A warning: this blog contains stereotypes.
My parents, in their mid-eighties but still very active, stayed with us over Christmas, and we were joined by all our adult children. Our second daughter, now an engineer, was accompanied by the boyfriend with whom she has just set up home. My dad had made a momentous decision: he’d decided that his engineer grand-daughter and her equally technically minded boyfriend were deserving recipients for his large, 1940s Meccano collection.
From the boot of the car emerged a box I had not seen for over 30 years: an ingeniously engineered wooden box with carefully constructed compartments. The compartments held the once familiar dull red plates and green metal girders of Meccano. In a screw top Bakelite dish, in its own section of the box, a collection of tiny nuts and bolts; in tobacco tins of one sort and another lurked coupling devices of all kinds. Beside the wooden box there were tins – a 1937 commemorative coronation tin holding wind-up clockwork motors; in an antique biscuit tin were finely milled brass gear wheels. An ancient twelve volt transformer filled a robust ancient cardboard box. The sitting room floor was cleared and my 85-year-old father, together with my 25- year-old daughter and her boyfriend pored over the contents with combined fascination, excitement and awe.
The Meccano Number 9 manual was located. This was certainly a 1940s publication: on the cover, a father, pipe clenched in teeth, helped two young boys – both pictured in shorts, v-neck pullovers and (yes!) ties as they put the finishing touches to a Meccano model of Tower Bridge. No sign of a mother, or a young girl – this was a world of demarcated gender roles. And the manual was opened. Monochrome pages set out the instructions for making distinctly antique buses and lorries, complex cranes, elaborate bridges, walking robots (I recall making the walking robot with my dad in the 1960s). In none of the instructions were any concessions made to language comprehension: dense, 8 or 9 point text offered terse instructions – as terse, perhaps, as a knitting pattern, and a world away from the wordless diagrams which take children step by step through modern construction manuals. A single picture on each page showed the completed model only – my own recollection is that this was a constant reminder of the gap between what was appearing before my own eyes as I built and what should be appearing. The Meccano Number 9 manual was redolent of a very different world. On the back cover were listed the components of the kit, and again, no concessions – threaded couplings, dog couplings, flange brackets – either you knew what they were, or you used them and found out.
A red-metal plate and green-girder London bus began to take shape on the carpet. My daughter’s boyfriend put the chassis together quickly; my dad offered advice, recalling instantly knowledge of small working parts of the Meccano set which had been tucked away in the under stair cupboard for – well, as he said “I haven’t touched it for forty years”.
So what’s the point of this for a blog post? Something about technological education, about the way in which in the middle of the twentieth century some children picked up complex engineering knowledge by working their way through kits which made no concessions to their language capabilities or their understandings of processes. My dad disliked his schooling, and left at 14. But he developed the most sophisticated abilities, and was never daunted by any plumbing, engineering or mechanical challenge. The manual and the set were from the great age of DIY-ing. There are many things from the learning environment of the 1930s and 1940s which we should not mourn. I’ve always been bitterly angry that a man of my father’s abilities was denied the educational opportunities he should have had. The gender roles sharply defined on the Meccano Number 9 manual constrained too many and denied opportunities too widely. And the number of children who never made it through the opaque instruction booklets is probably countless. But there is something else too, which does seem worth hankering after – technological toys which were serious about technological processes and ambitious about what could be done. And watching them, crouching over the long-forgotten red and green metal, there was something too about informal and family learning. Perhaps Christmases are times for somewhat mawkish reflection, but watching the three of them, I thought something rather more than the Meccano set was being passed onto a new generation. There was learning by doing, learning by sharing, learning by talking, learning across family generations. And two days later, on a large family excursion to the local pub, my dad completed the lesson by soundly beating his grand-daughter at a game of pool.