Frank Hornby is known for inventing the toys Hornby Model Railways, Dinky vehicle models, and Meccano construction kits, despite having no formal training in engineering. Apart from being an inventor, he was also a politician and his inventions made him a very wealthy and successful businessman.
Early Life and Personal Background
Born on the 15th of May in 1863, Frank Hornby hailed from Liverpool, England. He was the only son of three children of John Oswald Hornby and Martha Thomlinson. His father was a provisions merchant. When he was 16, Frank left school and began to work as the cashier in his father’s business.
He married school teacher Clara Walker Godefroy in 1887 and together they had two sons Roland and Douglas, and a daughter, Patricia.
In 1899, his father’s business closed down and he then became a bookkeeper for David Hugh Elliot who had a meat importing business in Liverpool.
In his spare time, Hornby enjoyed making things and he had his own workshop at home. He began to make toys for his own sons from 1899, using simple materials; the main one initially being sheet metal. The pieces for those toys were not interchangeable at first. He later realized that it was possible to make several individual pieces which could then be put together differently to make other models built from the very same components. He achieved this by making perforations on the individual pieces which could be used not just for bolting things together permanently, but could also be used as the bearings for shafts and axles. Because of this, complex constructions became much simpler. Initially, Frank made his own nuts and bolts but later he found an alternative source.
At the end of 1900, Hornby 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” , borrowing 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 meant they did not sell well.
Hornby’s employer Elliot saw potential in him and believed in his skills. He offered Hornby the empty space near the office where they worked and this began their partnership in business.
Mechanics Made Easy
Hornby called his venture “Mechanics Made Easy” and he gained positive backup from Henry Selby Hele-Shaw, head of Liverpool University’s Department of Engineering. In this way, he was able to obtain 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 and were accompanied by a leaflet explaining how to make 12 different models.
The early years were not all successful. In 1903, they only sold 1,500 sets and no profit was made. 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 more new sets were introduced in 1905, and a year later the partnership made their first profit.
Success started in earnest in 1907, and with their business growing Hornby decided to leave the job he still held as Elliot’s employee so he could begin manufacturing his own parts in a different location. With the help of a loan, they started manufacturing their own toy parts in 1907 in a workshop in Duke Street, Liverpool.
Hornby registered 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 exporting to many different countries and with the help of his son, Roland, Hornby established a second location for the manufacture of his inventions in Paris. The company also established manufacturing bases in Berlin, Barcelona and Elizabeth in New Jersey.
In 1914 Meccano Ltd relocated to a purpose-built factory at Binns Road in Liverpool. By 1928 they employed over 1,200 people. The Meccano Magazine, to promote their toy products, was first published in 1916 and remained in circulation for over 60 years. Meccano became so popular the Meccano Guild was established, a guild for all the Meccano clubs from all over the globe.
Trains and Dinky
The first clockwork train models were produced in 1920. They were models of British trains with the correct colors and signage of the railway companies of that time. All kinds of accessories were also available including rolling-stock, signal-boxes, stations, level-crossing gates, buildings, and scenery to add a touch of realism to the model train sets. From 1925, low-voltage electric power replaced the train engines’ clockwork mechanisms.
The “Dinky” toy range was introduced in 1933 which comprised of die-cast zinc alloy miniature vehicles of cars, trucks, farm machinery and other models.
The Hornby Dublo model railway, with the OO gauge trains, was introduced in 1938 two years after Hornby died.
Legacy and Death
Hornby’s Meccano construction kits, model cars and train sets were loved all over the world and gave him a very successful business. In 1930, he had already become a millionaire owning a mansion in Maghull town, north of Liverpool. On a daily basis, he was chauffeured by a limousine, and a few years later he tried his hand in politics. He served briefly as a Conservative MP from 1931 to 1935 for the Liverpool constituency of Everton.
Frank Hornby died on 21 September 1936, aged 73 at the David Lewis Hospital in Liverpool.
Today, his inventions and legacy live through the Meccano models, train sets and collectible toys which he devised based on his knowledge of engineering principles and mechanisms.