Since before the days of Lincoln Logs, technical toys have helped kids develop spatial abilities and construction knowledge. From Lego bricks in the 1930s to Raspberry Pi single-board computers today, such toys have been laying an educational foundation for millions of lucky children.
Though it's difficult to prove there is a link between the availability of these toys and a desire to join the engineering profession, we suspect there is one. We've pulled together a small sample of tech toys, starting from early in the last century up though today. From Tinker Toys and Erector sets to LeapPads and littleBits, we offer a short history of some of the best toys for aspiring engineers.
The Lego Mindstorms EV3, for builders 10 and older, consists of software and hardware that lets young users build 17 different programmable robots. A programmable brick controls the system, which includes modular sensors, motors, and Lego parts. Lego says the EV3 version, an enhancement of the original Lego Mindstorms concept, includes "expanded on-brick programming," as well as Android and iOS smart device integration. The programmable brick concept was created at the MIT Media Lab. (Source: The Lego Group)
In the US, the equivalent was the Erector set. Very similar in concept, design, and possibilities, and invented by A. C. Gilbert in 1913. The higher-end sets had electric motors (plug into mains lines) with an attached multispeed reversible gearbox! Using that as the prime mover for a construction crane made it actually usable for real. They have been re-introduced (relabeled Meccano sets I believe) and are readily available online and in stores. Go to yoyo.com/p/erector-anniversary-case for an example. Motor is now 6VDC..... and likely much less powerful! There's a good Wikipedia article under "erector set."
I, too, had experience with many of the toys in the slideshow, naperlou. Some were with my kids and a few were toys I played with as a kid. One of my favorites was the Kenner Girder & Panel Building Set, which came out around 1960. A few years ago, I was pleased to hear the set was brought back to the market by a husband-wife engineering team under the company name of Bridge Street Toys.
I loved Meccano as a kid and Heathkit as a teenager. When I was an Electrical Engineering University student in the '60s in Canada, I noticed pieces of Meccano in my classmates' homes. So I did a survey and found that 100% of engineering students at the time loved Meccano, except of course those from the Third World who didn't know which way to tighten a screw. In the science students it was about 50% who loved Meccano. In the Arts, those few who knew what Meccano was, hated it. In my electrical engineering class, only those of us who loved Heathkits ended up in lifelong design careers. The majority drifted to other careers like programmers, teachers, lawyers and even a C.E.O. of a large corporation.
With my own kids, exposure to snap easy Lego robbed them of the patience to play with Meccano. Meccano shot themselves in the foot in their newer sets by making smaller and smaller pieces to save money, but making it impossible for dads to assemble with their big hands. Of course Heathkit was long gone. I did get Mindstorms, which my older son found too much like work and my younger son found programming boring. My younger son blows me away with his programming ability. I've watched him do a programming assignment of a couple of hundred lines of code. He just sits down at the keyboard, types away, and without even checking, his code, runs perfectly every time. He finds programming boring. He's the go to guy in his engineering class for programming. We keep telling him, stay at it. It's like being fluent in another language and think of all the things you can do with it, especially these days when everything is programmed. I must admit that his programming ability comes from his mother's side. All her teachers and employers tried to push her into programming because of her abilities but she hated it because she found it boring and stayed in hardware design. She's spent most of her career in management.
They say happiness is doing what you love. My younger son's dream is to design Cameros.
Design engineers need to prepare for a future in which their electronic products will use not just one or two, but possibly many user interfaces that involve touch, vision, gestures, and even eye movements.
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