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Model worker

Profile : Colin Davies

Meccano or Lego? The debate still rages over which is the best toy for engineers, but Karl Thompson met one man who has no doubts.

Colin Davies' letter contributing to the Meccano debate was probably one the shortest NCE has ever published - 'Meccano is for engineers; plastic bricks are for builders', he asserted. His home is filled with models - the labours of his love for a toy which celebrated its centenary this year. And when it can take up to 300 hours to complete each one, it is easy to understand why he is reluctant to dismantle them.

A motorised bug that eats plastic construction bricks, scale models of a 15th century revolving crane by Leonardo da Vinci and Stephenson's Rocket, are among the exhibits, along with a Fowler BB1 ploughing engine, a fairground carousel, a moving three planet solar system - an orrery to be exact - and a working clock which, alas, needs winding every five hours.

Nearly all the models are built to scale from Davies' own plans, drawn up after photographing and measuring the real thing or, if available, going back to the original designs. His dedication and attention to detail has been rewarded with several competition prizes and invitations to show his models at fairs and exhibitions.

His passion for Meccano began with a set handed down by an older cousin just before the war, which with Davies was soon building bridges and cranes.

Then came an external London University degree in engineering and by 1955, at the tender age of 26, he was a chartered structural engineer, and a chartered civil engineer a few years later.

In part he credits Meccano for his career progression. 'You are building within the constraints of a system and that's the key, solving a problem within constraints.'

The similarities to real life building projects are plain to see and Davies believes that by challenging the young mind sooner rather than later, problem solving skills develop faster. 'The manipulative skills, even in my four year old grand-daughter, were already there.

'I only showed her once how to put a nut and bolt together, and then the second time she knew exactly which way to turn them. ' Working in education full time from the 1970s, Davies used Meccano models to illustrate his lectures. Now retired, Davies was principal lecturer in structural engineering at Hatfield Polytechnic before becoming head of the civil engineering department. 'I used my model of the Skylon to demonstrate the stability of supporting struts with only three cables holding them - struts and cables all in the same plane.'

'Meccano offers young people the opportunity to put things together in a practical and creative way that gets the best from their imagination. This creative side to construction is something that is lost to young people too absorbed in buttons and screens.'

Davies' views even now are not distanced from the industry.

For the past 10 years, he has travelled to Hong Kong - and more recently Singapore - to give a preparatory course in the Institution of Structural Engineers Part 3 exam. And recently he addressed barristers and solicitors studying for an MSc in construction law at Kings College, London, about the technology and design of structures.

And as a hobby Meccano is never far off the scene. Every year a gathering of enthusiasts descends on Henley in Berkshire for the AGM of the International Society of Meccanomen, attended by some of its 500 members from 29 countries as far as South Africa and Australia.

The next modelling challenge for Davies is to replicate the engine of IK Brunel's SS Great Britain, the hulk of which was returned to England several years ago from the Falkland Islands, and is now at the Bristol dock where it was built. The model will be built to scale of course, as Davies' wife of 45 years, Joyce, prepares to see another part of their home given over to his enduring passion.

INFOPLUS www. meccanoweb. com

Meccano - a brief history

Meccanics Made Easy, the forerunner to Meccano, was patented in 1901 by Frank Hornby of Liverpool - it became Meccano in 1908.

Early sets had 15 pieces and were made of tin plate.Within a few years different sized sets and new pieces, such as brass gears, were introduced as popularity soared.

By 1914 competitions offering big prize money caught the imagination of fans, as anything from Ferris wheels to looms - which actually wove cloth - were constructed.

Meccano moved to a bigger factory in the 1920s, the pieces now made from nickel plate. The decade saw also launch of Meccano Magazine

Having made his fortune Frank Hornby was elected a member of parliament in 1931.The company passed to relatives when he died in 1936.

Production was halted during the Second World War as materials for the war effort became scarce.

When production resumed, the sets continued to undergo changes in colour and size and by the late 1960s special editions were being produced. These included highway vehicle, aeroplane and even combat sets.

In 1979 Meccano finally succumbed to declining fortunes and went into receivership. A sit in by employees failed to save the company and in 1980, after 66 years at the same site in Binns Road, Liverpool, the factory was demolished.

A French subsidiary bought the rights and continued to produce Meccano until control recently passed to Japanese company Nikko. The sets are still available as far afield as the US and Argentina.

Getting started

Small starter sets are ideal for 8 to 10 year olds and usually only build one model - a simple aeroplane, motorbike or truck

The basic principle of all construction toys is recycling at its best - to build a model and later take it apart and build some completely different

Larger sets have enough parts to build a variety of alternative models to instruction plans or to one's own design, encouraging imaginative ideas

Meccano is 'engineering in miniature' encouraging youngster to learn the basic principles of mechanics, levers, gearing and stability of structures

Until about 1990, Meccano bolts had slotted heads tightened with a conventional screwdriver which could damage the part or hurt small fingers. The newer bolts with a recess take a hexagonal key making it impossible for the key to slip off the bolt head.

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