back to article Ghosts of Christmas Past: The long-ago geek gifts that made us what we are

It's fairly well accepted that events and things from our past help to make us the twisted, misanthropic people we are today. Or perhaps that's just Team Register. It being the season of festive excess, we wondered if there were perhaps some geeky gifts that, as a kid, helped you explore science, tech, and similar areas, and …

  1. HKmk23

    Oh dear

    I had everyone of those at one time or another...............

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Oh dear

      Yup, same here. The Mamod Traction Engine, the micro-scope, the lego motor unit, mechano... *sighs*

      Children of today have no idea what they're missing out on.

      1. MrT

        Re: Oh dear

        Ditto, excet for the Mamod. However, my friend had the Rolls Royce car version, which I think was more an excuse for his dad to have it. Despite it all being high pressure steam and hotness, we both thought the ~30" extension to the steering column was a bit more on the lethal side of things.

        1. goldcd

          Indeed. Not thought about those in decades.

          I seem to remember my dad got a static one.

          And then mysteriously shortly afterwards, I got the traction engine (with log trailer) and my brother got the car (complete with strange steering thingie, you mentioned).

    2. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Oh dear

      I still have my Mamod traction engine, and my nephews still played with the Lego 4.5v train when they visited, until very recently. They have Lego Technic of their own now, which I consider a positive result.

      I don't remember the Tandy electronics kit, but did have a very similar, if simpler, one that I remember as "Waddingtons"? Also an Edison light bulb kit, to make your own experimental bulbs.

      For those who regret the passing of such things, I did recently discover a Kickstarter project "Help Bring Back Quality Science Kits":

    3. Andrew Moore Silver badge

      Re: Oh dear

      well, nearly all- I didn't have the Sony radio or the Polaroid Swinger.

  2. Mike Taylor

    happy christmas

    The Lego motor just gave me a huge wave of nostalgia, thank you! Probably the best gift ever was a set of military meccano though, and I remember my nerdy brother firing up his stream engines in the garage. But no airfix? Loved making models - the Saturn v and the hovercraft both made it into my stocking on various occasions

  3. Admiral Grace Hopper

    Aw, thanks.

    That was a wonderful "Got, got, want, got, want ..."-esque trip back to a 70s childhood.

    I first saw Fischer Technik in Rackhams in Birmingham and yearned for it. This surely, was the future. Perhaps tellingly for a child of the metal-bashing Midlands I knew that Meccano was somewhat more appropriate. Oh, and Girl's World, obviously. With a chemistry set you could try to manufacture your own make up.

  4. Ketlan

    Science Fair

    I used to run a Tandy store back in the seventies and those Science Fair kits used to sell like hot cakes in the run-up to Christmas. I think they went up to a 200-project kit, which was pretty expensive but would keep a future nerd quiet for weeks into the new year.

    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: Science Fair

      I remember getting my first Science Fair kit (or whatever name Tandy sold it under in the US): opened it on Christmas morning at my grandmother's house, and had a crystal radio working before dinner. Not sure how old I was - 9, maybe? The project instructions were excellent. I played with that kit for years, doing every project in the book and some I made up on my own. Only quit using it when I started soldering components to breadboards.

  5. Mike Bell

    Nice. My parents were as poor as church mice, but they managed to put most of these things my way at Christmas time. My nostalgia trip is complete when I think of the John Bull printing set, Space Hoppers, the Stylophone (fronted by a good guy) and the Chopper bike.

    1. Winkypop Silver badge

      Chopper bike!!

      In my world, circa 1971, simply unobtainable!

      One kid at school was lucky enough to win one.

      The rest of us nearly died of jealousy.

      I still suffer....although not quite as much.

  6. Gordon 11


    49.26m was 208 on SW.

    1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

      Re: |

      Radio Luxembourg!

      1. Nigel Whitfield.

        Re: |

        Here's a nice collection of jingles from the "Station of the 80s" if you want a wallow in nostalgia

        I visited the Villa Louvigny once, and saw the 208 studio, with Mike Hollis.

        1. ecofeco Silver badge

          Re: |

          Great find Nigel! Thanks!

          1. MrT

            Top of the dial...

            ...on my cheap portable radio. Mostly I listened to the evening and late night shows, but remember the signal fading in and out all the time... still the best station in the late 70's and early to mid-80's

  7. -tim

    Happy Christmas memories

    One of the best presents I ever received was a used 1950s Erector Set (like Mechano) when my father found his old sets in my Grandmother's attic. It had an A/C motor that plugged into the wall and was something like a 60W motor and enough torque to strip gears. It had so many more parts than the recent kit in a small plastic box. The old ones came in a huge steel cases.

