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Engineer's Toy Becomes a Profession
11/30/2011

The Clarksville Elementary School Building Set is one of the engineering-inspired offerings from Paul Flack's Bridge Street Toys.
The Clarksville Elementary School Building Set is one of the engineering-inspired offerings from Paul Flack’s Bridge Street Toys.

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Beth Stackpole
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Not necessarily child's play
Beth Stackpole   11/30/2011 7:51:42 AM
Love this story and the fact that they brought back an old favorite. The part about them having to rethink materials and other elements from the `60s era toys due to safety regulations is really interesting. Is this a full-time profession for them or still in the hobbyist stage??

Lauren Muskett
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Toys
Lauren Muskett   11/30/2011 8:46:44 AM
I think it is great that they keep the parts as realistic as possible and you can see they have a real passion for the toys that they make. I also like that parts are interchangeable to allow children to be creative and come up with their own designs. 

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Toys
Ann R. Thryft   11/30/2011 11:36:57 AM

What great toys! I wish I'd had these when I was a kid in the 50s. I think Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys (the original wooden ones) were about as far as we got. I also built things out of dominos and blocks, and glued together toothpicks with Elmer's to make enormous structures.


Rob Spiegel
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Re: Toys
Rob Spiegel   11/30/2011 12:06:02 PM
There were great building toys when I was a kid. Like Ann, I had Lincoln Logs, and Tinker Toys. I even found these toys at garage sales for my kids. I also had an erector set as well as a toy that included girders and panels to build buildings. The coolest toys came when I was a bit older -- the Heath kits. Girard I think also had some kits. And I remember the joy of receiving the new Allied catalog. I remember reading it like a magazine. I don't remember Legos when I was a kid.

bdcst
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Re: Toys
bdcst   11/30/2011 2:17:22 PM
Hi Rob,

So many of us started down our paths with Lincoln logs, Erector sets and AC Gilbert Chemistry sets.  But I also made toys of every day household items such as quick silver from broken fever thermometers.  As children we had access to material now deemed so dangerous you need to send in enviromental specialists to clean up the smallest spill.  I can't tell you how much mercury must have seeped into the cracks in the floor in my bedroom or the yards of asbestos I cut up for my junior chemistry experiments using reagents commonly provided in those children's chemistry sets.

My first Heathkit was their OM-1 oscilloscope I built at age nine.  I sorely missed them when they folded their tent having built some of their test equipment.  I still own and use a Heathkit Nixie tube style frequency counter that I modified to run on much cooler lower power 74LSXX family logic.  It was a lot of bang for the buck being able to directly count to over 200 MHz without any pre-scalers!  And the audio frequency multiplier had a huge range such that I could meaure FM stereo pilot at 19 kHz out to two or more decimal places  19,000.00 Hz in real time!  Only magnitudes more expensive calculating counters from HP could do the same.

Anyhow Heath is back specializing in educational kits consisting of course material and experiment boards.  And they are planning to venture once again into household and ham radio kits.

For those who prefer not to attempt to build electronics from scratch due to the miniaturization and robotization of circuit board construction, SMD's etc, there are opportunities to assemble kits from fully soldered and even factory tested and aligned modules and boards.  You still need a good eye, steady hand and patience as mechancial assembly can be quite involved for today's miniaturized chassis.  An example is the Elecraft K3 HF transceiver which is a partially software defined amateur radio.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Toys
Rob Spiegel   11/30/2011 2:25:02 PM
Thanks for the comment, bdcst,

Yes, I noticed that Heath Kits were back, which is great. I forgot all about the chemistry sets. I went through a number of them. Like you I remember chemicals that didn't come with warnings. I remember playing with the mercury that spilled on the floor when I dropped a thermometer.

When I was a kid, a stick was a gun. A hunk of dirt was a cannonball. You could play in the woods all day. I made my own skate board (using roller skate wheels and plywood) because you couldn't buy a skate board. We all did.

The Lego toys today are good -- though they're a bit by-the-numbers. I agree homemade 

Tim
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Re: Toys
Tim   11/30/2011 6:49:52 PM
Building kits are great.  I agree about the Legos.  My kids have some of the Star Wars sets and really get upset when they can't find one piece that is needed to finish a piece.  It usually takes some convincing to have them use an alternate.

