Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Boy with his Meccano tower

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

This postcard portrait of a young boy proudly standing next to his partially completed Meccano tower has no identifying marks showing either the subject or the photographer. The clothing is rather difficult to date, although Michael Walker kindly pointed to this BBC article which relates that short trousers became the norm for boys in the 1920s. The photograph has been taken outdoors, perhaps at the door to a corrugated iron garden shed, and the model stands on a rough wooden bench seat.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The reverse has a plain divided back design, obviously not too early and possibly post-Great War, but difficult to date with any accuracy.

I wondered whether the Meccano construction might provide some clues with which to date the photograph. Although I still have the set that I played with as a child, inherited from my Dutch uncle, my knowledge of the history of the toy is limited. After browsing several Meccano-related web sites, I realised that there is a huge community of Meccano enthusiasts. David Williams, a Canadian collector and "Meccanoman," who details some of the history of Meccano on his website, helpfully pointed me towards the "Spanner" Mailing List, an international group of mechanical model building enthusiasts.

List member Roger Thorpe thought that the boy's efforts might have been stimulated by the iron Eiffel Tower, completed in 1889. My thoughts had wandered down a similar track, and I discovered that Meccano still produce an Eiffel Tower set, shown above.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

A very knowledgeable Charles Steadman offered the following very useful information, although cautious to emphasise that:
Of course, remember that we aren't yet certain whether all parts are Meccano or a clone ... The only thing we can be absolutely certain about is that it's after 1913, when the stepped part at the very top of the tower (described here) was introduced. Other than that, technically that could have been built from parts bought new up to at least 1926 (and of course much later if the parts were older) ...
I had wondered whether the fact that they appeared to be unpainted, unlike my set in which all the strips were red and green, could be used at all. Again from Charles:
The parts are all nickel plated, as they would have been up to 1927 (and indeed you could buy them nickel plated after that by special order), so that doesn't really help us.
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The wood(en base) is home-made, not a Meccano part. The piece lying on the bottom appears to be an angle girder, part 8 (described here). Compare the parts 8.ni1 and 8.ni on that page (just click on the green boxes in the table at the bottom of the page). If you can see from your detailed photograph that this angle girder has rounded off corners then you can take the earliest date forwards to 1918 ... I have to say that I'm leaning towards that angle girder being round-ended, putting the photograph to at least 1918.
Image © and collection of Brett Payne Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The other thing worth checking is the length of the bolts ... from a good close-up you might be able to identify whether they are the earlier long (5/16") type or the later short (7/32") type. If they are short, this would move the photo right on to at least 1922 ... (From the images above) the bolts look to be long, making their manufacture before 1922.
I'm very grateful to Michael, David, Roger and Charles for their help. It appears likely that the Meccano set from which this model was built was produced between 1918 and 1922, and I have a feeling, not unfortunately based on much solid evidence, that the portrait was taken some time after the end of the Great War or during the early to mid-1920s.

Image courtesy of NZMeccano.com

P.S. I've received an email from Michael J. Walker, who attached ...
... a page from a 1913 Meccano manual, showing a model of the Eiffel Tower (shown above), which is very similar in outline to the construction made by the taciturn boy in your featured photograph. It's my guess that the boy saw this model in a 1913 (or possibly slightly later edition) Meccano Instructions Manual, and decided to use the parts he had to make a passable version. In this he succeeded as we can see in the photograph.
Michael refers to the excellent NZMeccano.com web site hosted by Charles Steadman, the source of this image and many other Meccano manuals from as early as 1906, as well as images of the Meccano Magazine from 1917 to 1981. I particularly like this one from page 3 of the March 1917 issue:

Image courtesy of NZMeccano.com


  1. I love the boy's expression -- some things are just timeless, I guess.

  2. Yes, Michael, got it just right with "taciturn." He wasn't a Meccano poster boy, was he!

  3. Just think, Modern large and progressive toy company SpinMaster has purchased Meccano for $15 million and announced they will be taking on Lego.

    1. Good luck to them - methinks they'll need a bit more than spin.


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