    In 1975 I ended up with a Tyco HO train set that let me extend the old loop I had had for years. That lead me to wondering how make proper signals lights on track segments and lead me in to the wonderful world of logic gates.

    In the early 1980s I ended up with a Radio Shack CoCo and year later an Epson RX-80 printer. By the time the CoCo went into the dumpster, it was like Marvin the paranoid android, the only thing left was the diodes on the left side. The RX-80 still works.

    1. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

      Re: Happy Christmas memories

      I had one of those RX80's too, lasted until about 2 years ago.

      But thats when printers were built to make printer companies money and not act as loss leaders for their ink operations.

      I can tick off the lego motor, the meccano, the microscope,and a kit form ZX81

      The only one of those I really wanted was the chemistry kit, but then since I already had leaning in the being smart and far too clever for my own good department, mom and dad did'nt want me anywhere near it.

      Not that it ever stopped me for learning howto make explosives later in life (but thats another story )

    2. yoganmahew

      Re: Happy Christmas memories

      You'll see dot-matrix printers in constant use in airports round the world (in particular the Oki microline with roll-paper feed). My local doctor's surgery still uses an LX80 for backup for printing prescriptions for when the inkjets do their inevitable "er, WTF do you think I am, a printer?"...

      1. MrT

        Re: Happy Christmas memories

        My favourite dot-matrix was the Star LC24-10. Even got paid a nice wedge for a review I did for Sinclair QL World. 24-pin compared to 8/9-pin sound-wise was like comparing 5-cyl to v12, but none of them were exactly easy on the ear and more than a few back at the office were in acoustic enclosures. Cracking the ribbon casing and reinking the fabric was a messy job compared to refilling a cartridge, though, but it felt like more of a proper job when done.

  8. Efros

    Chemistry Sets

    A quick poll of our research lab a couple of decades ago yielded the fact that of the 20 chemists working there, not a single one of us had a chemistry set when we were kids. All of the males had possessed Meccano, most with Mamod steam engines and everyone, male and female, had owned fairly extensive lego sets.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Chemistry Sets

      So that's why I never became a chemist - all the other qualifications but I did get a chemistry set.

      1. Kriilin

        Re: Chemistry Sets

        Chemist (New World meaning) - been there, done that. Did a career change into IT, paid better. And I had a variation of most of those items, plus I grew up on a farm, most fortunate.

    2. goldcd

      In our IT/IT Services place

      We discovered that every one of us owned/loved techic lego.

      Suspect would be an excellent interview question.

      1) Did you have it?

      2) Tell us what you built, that wasn't on the box.

  9. heyrick Silver badge

    God I feel old now.

    That's all.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    My static Mamod steam engine was an expensive novelty. No doubt I had expressed a desire for one - but all you could do with it was fill it with water, light the meths burner - and watch the flywheel go round. I did add a rather useless "stamping press". My nephew dug it all out of his attic recently in a house move. It went to a local toy collectors' shop.

    He also found my Bayko building set - which would probably be considered dangerous these days with its matrix of fine metal rods on which to slide the bricks. You could construct buildings like Metroland suburbia - but nothing else.

    My Rovex "Princess Elisabeth" 00 gauge train set, or at least parts of it, are waiting for me to visit my sister next year. The "H0" observation car was a prized addition - and much time was spent building Airfix kits of stations, shops, and churches. The Airfix 1/72nd scale was a perfect match to add people and vehicles as well. Electric points and lights were something desired but never achieved. A friend had the much-prized Royal Mail carriage with its clever mailbag pick-up and dropping on the fly.

    One Christmas my father bought a wooden boxed Meccano set at an auction. IIRC a No2 set with lots of beautiful gears to make things like differential gears. A clockwork motor was added later. It was interesting recently to see the current prices of individual gear wheels on eBay.

    My father aspired to one of the new transistor radios - so he bought a kit from a newspaper advert "so simple a child can make it". Having failed to make it work it was left for me, age 13, to prove the advert correct. Instead of soldering there were 8ba nuts and bolts to join the wires together in a rats nest. Several years later - as the electronics bug bit - a matched pair of OC72 were added to give proper loudspeaker volume.

    Chemistry sets were common - but usually we went to the local chemist and bought the chemicals we wanted. They also sold thin glass tubes which our school chemistry lessons had taught us how to blow or stretch.