As a kid, I found an old lawnmower engine that I tried to use to make a go-cart.  I learned a lot about gear differentials and the benefits of a slip clutch.  I also learned that mufflers get really hot and that gas is really flammable.

Charles Murray
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Re: Toys
Charles Murray   11/30/2011 10:42:32 PM
I played with the Kenner Bridge & Turnpike set as a kid and later ended up designing bridges (and later on, nuclear power plants) for a few years after I became an engineer. I believe Paul Flack is right: Many of us were drawn to engineering because, somewhere in the deep recesses of our minds, we connected engineering to the fun we had as kids.

Tool_maker
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Re: Toys
Tool_maker   12/2/2011 1:05:53 PM
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I never thought about how my choice of toys could have such an impact on my adult life. It is fun reading all of the memories coming back. Of course we did Lincoln Logs and Erector Sets, but the biggest thrill was to find some wheeled vehicle that had been discarded. Baby buggy or stroller wheels could transform an orange crate into a "Racer" capable of an alley version of the Indy 500. Then some smartaleck had parents buy him real Soap Box Derby wheels and none of us could keep up regardless of how cool we designed our racers. But braking was always a problem.

Jennifer Campbell
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Re: Toys
Jennifer Campbell   11/30/2011 12:14:28 PM
This is definitely cool, and what a great way to spend a day at work! Ann, don't knock the Lincoln Logs and tinker toys - those have stood the test of time. I still have an old set that I plan to pass along to my daughter. I also think it's refreshing that a lot of companies are coming out with lines of wooden/organic toys, stuff that better allows children to use their imaginations.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Toys
Ann R. Thryft   12/5/2011 12:03:40 PM
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Actually, I enjoyed the Tinker Toys and even the toothpick palaces. It was more of a challenge to figure out how to build things so they wouldn't fall down. What I really wanted was an Erector set, but in the 50s they were very pricey and not something parents usually gave to girls. Like Rob, I don't remember Legos. I think they came later.


Rob Spiegel
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Re: Toys
Rob Spiegel   12/5/2011 3:04:38 PM
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You're right, Ann. Legos came much later. My experience with Legos came with my kids. I liked the freeform Legos. I wasn't as crazy about the packaged Lego toys where the box came with just the Legos you needed to make a specific robot or car. I changed my mind when I realized these packages had replaced my childhood model planes and boats. They are kind of like paint by the numbers -- not very creative, but good training in learning how to manipulate parts to achieve a whole.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Toys
Ann R. Thryft   12/6/2011 2:43:57 PM
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I generally prefer the freeform building tool toys, like the freeform Legos, and even Tinker Toys and toothpicks, because you get to exercise more of your creativity and ingenuity. I agree, Rob, that the packaged toys aren't nearly as much fun. I think the reason the building sets in this story are appealing is their beauty. I guess they remind me of a kind of hardware version of dollhouses, that whole fascination with miniatures, which I also liked.


bellhop
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Re: Toys
bellhop   12/6/2011 3:20:25 PM
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I probably had a version of every common "build it" toy that there was and then some (remember "Mr. Machine?"). Legos are like programming in assembly language and Capsela is like Visual Basic. Either way, it takes some thought to create something unique.

Toothpicks: I had a 7th grade assignment to build a toothpick structure. The rules were very strict to prevent gluing together solid masses of toothpicks. It had to be 12" tall. They were to be tested with bricks. I confidently predicted that mine would hold five bricks. Did they ever laugh at me! Well, the big day came. There were only four bricks and it held them all - plus four volumes of the "World Book". My closest competitor collapsed on the second brick. 

We moved that year. My best friend took it home and reported that his two year old cousin used it as a stool.

Did I become an engineer because of the toys? I don't think so. The interest was already there. The toys just made it fun.

Charles Murray
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Re: Toys
Charles Murray   12/6/2011 10:49:22 PM
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Bellhop, it's good to know that someone else remembers Mr. Machine. I have explained Mr. Machine to my kids numerous times, only to have them make fun of the concept (there's no excuse for making fun of Mr. Machine). For others who remember Mr. Machine, here's a commercial for it from YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8WHQI5iKYfM

 

bellhop
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Re: Toys
bellhop   12/7/2011 8:26:08 AM
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Thank you Charles! I remember that commercial! It's too bad that few homes had color TV back then.

