I forgot to mention that perhaps my favorite was the Knight 10-in-1 kit from about 1953. It used a vacuum tube. I learned a lot from that kit, and other Knight & Heath kits, and went on to build a lot of projects from scratch using articles from "Popular Electronics" and "Electronics" magazines. Favorite projects included a Tesla Coil and a Theremin.
I also read experiment books from the library, and built things like a Jacob's ladder. I used a Model T spark coil, and a neon sign transformer for high voltage sources. My mother didn't know about these.
I had a woodburning set that came with interchageable tips. One of the tips was for soldering.
My brother & I had plastic American blocks. They were not like legos that now come as expensive predesigned projects. We've bought several of those for the grandkids.
I used the old AC motors from my Erector sets for a lot of things. The more recent sets came with flimsy battery motors.
I recently inherited a Meccano #6 "Engineering for Boys" set. Sexism was OK in those days.
Still in the original box from about 1927. Looks like it wasn't used much, but the box is well-worn.
I still have a model stationary steam engine. I played with a lot. I fired it up once for my kids, but never gave it to them. It has an electrically heated boiler. The terminals are not well isolated, so it's a shock hazard with the dripping water. Not to mention the live steam. It was low pressure, but still hot. Electrical toys were not well-insulated. There was no double insulation, or grounding, or GFIs.
In 1953 there was no CPSC and no requirement for safety in kids' toys. A friend had a set for molding toy soldiers out of molten lead! Can you imagine giving that to a kid today?
@Ralphyboy ...and a small solid fuel steam engine. I would build small amusement rides and power them with the engine.
Great blog, brings back so many fond memories!
I had one of those steam engines, copper boiler filled with water and real fire (lawsuit bait today). But never could power anything with it, the flywheel pully always got soaking wet from the steam exhaust and the rubber band drive belt slipped. Still, it was a fascinating toy.
Another neat toy was a see-through-plastic 4 cylinder gasoline engine which was operated by turning a removable crank on the front of the crankshaft. The spark plugs were miniature light bulbs which glowed to represent ignition, there was an operating camshaft, valves, and pistons. Best of all everything could be dis-assembled (even the connecting rods from the crankshaft) and then re-assembled. Spent many happy hours with that toy.
There was also a microscope - nothing fancy, but one could grow a 'hay infusion zoo' and see those little microbes swimming around. Toy telescopes, on the other hand, were too cumbersome to use. Best to wait until the child is old enought to appreciate a quality telescope.
I had 7 of this list of 10 items. Initially I wanted to be a chemist, so my parents got my a Chemistry Set, A. C Gilbert, I think. Many of the neighborhood boys also got them, but were not really interested in them. So, by March of several years I was able to add to my set quite a bit by taking these unwanted sets off their hands.
Two inflential things that I think should be on this list are;
1. The Atomic Energy Set, also from A.C. Gilbert, I think. It contained a cloud chamber, a geiger counter, several radioactive samples (where was the government child protective services then?), and several other items that I don't remember.
2. The Allied/Radio Shack electronics experimental kit. This was a breadboard that included three vacuum tubes, a power supply, various electrical components, and a manual that illustrated 10 projects. This kit persuaded me to go from chemistry to electronics.
I also had a sizable collection of electric trains and accessories, most of which I still have and will go on eBay before too long. These were O guage and O27 guage trains from Amrican Flyer and Lionel.
Excellent post Rob. These really take me back. My comments are very much in line with the others. I don't know how many Heath Kit I assembles and was fascinated by each one. Then the Gilbert Chemistry set; then the Erector Set. In my early teenage years I started building "U" control model airplanes. We had several spectacular "dog fights" with those models. I certainly believe the kids today miss out tremendously by spending time on video games and other garbage. Hands-on is the way to go because it always is accompanied by instructions that must be read and digested to accomplish the task. Again, great post.
I also had a lot of these as a kid, my parents started buying them when I was about four years old, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs and something not mentioned was called American Bricks, made out of wood. They looked like small bricks but had six 'nipples' on them to snap together, along with other parts, you could build all kinds of buildings. I still have two unopened boxes of Kenner Panel and Girder sets, I think they were expansion sets and are red. I think I started getting them in the late 50s. I also had Erector sets (still have one of the motors). I started getting electronic kits in the early 60s, starting with a Knightkit Star Romer radio (still have it). I also got Heathkit and Eico kits, built one of the big Heathkit 25" color TVs (still have it) while I was in college. Trains were also on my list and now I have HO, O and G scale trains that my kids are also fond of. I still have several Aurora racing car sets dating back to the 1960s, all in working order.
I used the Kenner sets and American Bricks to build towns and bridges for the HO racing car sets and trains.
Sadly, many of my older toys, like the Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs and Erector sets are no longer with me, my Mother gave most of them to my Brother's kids who did not share my interests and managed to break, maime or just threw away the toys in a short time.
Ok, maybe this came along a little later, but one of the the very best Christmas presents I ever got was the Radio Shack 100 in 1 electronic project kit I got in 1973. It was a shallow wooden box about 18" x 30", with a cardboard insert that held multiple capacitors, resistors, a few transistors, speaker, some coils, even a crystal detector. Fitted with small springs for tie-points (all numbered), it had a collection of pre cut, pre-stripped and tinned jumper wires, color-coded by length. The guide book had a physical sketch of the completed circuit, a schematic, and a table showing the point to point connection numbers and wire color for each experiment. There was a brief writeup explaining how the circuit worked. You could build radio transmitters, receivers, oscillators, amazing amount of stuff. I wore it out!
I played with 9 out of those 10 items though I may have owned only half of them. Good to have playmates whose parents had similar ambitions for their progeny. My dad came home one evening with a one transistor AM radio kit back when transistors were very new. It used a Raytheon CK722.
But my first engineering toy was a good set of wooden blocks! After I outgrew them I re-used the "lumber" for other projects. The famous uncle of one of my playmates bought him a monthly subscription to some sort of simple science project kits. Uncle Albert, knowing his brother was a bit stingy, made sure his nephew was not deprived of scientific toys. I recall the paper making kit was a lot of fun.
I also have fond memories of using trash bin components to build a telephone system with wires running to the bedrooms of several of my friends. We'd stay up late experimenting and talking to each other on our party line while buried under our blankets so our parents wouldn't hear our late night experimental chats.
Maybe it was only in available in Canada and UK. Mecano was very similar to Erector. I built many things over the years including prototypes of machines I would later fabricate from metal stock. (Dad's shop was a machinist's dream) One of the toys I built was a race car that I mounted my .049 gas airplane engine to via a gearbox from gears supplied with the kit. Played/worked and bought expansion kits for this until I was about 12 years old.
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