    Our astronomy lessons came from collecting the Brooke Bond tea cards on the subject. The night skies were less polluted then and most people seemed to know the prominent constellations.

    It is interesting how often our local charity shop has chemistry sets, electrical sets, telescopes, even Meccano kits - that have never been opened. With the recent proposals to remove practical work from "A" Level science subjects - the current generation seems to be being discouraged from any hands-on experimentation that looks like real engineering and science.

    At Christmas the ordinary toyshops no longer have window displays of Meccano ferris wheels with lights - and large scenic layouts of electric trains. In the 1950s austerity years of dim street gas lights and smoke-aided fog - the toyshop windows at Christmas were oases of magical light.

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      "At Christmas the ordinary toyshops no longer have window displays of Meccano ferris wheels with lights - and large scenic layouts of electric trains. In the 1950s austerity years of dim street gas lights and smoke-aided fog - the toyshop windows at Christmas were oases of magical light."

      Yes they were. *sigh*

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      "the toyshop windows at Christmas were oases of magical light."

      As a child in late 60's we had a family trip to Joplings (now gone) in Sunderland and Fenwicks in Newcastle, at least twice to each, to see the amazing windows displays and to visit the toy departments where there were toys out for kids to play with, model train layouts complete with scenery, Lego building competitions, painting competitions, Scalextric racing competitions and more.

      The Fenwicks windows displays of animated scenes still happen but none of the rest of it.

      As for the featured toys, yes, I had the Tandy Science Fair 100-in-one electronics kits, a Salters chemistry kit, the Lego motor kits (and LOTS of Lego!!) and Mechano. By the time the ZX80 came out I was just starting my first part-time job, still at school, and was able to save up for a "proper" computer, a Video Genie, a Hong Kong copy of the TRS-80.

      1. MrT


        ...Alice in Wonderland this year - nice display, and despite working hereabouts for a good few years it wws the first time I'd seen it in person. Although one of my colleagues with me at the time mentioned it looks the same as a couple of years ago. Stands out compared to the tacky displays around it near Eldon Square.

    3. Allan George Dyer Silver badge

      There were possibilities...

      I did manage to convert the Mamod static engine to mobile, with meccano wheels, clutch and gearbox, with rack-and-pinion steering. It moved, oh so slowly.

    4. Kubla Cant Silver badge

      Building set

      One Christmas I was given a Brickplayer set.

      As the Wikipedia article says: "The sets comprised baseboards, terracotta bricks and lintels, plastic door and window frames, card doors and roofing. The bricks were about 1 inch long in scale proportion to regular house bricks. Building plans were accurate architect's blue prints."

      Using it was just as much fun as being a real bricklayer. I think I only built a bus shelter before becoming bored.

  11. DJV Silver badge

    Blue and Yellow Meccano

    Sigh. Thanks for making me feel even older. Mine was the green and red version from the 60s. I remember getting highly frustrated trying fit one particular nut onto a bolt. It was only when I peered inside the nut that I saw it hadn't actually had the thread cut into it!

    1. Martin-73 Silver badge

      Re: Blue and Yellow Meccano

      I had a mix, had mostly blue/yellow but with a few hand-me-down bits from green/red sets, and some possibly even older.

      Those nuts must have been fairly common, I came across 2 like that.

      I suspect the kit is still in the attic somewhere... *sigh*

    2. Wensleydale Cheese

      Re: Blue and Yellow Meccano

      "Mine was the green and red version from the 60s."

      I started out with the red and green version. One day my parents came and asked me if I sucked the parts. Sensing their apprehension I answered "No", but in fact I did suck them..

      The red and green paints had lead in them apparently. Obviously not in lethal quantities or I wouldn't be writing this. My younger brother's Meccano came in yellow and silver, which made it easy to tell which bits belonged to whose set.

      1. Dick

        Re: Blue and Yellow Meccano

        Leaded red and green for me, had all the gear sets too :)

  12. GrumpenKraut Silver badge

    The frog dilemma

    Had a similar microscope set, one that included a frog. Never brought it over me to dissect the frog. Many many years later I decided to discarded the jar with the frog. Felt sorry for the poor frog.

    On the bright side I learned to appreciate the nice smell of formaldehyde.

    Beer because it contains another much appreciated substance.

  13. Unicornpiss Silver badge


    I had the "Erector Set" with motor and gearbox--a little different than the one shown, a microscope, Legos... but my favourite was the Tandy 150-in-1 Electronics Project kit. I had a ball with that and it led to me getting a (underutilized since I went into IT) degree in electronics.