I didn't ask for Mr. Machine either, but my parents knew that I would like it. The best Christmases were those where I didn't ask for anything! 

Mr. Machine has been resurrected several times. I saw one some years ago in a toy store that was almost identical to the original. If you do an image search on "Mr Machine" (in quotes), you will turn up images of the various incarnations. Some were very good, others were terrible.

Charles Murray
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Re: Not necessarily child's play
Charles Murray   11/30/2011 10:27:37 AM
Beth: This is a full-time profession for both. When they first launched the business in 2003, Carol kept her job while Paul did it full-time. In 2005, Carol quit her job to do the toy company on a full-time basis.

Dave Palmer
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Re: Not necessarily child's play
Dave Palmer   11/30/2011 10:54:36 AM
Charles, could you clarify what the issues with safety regulations were? It's not obvious to me how injection molding the parts out of polyethylene rather than thermoforming them out of polystyrene sheets affects safety.  In terms of mechanical properties, polystyrene is brittle - but you could always go to high-impact polystyrene if this is a concern.  Or you could thermoform the parts out of polyethylene or another resin.  I would think that for low-volume production of dimensionally simple parts, thermoforming would be a better option.

Charles Murray
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Re: Not necessarily child's play
Charles Murray   12/1/2011 12:09:09 PM
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To Dave Palmer: Some of the old polystyrene parts were brittle. When they broke, they had sharp edges. It was believed that those edges had a propensity to cut young hands. Bridge Street Toys beefed up some of those parts and made them from polypropylene. Then they made all the beams and columns using injection molded polyethelene.  

TJ McDermott
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Comparible pricing
TJ McDermott   11/30/2011 10:21:30 PM
The pricing of these models compares well with current Lego sets.  The startup company is doing good matching a giant like Lego.

The article states they went outide the home for production.  I hope they didn't go offshore; it would be nice to see domestic toy manufacturing come back to this continent.

JimT@Future-Product-Innovations
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Hasbro AstroLite
JimT@Future-Product-Innovations   12/1/2011 12:56:25 AM

Gosh, Charles, you are really taking me back.  In addition to Legos, Lincoln Logs & Erector Sets, one toy that I spent hours with was the Hasbro AstroLite; (it was the 3D answer to Hasbro LiteBrite, which I also spent hours with).   AstroLite was very, “Meet George Jetson” with 21st century domes that I just couldn't create with Legos!  A quick Google for AstroLite, and sure enough, there on eBay is my old favorite toy which I have not thought about in 40 years.   Even just the retail box image is hauntingly  familiar.  Thanks for that!

Oldfortman
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Re: Hasbro AstroLite
Oldfortman   12/1/2011 10:00:30 AM
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I had all the Kenner sets as a kid. I was born in 1951 so was just the right age as a kid to love these toys.

I liked the set with the tanks and valves the most.

I wore out these sets playing with them and they were my most prized toys as a child.

I have found a few of the orginal toys on sale on ebay as collectables.

I am so glad that someone is making them again. I am sure they will inspire many new young engineers.

wbswenberg
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Kenner
wbswenberg   12/1/2011 9:58:19 AM
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Yes, this really took me back.  I received one for Christmas when the family was TDY Salina, Ks.  On reflection I should have wished for an Erector Set.  Dad was a electrical power engineer.  I'm more into power electronics.  I've seen some PLC & micro processor kits I should explore.  This really brings back memories.  We visited a KC135 where I sat in the boom operators seat.  And we went down a Titan site under construction. 

William K.
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Engineers Toy becomes a profession
William K.   12/1/2011 10:42:05 AM
I certainly wish them success in the venture. I do wonder about how it will work with the current hysteria about toy safety. Small parts that can be swallowed always were an indication that toys should not be available to those children with a propensity to eat everything that they could see. But when did a dhilds safety cease to be a parental responsibility that required a bit of parental judgement? It will be very interesting to see how the molded PE parts last, and how they work at staying assembled. The set that I played with wore out in some areas, as I recall.

Probably the most effective way to produce all of the different pieces would be to mold them in a string and then cut them apart as part of the unmolding step. There are some real experts in injection molding available who would enjoy contributing to such a venture, I am sure.

