Last Updated : 31 Aug 2009


Pre-1900 People


Frank Hornby 1863-1936 [copyright unknown]Frank Hornby, an inventor, a businessman and a politician, was born on the 15th of May, 1863 in Liverpool, the son of John O Hornby, a provision merchant and Martha Thomlinson.

Hornby produced three of the most popular lines of toys in the twentieth century: Meccano, Hornby Model Railways and Dinky Toys. Although responsible for the invention and production of Meccano, one of the world's most famous toys based on engineering principles, he had no formal engineering training.

At the age of sixteen, Hornby left school and started working as a cashier in his father's business. When his father died in 1887, the business was closed and Hornby became a bookkeeper for David Hugh Elliot who ran a meat importing business in Liverpool.

After experimenting in his home workshop, Hornby began making metal toys for his sons in 1899. He built models of bridges, trucks and cranes, although at first the pieces 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 journal - act as a bearing for - axles and shafts. This made the construction of complex mechanisms relatively simple.

By 1900 Hornby had built a set of parts he considered marketable and he patented his invention in 1901 after borrowing five pounds from his employer. 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 and offered him some vacant premises next to the office where he worked. With this move, Elliot and Hornby became partners.

Hornby now called his toy "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 became available. In 1905 two new sets were introduced and in 1906, for the first time, a small profit was made.

Frank Hornby's home in Station Road, Maghull [Ron P Smith]By 1907 Hornby's part suppliers could not meet the demand. This prompted Hornby to quit his job with Elliot and find premises in Duke Street to begin manufacturing his own parts by June 1907. In September 1907, Hornby registered his famous "Meccano" trade mark and used this name on all new sets. In order to raise more capital to invest in a larger factory and plant, Meccano Ltd was formed on 30 May 1908 in which Hornby was the sole proprietor. The Meccano factory was relocated to West Derby Road in Liverpool, and in 1910 the famous "MECCANO" logo was commissioned. In order to keep up with demand, a new factory was built in Binns Road which from 1914, became the company headquarters for over 60 years.

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. Other Hornby products that were introduced included:-

1927 O Scale Clockwork Trains using lithographed tinplate
1934 Dinky Toys, die-cast miniature model cars and trucks
1938 Hornby Dublo model railway system

By the 1930s, Hornby had become a millionaire. In 1931 he entered politics briefly when he was elected as a Conservative MP for the Everton. When Hornby died in 1936, his 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 and running Hornby Train sets.