toys. He also founded the British toy company Meccano Ltd in 1908.At the age of sixteen, Hornby left school and started working as a cashier in his father’s business. On 15 January 1887 he married a schoolteacher Clara Walker Godefroy, the daughter of a customs officer and they had two sons, Roland and Douglas, and a daughter, Patricia. When his father died in 1899, his father’s business was closed and Hornby became a book keeper for David Hugh Elliot who ran a meat importing business in Liverpool.After experimenting with new ideas in his home workshop, Hornby began making toys for his sons in 1899 with pieces he cut from sheet metal. He built models of bridges, trucks and cranes, although the pieces they were made from were not interchangeable. The breakthrough came when Hornby realised that if he could make separate, interchangeable parts that could be bolted together, any model could be built from the same components. The key inventive step was the realisation that regular perforations in the structural pieces could be used, not only to join them together with nuts and bolts, but also to act as a bearing for – axles and shafts. This made the construction of complex mechanisms relatively simple. He started making metal strips by hand from copper sheets. The strips were half an inch wide with holes for bolts spaced at half inch intervals. Initially he made the nuts and bolts himself, but he soon found an alternate source of supply.Frank Hornby’s 1901 patent number GB190100587A for what later became known as Meccano.
By the end of 1900 Hornby had built a set of parts he considered worth marketing. On advice, he patented his invention in January 1901 as “Improvements in Toy or Educational Devices for Children and Young People”, but not without first having to borrow five pounds from his employer, David Elliot, to cover the costs. During 1901 Hornby began looking for companies to manufacture his product, but it was poorly finished and did not attract much attention. Still having to support his family on the small wage he earned, Hornby did not have much time to market his invention. Fortunately, his employer saw potential in what Hornby was doing and offered him some vacant premises next to the office where he worked to pursue his ideas. With this move, Elliot and Hornby became partners.Hornby now called his construction oy “Mechanics Made Easy” and after receiving a positive endorsement from professor Henry Selby Hele-Shaw, then Head of the Engineering Department at Liverpool University, Hornby managed to secure contracts with outside manufacturers to supply the parts for his construction sets. With the financial assistance of his partner, “Mechanics Made Easy” sets went on sale in 1902. Each set had only 16 different parts with a leaflet detailing the construction of 12 models. In 1903, 1,500 sets were sold, although no profit was made. New parts were continually being introduced and in 1904, six sets, packed in tin boxes with instruction manuals in French and English, became available. In 1905 two new sets were introduced and in 1906, for the first time, a small profit was made.By 1907 Hornby’s part suppliers could not meet the demand. This prompted Hornby to quit his job with Elliot and find suitable premises to begin manufacturing his own parts. He secured a three year lease on a workshop in Duke Street, Liverpool, and with the help of a loan granted to Hornby and Elliot for machinery and wages, they were manufacturing their own parts by June 1907.
In September 1907, Hornby registered his famous “Meccano” trade mark and used this name on all new sets. This led to the formation of Meccano Ltd on 30 May 1908. and in 1910 the famous “MECCANO” logo was commissioned. Meccano was exported to many countries and in 1912, Hornby and his son, Roland, formed Meccano (France) Ltd in Paris to manufacture Meccano. An office was also opened in Berlin, Germany and Märklin began to manufacture Meccano under licence. Hornby also started importing clockwork motors from Märklin.In order to keep pace with demand, a new factory was built in Binns Road, Liverpool. By September 1914 the Binns Road Factory was in full production and became the company headquarters for over 60 yeIn addition to Meccano, Hornby developed and manufactured a number of other model kits and toys, including:1909 – “Hornby System of Mechanical Demonstration”, an educational set.1927 – Clockwork lithographed tinplate O scale trains.1934 – Dinky Toys, die-cast miniature model cars and trucks.1938 – Hornby Dublo model railway system (introduced after Hornby’s death).In 1916, Hornby launched a monthly publication, Meccano Magazine, which remained in circulation for over sixty years, and in 1930 he formed the Meccano Guild, an amalgamation of Meccano clubs from all over the world. In 1931 he entered politics when he was elected as a Conservative MP for the Everton constituency. He left the running of the company to his co-Directors and staff. But he did not stay in politics long – he resigned his parliamentary seat before the 1935 General Election.Hornby died of a chronic heart condition complicated by diabetes in Maghull, near Liverpool, on 21 September 1936. He is buried in the grounds of St Andrews Church, Maghull. His elder son Roland took over as Chairman of Meccano Ltd.Hornby’s legacy lives on today with thousands of enthusiasts all over the world still building Meccano models, running Hornby Train sets and collecting Dinky Toys. In his homeplace of Maghull there is a local pub named after him ‘The Frank Hornby’.