I wonder about the patant portion of the project, although it certainly should be possible to make a similar product that gets around the claims. Or perhaps Kenner agreed to let them use the same design, since they had ceased to make the product many years ago.

IT would be very interesting to see a report on this venture a year down the road, it might offer encouragement to others. And all of us could learn something from it.

Grunchy
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Kenner toys
Grunchy   12/1/2011 10:47:01 AM
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My favorite Kenner toy was Smash Up Derby: "Come on little bug-em, you can get it done, smash crash bash em up, smash up derby is fun!"

I just bought Lego Mindstorms 8547 for my 8 year old (upcoming Christmas present), I think pretty much everybody had Lego - but nobody had programmable robotic Lego! The toys I really wanted, but we could never afford (which is probably why I wanted them) were Meccano and train sets.  Today's Meccano is rubberized which gives me mixed feelings.  I really liked my Commodore computer from the 1980s for building Basic programs, we loaded Frodo 64 on a Samsung powered MID tablet and my little boy is fascinated with the power of printing out Fibonacci series or the alphabet, strictly from programmed algorithms.  We have a hot rodded Power Wheels jeep that he has outgrown and that we plan to make remote control, plus I would love to make a homemade Segway.

ab3a
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Things that are wrong with Lego
ab3a   12/1/2011 10:48:06 AM
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The lego of today is not marketed like it was when we were kids. Today, they sell kits to build specific, useless movie tie-ins. It's sort of like roll your own movie-set.

When I was a kid, Legos were used to build non-descript stuff. We would experiment to see how high a stack of lego bricks we could assemble and have it remain stable.  We would experiment with bracing techniques. We would build lego cars and rate them according to whose lost the fewest or the most pieces.We would add smooth peices and build marble tracks out of it.

The legos my kids play with isn't like that at all. They don't even play with it the same way. These sets come with instructions (Instructions? Lego with Instructions??) Most of the time they assemble it according to get exactly what the instructions suggest. When the thing is done, I've seen some of their friends actually glue their project together so that it can sit on a shelf.

The creativity and imagination isn't there.  And we wonder why none of these kids are interested in engineering. 

Jake Brodsky

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Things that are wrong with Lego
Rob Spiegel   12/2/2011 1:16:40 PM
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Yes, Jake, Lego toys have changed completely in the lat 10 or so years. I really think they've replaced the plastic airplane models. You get detailed instructions that result in a very specific toy. Very much by the numbers. I think that fills a role -- models were always fun -- and it comes without the neurotoxin glue.

Charles Murray
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Re: Things that are wrong with Lego
Charles Murray   12/2/2011 5:05:01 PM
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As much as I am a fan of the Girder & Panel sets, I have to admit that today's Legos are equally amazing. Lego has some astounding stores (I think they are called Lego Lands) that show how much kids can do with Lego parts, especially in the area of gears and pulleys. I think there is one such store near DisneyWorld in Lake Buena Vista, FL.  

brad J
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Great Toys!
brad J   12/1/2011 5:12:42 PM
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I absolutely loved my hydrodynamics set and the girder post system which brings back great memories.  I spent hours and hours building bridges and random chemical plants in my spare time.  Definitely my favorite toy for a budding engineer when I was in the 10-12 age range.  At age 11, I could look at a bridge and identify part by part which were in tension or compression and where bracing was required and what direction to brace.

I saw your products advertised somewhere recently and it warmed my heart to see them.  My crop of grandchildren is still a few years down the road, but when the time comes I will definitely go looking for these products.

Ironically I worked for Heath during the last breaths of Heathkits.  It was sad to see their market age and then largely disappear with the advent of other more popular pastimes.  I always salivated over the print catalog, though never had the money to buy one when I was age 10!

After many years with Heath and now 12 years with a startup venture with several other ex-Heath vets, I'm doing what I loved as a kid...coming up with something interesting to build and turning that into marketable consumer products!

I wish you and the product great success!

Alexander Wolfe
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Re: Great Toys!
Alexander Wolfe   12/1/2011 7:37:46 PM
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Personally, I was heavily influenced by the transistor radios of the mid-1960s, which for me were "toys" in the sense that I took them apart, and they whetted my interest in electronics. I never was all that interested in erector sets or Legos, nor did telescopes appeal to me. So I guess one's choice of technically oriented toy does indeed influence professional choice, or discipline within that profession (i.e., mechanical versus electrical). Of course we're all supposed to be interdisciplinary now, so I guess the future is electronic erector sets.