    ...Mushroom cloud icon in honor of the chemistry set :)

  14. Neil 44


    Mine is still on the bedside and I use it most days - albeit mostly just on FM...

    Remember having it in Greece on holiday and listening to the BBC reports on the death of Princess Diana on shortwave

    1. Gannettt

      Re: ICF7600D

      I had one of those too. Worked great. I lived in Finland for 9 months and took it with me - didn't have a Euro mains adapter for it, and the thing just gobbled AA batteries! Still worth it for listening to just a Minute on World Service or the radio hams on SSB!

      I recently came across what was probably a top-of-the-range SW tuner in its day at a second-hand shop and bought it on impulse. Let's just say the HF bands aren't what they used to be. Rather sad, really.

      1. Adrian 4 Silver badge

        Re: ICF7600D

        The Sony looks a bit modern for that era - I remember the Grundig World Boy or somesuch as the state of the art.

        I mostly got thrown-out valve radios with about 10 bands though. Lots of late-night listening with glowing dials.

  15. Martin Gregorie Silver badge

    You left out flying models

    I too had a Mamod stationary steam engine but, as others have said, once you're run it a few times and you found out that you couldn't really do anything with much with it except watch it run, it got boring. I got much more fun from the clockwork Magic Motor that came with a red and green Meccano No 6 set and let me make tanks and tractors that actually worked.

    However, the thing that really got my interest going in designing and building things that could be made to work was model aircraft. Almost every kid I knew at the time made and flew models at some point. Initially control-line models were the thing to have because you could fly them anywhere there was a grass patch 50m square and you couldn't lose them. The favourites among my friends were either a Keilcraft Phantom kit with a Mills 1.3 diesel up front or a Veron Beebug with the smaller Mills 0.75 diesel pulling it. Building and flying them taught you a lot, from operating the engines without getting your fingers hit, through building (and later repairing) the models to eventually learning how to fly them without crashing.

    Then, a few years later, the excellent Cox TeeDee glowplug motors appeared - such wonderful precision engineering that running them in consisted of running the engine rich for 30 seconds and then leaning it out and hearing that lovely scream.

    1. Triggerfish

      Re: You left out flying models

      Remember those balsa jobs where you had to assemble all the ribs and spars cover it in tissue paper and dope it.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: You left out flying models

        ...and then crash it into a tree, rinse and repeat. After the third time I decided this was a mug's game.

        1. Zog_but_not_the_first Silver badge

          Re: You left out flying models

          Strap on a Jetex motor first!

        2. Nick Pettefar

          Re: You left out flying models

          I'm doing it all over again with my Parrot Drone 2. It has lost a number of parts, broken others and has been adapted and customised a bit. I spend half the time, at least, trying to find it after it goes off on an unscheduled autonymous flight. Wellies are good in the winter for trekking across waterlogged fields and meadows looking for the damn thing. I must be making up for not having an RC aeroplane in my childhood.

      2. Graham Marsden
        Thumb Up

        @Triggerfish - Re: You left out flying models

        > Remember those balsa jobs where you had to assemble all the ribs and spars cover it in tissue paper and dope it.

        Wow, that brings back memories of going into The Model Airport in Bristol and looking enviously at the massive 6' wingspan remote control gliders they had hanging up!

        Alas I never got one of those, but I did have one (a KielKraft Conquest) which was a tow-line glider with a 30" wingspan. We had a golf course behind our house in Long Ashton which was virtually unused during the week, so in the holidays I'd take it up there and launch it down the fairways :-)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: You left out flying models

      Our 1960s school after-hours Hobby Club would always echo to the sounds of Frog engines. Convened in the Junior Woodwork room the engines would be clamped in a vice. There was the constant put-put as owners coaxed their propeller with a sore finger - occasionally followed by a full throated whine and the sweet smell of ether exhaust gases. Now there is a Proustian madeleine moment.

      Glo-plugs were usually reserved for the R/C boat people - who actually sailed their boats on any one of the local park lakes.

      One affluent pal had a Jetex engine. It was once put into an Airfix model Lanchester car - which achieved a single terminal flight without wings.

      The woodwork teacher found me a balsa glider kit that someone had not assembled. I remember its dihedral wings - and the final taut doped red paper skin. I suspect now that he may actually have bought the kit especially to cater for poorer pupils like myself. It was a great regret at a recent school reunion to hear he had died relatively young - and I could not express my gratitude for the interest he had taken in widening my practical skills beyond my fascination with books.

