Frank Hornby

Despite not having formal training when it comes to engineering, Frank Hornby managed to excel in toy invention based on engineering principles. These toy lines include Hornby Model Railways, Dinky Toys, and Meccano. Apart from being an inventor, he was also a politician and businessman and he is the man behind the British toy company named Meccano Ltd. Apart from his involvement in inventing new things, he also had the monthly publication called Meccano Magazine. It was because of his inventions as well as initiatives made him a millionaire in 1930.

Early Life and Personal Background

Born on the 15th of May in 1863, Frank Hornby hailed from Liverpool, England. He was the son of John Oswald Hornby and Martha Hornby. His father had been a provisions merchant and this may have roused his awareness on many different things as well as how they worked. When he was 16, Frank quit school and began to work as the cashier in his father’s business. He had his own family when he married Clara Walker Godefroy who was a school teacher. Together they had two sons and a daughter. In 1899, his father’s business had to be closed down but after that, he became David Hugh Elliot’s bookkeeper for the meat importing venture he had in Liverpool.


Hornby had his own home workshop and his experiments and inventions began there. He began to make toys for his own sons back in 1899, and he used simple materials—the main one initially being sheet metal. While the pieces of those toys were not interchangeable at first, he was able to realize later on that being able to make several individual pieces which can be put together can result in making a different model which can be built from the very same components. This was made possible by his realization that perforations on the individual pieces can be used not just for bolting things together permanently but can also be used as the bearings for shafts and axles. Because of this, complex mechanisms became much simpler. Initially, Frank made his own nuts and bolts but later found an alternative source.

When the year 1900 was about to end, Frank finally had pieces which he knew was worth marketing. He patented his unique invention a year later in January known as the “Improvements in Toy or Educational Devices for Children and Young People” where he even had to borrow five pounds from his then employer, David Elliot, for the patenting costs. That same year he began to look for companies which would manufacture his products. However, the final products were not satisfactory to him and the poor finish did not gain much attention.

Elliot saw potential in Hornby and believed in his skills. He offered Hornby the empty space near the office where they worked and this started their partnership in business.

Mechanics Made Easy

Hornby called his venture “Mechanics Made Easy” and he even gained positive backup from Henry Selby Hele-Shaw, head of Liverpool University’s Department of Engineering, and he was then able to get the supplies he needed to complete the parts for his inventions. Elliot made the financing aspect of their venture possible, and sets from Mechanics Made Easy were made available in 1902. The sets they sold had 16 different pieces or parts, which were then accompanied by a leaflet explaining how to make 12 different models.

The early years were not all successful, but in 1970 the part suppliers could no longer meet the demands. In 1903, they only sold 1,500 sets and no profit was made yet. They kept introducing new parts and in 1904 they had six sets which were packaged with the standard instruction materials in English and French in their own tin boxes. Two news sets more were introduced in 1905, and a year later they were able to make their first profit.

The success started in 1907, and when their business was growing Hornby decided to leave the job he held as Elliot’s employee so he could begin manufacturing his own parts in a different location. Three years later with the help of a loan granted to the partners, they were able to start manufacturing their own toy parts in 1907 as well.

Initiatives and Final Years

He was able to register his Meccano trademark and use this registered name for all of his products. In 1908, shortly after their boom in production, Meccano Ltd. was established and Hornby’s business partner Elliot decided not to join the company, making Hornby its sole proprietor. The company began to export to many different countries and with the help of his son Hornby was able to establish a new place for his inventions when they put up Meccano Ltd Paris. They also had their office in Berlin and apart from inventing toys based on engineering principles, Hornby also made clockwork motors.

Other than Meccano, Hornby did not stop at just making mechanical toys for that line. He also made the educational “Hornby System of Mechanical Demonstration” in 1907, the Clockwork lithographed tinplate O scale trains in 1927, the Dinky Toys in 1934, and the Hornby Dublo model railway which was introduced in 1938 two years after Hornby died. Even after his death, the monthly publication called Meccano Magazine remained in circulation for 60 years. Meccano became so popular because of his inventions and innovations that he even made the Meccano Guild which is the guild for all the Meccano clubs from all over the globe.

Because of his inventions and simplified mechanisms which he used for toys and educational kits, his inventions were loved all over the world and gave him back a great profit. Come 1930, he had already become a millionaire and owned a mansion in Maghull. On a daily basis, he was chauffeured by a limousine, and a few years later he even tried his hand in politics. He was elected as a Conservative MP in 1931 for the Everton constituency.

Today, his inventions and legacy live through the Meccano models and collectible toys which he came up with based on his knowledge of engineering principles and mechanisms.