Sawmill Engineer
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Nobody remembers Meccano?
Sawmill Engineer   12/3/2011 1:48:18 AM
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I must have let a sheltered life....all I had was Meccano!  I received a set 4 with two upgrades to set 5 and 6 for Christmas, along with a gear set and a reversible wind-up motor. 

I used them TO DEATH!  Built all sorts of powered vehicles and I don't think I ever built any one of the designs that came with the sets.  Learned about gearing and differentials and the like.  Hated the screws--couldn't keep them tight, but how was I to know they were Whitworth thread?  (The modern Meccano is metric--what a disappointment.)

I dreamed about getting a "set 10" which was the apex of the Meccano world.  But it was pricey so all I could was dream. 

My kids didn't seem to take to Meccano--they liked the Lego stuff.  One got interested enough to master the 3D Lego CAD and designed himself some pretty significant models--built them, too.  I'm sure we have a 5-gallon pail's worth of Lego kicking around here.

I've still have my Meccano sets to this day.  They were the catalyst that got me into Mechanical Engineering, with the help of living on a farm... I hated the production side of farming but loved the machinery. I could lay a pretty good weld bead at age 12 and was wiring houses with my dad by 16.

Jon.

 

 

 

 

Alexander Wolfe
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Re: Nobody remembers Meccano?
Alexander Wolfe   12/4/2011 6:32:09 PM
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Meccano was fun, but very European as I recall and not all that popular here in the States. As for the modern Legos, which have morphed from the clunky, plain vanilla kits into all those funky special cars etc you can build, my line on them is, they call come together except one or two pieces. In other words, you always lose stuff, and Dad definitely has to help the child for whom it was intended put it together, at least if you want a reasonable facsimilie of the model on the box.

vimalkumarp
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Engineer's toy becomes a profession
vimalkumarp   12/5/2011 1:54:12 AM
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This is an important article looking at the way world is evolving.

What one does and reads as a child plays an important role.

have a look at this http://itc.conversationsnetwork.org/shows/detail1859.html.

Masaru Ibuka of Sony wrote the book  Kindergarten is Too Late , in which he

claims that the most significant human learning occurs from ages 9 months to 3

years and suggests ways and means to take advantage of this.

 

bellhop
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Loved Hydrodynamics!
bellhop   12/5/2011 3:18:13 PM
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I loved my Hydrodynamics set! It was a surprise gift one Christmas. Did my parents ever know me?! I went on to build other things with it such as submarines powered by an aquarium pump.

Capsela is another great toy. Among other things, it can difinitively demonstrate the improved efficiency of "screw drive" over "paddle wheels" on a boat. The track drives are fun too!

Alexander Wolfe
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Re: Loved Hydrodynamics!
Alexander Wolfe   12/5/2011 5:21:02 PM
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Amid this interesting discussion of construction today, one forgets the importance of books in whetting future professional interest. I remember getting out of the library at a very young age a basic guide to electricity. It was either a trade school or military manual, copiously illustrated. I spend weeks with those tomes.

bellhop
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Re: Loved Hydrodynamics!
bellhop   12/6/2011 8:11:43 AM
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Agreed! I got a library card when I moved to Tampa at age 6. I used to walk the half mile there and back to trade in my book for another. I hit the science books pretty hard, but I liked fiction too. The libray card actually pre-dated the Hydrodynamics set.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Loved Hydrodynamics!
Rob Spiegel   12/6/2011 2:56:58 PM
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I with you on the importance of a library card, bellhop. I still remember going to the town library at about 8 and getting my first library card. It was a whole new world opening. My first stop was the dinosaur books. I remember checking out every single one over a period of a few weeks. Then it was every book on volcanoes, then every book on tornados. 

Charles Murray
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Re: Loved Hydrodynamics!
Charles Murray   12/5/2011 9:29:37 PM
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You're not alone, bellhop. Paul Flack liked the Hydrodynamics set best, and that is said to have had a profound effect on his decision to become a chemical engineer.