      1. Khaptain Silver badge

        Re: You left out flying models

        "The woodwork teacher found me a balsa glider kit that someone had not assembled. I remember its dihedral wings - and the final taut doped red paper skin. I suspect now that he may actually have bought the kit especially to cater for poorer pupils like myself."

        I had several of those balsa/doped gliders and I really enjoyed building them, hence the reason I have always had scalpel knifes kicking around (mother was a nurse so scalpel blades were common). Up until today and reading the above comment, 35 years on, I never realised that they were for the poorer kids, which I was without knowing it at the time. It's kinda funny but I now realise that my parents actually made sacrifices to buy me those gliders.... I never lost my desire to build things like this...

        1. goldcd

          I had a few of those

          some gliders, some with fairy-liquid soaked rubber band props for "take off".

          I never like airfix, I never dabbled with more complex RC - but I loved those balsa-covered-in-paper machines.

          I think it was the sense of 'building' you'd get. Small box. Simple stack of balsa sheets and ribbon struts (plus paper, bit of wire and a prop) - and if you put the time in, you made something incontrovertibly 3D and 'real' out of it.

          Maybe it's the madelin-tinged-memory of sniffing those doping chemicals - but I'm not off to see if they're still available.

      2. HKmk23

        Re: You left out flying models

        I forgot to mention the wonderful discovery of the Jetex fuse and the amount of smoke that could generated by the solid fuel pellet that powered the Jetex motors. The booby traps one could set!

        Much more fun than watching the Jetex powered car racing around and around the brick which tethered it slowly reducing the diameter of the circle until it just stopped and overheated or sometimes breaking the attaching string and sending it on one kamikaze flight into the wall.

        1. Kubla Cant Silver badge


          I had a Jetex model plane, but I don't recall many successful flights.

          A few years later, as evil teenagers, we discovered that Jetex fuse was very useful for delayed ignition of the weedkiller and sugar in home-made bombs.

  16. Terry 6 Silver badge

    Elf and safety

    These days Santa just isn't going to be bringing a decent chemistry set, with stuff that burns.

    Because the bean counting goblins won't risk risk being sued.

    1. Triggerfish

      Re: Elf and safety

      Ah the days of explaining to mum why the white enamel sink was now a iodine brown (potassium permanganate thank you Lofty Wiseman and your home made sas survival tin). Glycol, Magnesium strips stolen from school, powdered aluminum, buying petrol from garages in Jerry cans for dad (cough). Kids these days just don't have the pyromaniac tendencies, then again they also aren't allowed to play with mercury there may be some corellation.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Elf and safety

        "[...] then again they also aren't allowed to play with mercury there may be some corellation."

        The Junior Physics teacher showed us the properties of mercury in practical lessons on measuring substances' density by Archimedes Principle. We had fun feeling the deceptive weight of it in a beaker - and chasing the quicksilver beads as they escaped across the lab bench.

        "O"? Level Chemistry had the Qualitative Analysis tests for determining a chemical's probable metallic element - using a mouth-driven blow-pipe on a carbon block. The signature colours then taught us to ask the chemist for strontium nitrate if we wanted to make reddish fireworks.

        The Junior Chemistry teacher demonstrated an exothermic thermite reaction on the lawn outside the lab. The ignition was by a strip of magnesium. As it was a windy day the class had to make a windbreak by forming a close circle. Every time the teacher's match approached the magnesium it was blown out as we nervously skittered away. Finally he coaxed us to stay still long enough to start the impressive reaction.

        1. heyrick Silver badge

          Re: Elf and safety

          "and chasing the quicksilver beads as they escaped across the lab bench."

          When I started what would now be called High School, we used to poke our fingers in a beaker full of mercury and ping little blobs of it around the desk. I'm glad I got to do that, it's a really weird substance.

          The year I finished High School, somebody dropped a thermometer. The classroom was evacuated and specialists in white suits had to be called in to clear it up. FFS, just give me a dustpan and a test tube to put the pieces in. What a flippin' over-reaction.

          1. MrT

            Re: Elf and safety

            Currently I teach BTEC I&CT, with optional extra units in hardware and software. Talking to Pearson and other centres, almost nobody is dong the hardware unit, mostly quoting H&S or PAT testing etc, but I figure if the original reclaimed PCs passed their last PAT test before the students strip and rebuild them, then I can cover the rest with our existing Technology Dept stuff. Not lost anyone yet, and it fits nicely alongside the Computing GCSE.