Hornby Railways roots date back to 1901, when founder Frank Hornby received a patent for his Meccano construction toy. The first clockwork train was produced in 1920. In 1938, Hornby launched its first 00 gauge train. In 1964, Hornby and Meccano were bought by their competitor Tri-Ang, and sold on when Tri-ang went into receivership. In the 1980s Hornby Railways became independent.Hornby was at first a tradename for the railway productions of Meccano Ltd and based inLiverpool, which released its first train, a clockwork 0 gauge (1:48) model, in 1920. An electric train soon followed but was under-designed and the few that were made were sold out in France. In 1925, a much more successful electric model was introduced, operating on the high voltage of 110 volts AC power. Safety concerns saw low voltage 4V and then 6V motors introduced, followed by a reliable 20V AC system, which was developed in the early 1930s. However, clockwork remained the mainstay of the Hornby 0 gauge trains until 1937 and became the only power available in Liverpool-made 0 gauge trains from 1949. Competitors in the UK were Leeds Model Company and Bassett-LowkeA factory was established in France, which developed its own range of French outline trains, but Liverpool dominated export activity elsewhere, with large numbers of Hornby trains exported to Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Scandinavia.
Even though the export models were often painted in ‘foreign’ liveries, Hornby trains looked very British. Hornby attempted to break into the American market by setting up a factory in 1927 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to make American-style trains. These were colourful and attractive, but low market and only clockwork. They probably would have failed in the marketplace because several established U.S. firms could undercut them and Hornby offered no better-class goods or electric models, but the Wall Street Crash precipitated matters. In late 1929, Meccano Ltd. sold its New Jersey factory to the A. C. Gilbert Company and Hornby trains had vanished from the U.S. market by 1930. The leftover inventory was sold in Canada and in the UK and some of the tooling was reused for products in other markets.In 1964, Lines Bros Ltd., the parent company of rival Tri-ang Railways, purchased Meccano Ltd., and merged Hornby and Tri-ang into Tri-ang Hornby. The former Hornby line was discontinued in favour of Tri-ang’s less costly plastic designs. The Hornby Dublo tooling was sold to G & R Wrenn, which continued to make most of the loco range and ‘superdetail’ rolling stock. Remaining stocks of 0 gauge were either scrapped or sold to the local retailer Hattons and the Tri-ang group was disbanded in 1971 when Meccano Ltd’s owner Lines Bros. filed for bankruptcy Meccano took over The former Tri-ang, becomingHornby Railways in 1972.
By 1976 Hornby was facing challenges from Palitoy and Airfix, both of which were producing high quality detailed models. Detail on the models was upgraded to make the product line more attractive to adult hobbyists.A 16 channel command control system named Zero 1 was introduced in late 1979 and Advertisements claimed that 16 locomotives could be operated independently at the same time although it was expensive, with clean track and well serviced locos the system worked well The system is still used today by many modellers, highlighted by the demand on such sites like eBay for the items in the second hand market.In the 1970s Hornby released steam-powered 3½” gauge locomotive, a model of the Rocket A Hornby model of a BR standard class 9f and in 2006 a Cotswold Rail Class 43 HST power car was introduced carrying a livery advertising Hornby which has since been repainted.In 1980 Hornby became Hornby Hobbies. By the early 1990s Hornby again faced competition from newcomers like Dapol and established foreign manufacturers, including Lima and Bachmann Industries. Train sets based on Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends and Harry Potter (the “Hogwarts Express”) have also been particularly profitable ventures. In September 2003 Hornby released its first steam-powered 00 gauge locomotive, a model of the record-breaking Mallard. Several other “Live Steam” locomotives have also now been produced.Since then Hornby has bought Lima, an Italian model railway equipment manufacturer that had previously acquired Jouef, a French manufacturer. Some of the ex-Lima models appear in the main Hornby products list. This range is known as Hornby International. As of 2008 Hornby Railways produce a large range of highly detailed British steam and diesel locomotives, such as the BR 9F, LNER Class A4, SR Merchant Navy,Class 60, Class 50, Class 31 and Class 08.In November 2006, Hornby Hobbies acquired Airfix and Humbrol paints July 2010 also saw the opening of the Hornby Shop And Visitor Centre, to this day Hornby has proved to be a continuing success and has proved increasingly popular since Meccano introduced its 00 scale trains in 1938 under the name ‘Hornby Dublo’.