Alexander Wolfe
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Re: Loved Hydrodynamics!
Alexander Wolfe   12/6/2011 3:21:04 PM
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If he liked hydrodynamics best -- and I'd have to say "like" is a strong word to be applied to that subject, he would indeed have to become a chem.E., wouldn't he? Did I ever tell you about the hierarchy of engineers? A subject for another post, perhaps....

Curt Carpenter
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Wow!
Curt Carpenter   12/8/2011 4:26:26 PM
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My Dad (a civil engineer) gave me a girder and panel set, and I remember spending many happy hours with it -- right up until I met Gilbert Chemistry (also from my father) and discovered the joys of making my own rockets.  I went on to become an electrical engineer myself. 

I would have given my sister's life for a Mr. Machine!

Rather than spend billions on education, if the goverment would give interested kids some of these toys, I think we'd be drowning in innovation in a generation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MarkRW
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Re: Wow!
MarkRW   12/12/2011 4:08:34 PM
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I remember playing with most of these toys.

Erector Set, with real steel beams and a bizillion nuts and screws. Even after losing/bending the beams and throwing them out I remember having saved the nuts and bolts: also the real AC motor the set came with.

LinclonLogs: my mom said that for the next year after my aunt got them for me she was always finding logs around the house. When my aunt had her own children my mom returned the favor and bought them for her kids so that she could share the joy of stepping on the logs on the floor and almost killing herself.

Mr. Machine: I remember that one so well. Got them one christmas from my grandmother. The key to wind it up was of stamped metal with sharp edges: the spring was pretty strong and I remember it cut into my fingers: I was probably 7 or 8 years old at the time.

There was another toy, I don't recall the name, that had plastic tubing, connectors, tees etc. You would hook it up to an upper tank that we filled with colored water and let it flow thru the tubing down to a bottom tank where a pump (battery operated) would transfer it to the top tank. What fun (and what a mess with all that water leaking out).

One of my favorite was a miniature injection molding set you could use to make toy soldiers. You placed the plastice flakes (polyethelene) into the chamber and a heater melted them. You placed metal two-piece dies in the bottom and pressed a ram to force the molten plastic into the die. Worked real well too: you could even take the solders, cut them up and re-use them. I can smell in my memory the molten plastic. Of course we also discovered the joys of getting some molten plastic on our bare skin.

Between these toys and the chemestry set it is a wonder we didn't kill ourselves

Mark Walter, PE

Great memories: thanks for bringing them back.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Wow!
Rob Spiegel   12/27/2011 2:41:30 PM
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Hey, Mark, I had completely forgotten about the toy soldier molds. They were great. I thought I had liberated myself from buying toy soldiers. Not quite. I found it hard to obtain additional materials when the goo ran out. Sure had fun making the soldiers.

Charles Murray
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Re: Wow!
Charles Murray   1/9/2012 11:22:06 PM
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MarkRW: regarding the toy with the plastic tubing, connectors and tees. I vaguely remember this. Could that have been the kenner Hydrodynamics set?

Charles Murray
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Re: Wow!
Charles Murray   1/11/2012 11:00:20 PM
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I agree with you, Curt. I believe that many of us who went into engineering did so because we felt it would be fun at some level. You can push someone to study math and science, but I don't think that's as effective as letting them get drawn in by that sense of fun

jerrywilly47
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building, engineering toys
jerrywilly47   12/12/2011 4:15:25 PM
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Does anyone remember Ramagons?  Polygon shaped junctions with up to eight sided unions along with different sized plug in posts and panels.  You could make geodesic domes and just about anything if you had enough pieces. My two kids both became engineers after countless hours with those things. I think they are out of business because they were mostly available through science centers and not chain stores. Wonder if the patents have expired? Might be something to resurrect?

Jack Rupert, PE
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Re: building, engineering toys
Jack Rupert, PE   12/16/2011 1:45:43 PM
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jerrywilly47 - was that the set that was made up with white panels that had hole in them and little gray "hinge" like contraptions that joined them together?  I had a set of those, except they were a bit of a pain to put together.  My dad - also an engineer - made me a little tool to help

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Focus on Fundamentals consists of 45-minute on-line classes that cover a host of technologies. You learn without leaving the comfort of your desk. All classes are taught by subject-matter experts and all are archived. So if you can't attend live, attend at your convenience.
Next Class: September 30 - October 2
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