            1. Triggerfish

              Re: Elf and safety

              Our chemistry teacher who was a Dr of chemistry, good knows how our school managed that started or very first secondary school chemistry lesson by giving ids a short talk whilst building a pile of powder on one of those asbestos sheets placing a Bunsen burner under it then retreating behind a large perspex screen with safety glasses on the column of green flame hit the very high ceiling at which point he announced the greenish gas roiling down from the was similar to mustard gas and advised us to leave. We had two different chemistry labs suffer fire damage in our school in the space of our gcse's.

        2. goldcd

          To this day

          "strong exothermic reaction" is a phrase that fills me with joy.

          1. BongoJoe

            Re: To this day

            I discovered this the hard way.

            I knew that various reactions would remove the oxide from one compound to another (forgotten the term now) and one day I had an aluminum bicycle seat pillar that had oxidised into the frame.

            Having no end of school donated magnesium ribbon in my blazer I then stuffed the metal into the pipe and then lit it.

            Thankfully I did this outdoors. My father wasn't pleased with the result.

      2. Zog_but_not_the_first Silver badge

        Re: Elf and safety

        No to mention the lighter fuel refills in small flexible bottle-shaped containers. Snip off the tip, light match and squeeze. Instant flamethrower!

        1. Graham Marsden

          @ Zog_but_not_the_first - Re: Elf and safety

          > No to mention the lighter fuel refills in small flexible bottle-shaped containers. Snip off the tip, light match and squeeze. Instant flamethrower!

          Ah, we went one better: We'd get the Aerosol type refils which came with various adapters to fit different types of lighters. One of these was a cylinder which had a flange at the base and you could take a short (5 hole) piece of Meccano, put the centre hole over the adapter so it rested on the flange, then, with your fingers safely out of the way, use a lighter to turn it into a controllable flame thrower!

      3. Richard_L

        Re: Elf and safety

        Not a Christmas present, but my mum remembers being able to buy mercury from the local chemist's shop as a child.

        And then taking it home and making elaborate marble runs for great globs of it in the vegetable beds in the back garden...

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Obligatory Rant...

    There is one noticeable thing about almost all of those that you've listed and that's the fact that you were only limited by your imagination and desire to learn. Look at toys today. Even your standard Lego kit today is designed to build one specific thing. Almost everything else is single purpose, pre-made and short lived.


    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Obligatory Rant...

      Kids may build the prescribed Lego model once. However with a collection of enough bits - then they are free to make their own imaginative designs. My neighbour's son was delighted to be presented with a big bag of Lego gears and wheels from the charity shop. A problem with Lego is that you really need glue to make a model withstand crash landings or other collisions.

    2. jason 7

      Re: Obligatory Rant...

      I was talking about Lego at dinner today. I pointed out that Lego has far too many custom parts nowadays so kids don't have to try.

      When I was a kid in the 70's Lego would get you 75% of the way, then another 10 with bodging and the other 15% you had to fill in with imagination.

      1. disgruntled yank Silver badge

        Re: Obligatory Rant...

        We got the offspring a Tinker Toy set when he was small, and I helped him through building some of the standard designs on the sheet that came with it. Eventually, he had enough of that and started to build what interested him--there was the construction intended to be a laser printer, which got the shape of a LaserJet II more or less correct. I was interested, a few years later, in reading in one of Gerald Weinberg's books (The Secrets of Consulting? Becoming a Technical Leader?) that he had teams build items of their own design in some of his training sessions.

        1. Chris Reynolds

          Re: Obligatory Rant...

          Lego kits do have lots of dedicaed parts, but they don't seem to have limited my kids' ability for creativity. We have various Lego City, Friends and Star Wars kits. Some have remained as the box prescribed and are used in the same way as I remember using non-customisable toys such as Star Wars figures and Matchbox cars.

          Some kits have joined the Big Box o'Lego and are remixed and rebuilt to meet the needs of their narratives. That box is a mixture of Lego that my wife and I had as kids: thankfully Lego have ensured that Lego in the 2010s is compatible with Lego from the 1970s and 80s.

          It's also still possible to buy boxes of Lego bricks. We bought a box of roof sections a couple of years ago to allow them to add to the modest village that the various characters inhabit. Some big-box retailers carry buckets of bricks that offer good value for money compared to other Lego kits.

      2. Gannettt

        Re: Obligatory Rant...

        "Have you got a yellow 4-block?"

    3. Nigel Whitfield.

      Re: Obligatory Rant...

      I suppose you're right; I didn't explicitly set out to create a list like that, but yes, lots of these things are a fair it less structured than modern equivalents. When I was looking at the Meccano web site, I saw that even their kits have fairly specific aims.

      Sure, you can build 25 different models, according to the blurb on the box, but it's nevertheless adorned with pictures of specific things for you to build, which seems a slightly different approach to the older packs, like the one we pictured.

      I wonder if that's partly because as a society we've tended to embrace the ready made much more in recent years - in all aspects, even food, clothing, furniture - and so with less direct experience of making things, more direction has to be given.

      And, as other people have commented, there used to be many more people around - it seemed to me as a kid, anyway - who could help. For example, a neighbour used to work at Mullard, and helped me with electronics projects when I was a kid.

  18. ukgnome

    Happy times

    I still fire up my tractor, and I use spirit and not one of these new fangled solid fuel ones.

    1. 20legend

      Re: Happy times

      I also still give my two Mamod tractors a run out - but they have progressed from metho, beyond exploding solid fuel tablets and gel fuel, and now have reached the heady heights of being fired by a Bix gas burner.

  19. Wensleydale Cheese

    What that stationary Mamod steam engine needed was...

    ... a pulley or driveshaft and some fixing plates to attach it to Meccano bits and it could have provided many more hours of fun.

    1. graeme leggett

      Re: What that stationary Mamod steam engine needed was...

      I believe the holes on the drive shaft accessory were Meccano compatible sizes.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: What that stationary Mamod steam engine needed was...

        Bought a generic electric motor from a model shop a couple of years ago. It had a gearbox that could be reconfigured for various ratios. It was a surprise this year when an "I wonder if..." moment proved that the shaft diameter was Meccano compatible.

      2. peter_dtm

        Re: What that stationary Mamod steam engine needed was...

        I still have mine - its base plate has meccano spaced meccano screw sized holes in; and the drive shaft is meccano axle shaft diameter.

        That; the clockwork motor & later the multi geared electric motor meant I had proper red an green meccano vehiles puttering around. Part of my meccano came from my Uncle - who must have had some of the very first ever made.

        I could never see the point of lego...

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: What that stationary Mamod steam engine needed was...

          "its base plate has meccano spaced meccano screw sized holes in; and the drive shaft is meccano axle shaft diameter."

          And therein lies much of the problem with almost all toys and other stuff today. Everything is patented up the whazoo so nothing is compatible without extortionate licensing deals.

          We recently switched all our Christmas lights to LED only so as to reduce the likelihood have having to go hunting for one of the 6,786 different types of incandescent spares, none of which actually fit the affected set. When I was a kid, pretty much all home Christmas lights were MES bulbs, either 3v, 6v or 12v and it was easy to buy not just spares, but special bulbs in shapes of Xmas trees, cars, stars etc. as money allowed.

    2. MJI Silver badge

      Re: What that stationary Mamod steam engine needed was...

      This is what my SE3a used to do

      Twin cylinder power for my Meccano big wheel

    3. hplasm Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: What that stationary Mamod steam engine needed was...

      A bit like this?:-

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: What that stationary Mamod steam engine needed was...

        That seems to prove the point that true engineers never really lose their childhood wonder. My neighbour's son thought my Halloween display was a lot of work (six weeks) for a couple of hours in action. As a Lego and theatre enthusiast he may one day realise the magic created by the backstage staff is always ethereal.

  20. LDS Silver badge

    The Lego engine came also with a whistle activated add-on.

    The Lego engine I had came with a whistle activated add on (it was in a train set). One whistle (or any other noise strong enough) to start it, a long one to stop it, two short one for reverse motion - IIRC. It made my parents crazy, and I guess they repent about the present, LOL!

    It came with a microphone in a white, cubic piece, and an 'electronic' part in a transparent case equal in size as the engine top side. It was 'the computer' to me, and often in some sci-fi model I built it represented just that, without any actual function, or just turning lights on and off...

    Funny... it could only perform those simple tasks... today a Raspberry PI is the same size and a bit more powerful... mmmmmh, putting a PI on a Lego model...

    1. GrumpenKraut Silver badge

      Re: The Lego engine came also with a whistle activated add-on.

      Hell, I got one of those, was bloody expensive as I recall ( > 100 Deutsche Mark ?).

      After a few days I wanted to see how such magic worked, pried open that white box to find... electronic components (this was the first time in my life I saw electronics!). Obviously things ceased to work as I kept messing around _inside_ those, including the microphone capsule. Cue very very VERY unhappy parents.

      Beer, because memories.

    2. Nick Pettefar

      Meccano and Raspberry Pi

      I am a mentor at our local Coderdojo. I bought some of those dirt-cheap Chinese stepper motors and controllers that work beautifully off the Pi's GPIO. I had to spend some satisfactory time in the shed making up adapters to fit the stepper motor output shafts to Meccano. Now that was good fun. Got to use my pillar drill, Ikea cordless drill (the most powerful model of course), my bench grinder, hacksaw and tap-and-die set. We built a robo-Santa with a moving arm, moving jaw and beard, flashing eyes, talking (Ho-ho-ho) and all triggered from an ultrasound distance sensor. Several of the kids asked their parents for Meccano for Christmas. We programmed it all in Python.

  21. Richard Neill

    The 200-in-One kit is still made, and it's still pretty good, with an exceptional manual.

    For anyone who buys a modern version of the kit, you'll need to change the LEDs (which are behind a white diffusing panel and so faint as to be almost indistinct; the fix is to scrape away some of the white coating from the inside), and the "filament bulb" which has now also become an LED of negligible brightness back to a bulb (note that it is supposed to be able to shine on the LDR, so as to make the "Electronic Candle" work).

    Combined with an Arduino starter kit, it would be ideal.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "Combined with an Arduino starter kit, it would be ideal."

      A potential problem with giving educational toys like that to the current generation of kids is possibly the lack of mentors to guide them in their use. The impression is that schools are becoming so risk averse that teaching is often only theoretical or demonstrations.

      Parents also seem to have often missed out on acquiring relevant practical skills. That leaves grandparents within the family. There was a time when a qualified neighbour would have assisted with such skills - but nowadays that is discouraged in many ways.

      Are 13 year olds still allowed to join Amateur Radio Clubs or similar adult technical societies? That's where much of my electronics learning occurred. The local RAE instructor helped me prepare for the licence examination when our headmaster refused me permission to attend the night-class.

      Nowadays many clubs primarily for adults appear to regard the child protection regulations, and its negative implications, as too onerous to allow under-16/18 members.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Addendum: the only time our young Radio Club members were in need of protection was on our annual coach trip to London for the RSGB Exhibition. Walking along Lisle Street and Greek Street to visit the radio shops - the adult members would act as outriders shielding us from the strip joint touts and the ladies standing in doorways. It was many years later that a celebrity's autobiography of his teenage years enlightened me as to why we were steered well away from the Leicester Square subterranean toilets.

        1. Dick

          At a fairly tender age I joined an amateur radio club in a city in the midlands. It was very educational, especially the one meeting a month devoted to showing porno films.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            "[...] especially the one meeting a month devoted to showing porno films."

            We had a film at one Christmas party. Unfortunately they forgot the screen - so it had to be projected onto the newly papered wall. That was white with big splashes of orange flowers - which added an interesting variant on fig leaves. The film was very soft by modern standards - but a distinct improvement on the usual playground hedge-blown Health and Efficiency magazines. It was only a few years later that Mayfair and Penthouse became standard newsagents' stock.

            That same party no one thought to bring a corkscrew. So the Bulls Blood was full of fragments of chopped up cork - which had to be filtered through the teeth.

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        "Parents also seem to have often missed out on acquiring relevant practical skills."

        Yes. Those parents of current school age children were the first to go through the new risk averse education system so they often don't have the skills to teach their own children.

      3. Adrian 4 Silver badge

        It's all coming back with hackspaces though. You can't keep a good inventor down.

    2. graeme leggett

      My brother had the 100-in-one. lasted for years.

      He gave my son something similar for his birthday, though it is based on components on mountings that clip together and few flying leads. Manual is good for assembling circuits but not so for understanding them.

      I think I ought to get accompanying book that gives the knowledge. Turning off the home router and faking a powercut might also get my son off Minecraft videos and into something practical.

  22. skeptical i

    Tinker Toys

    Made of wood and intended for yoofs who do not yet have the manual dexterity for the small nuts and bolts of Meccano or Erector sets, they had wooden dowels and wooden disks with holes drilled in them for connecting the dowels.

  23. Andy Taylor

    Getting somewhat misty-eyed here, I had most of these toys in one form or another.

  24. Duffy Moon

    Nothing like giving kids dangerous chemicals

    Here son, have a nice jar of carcinogenic formalin.

    I had a very basic chem. set and I think my bro. had a cheap 'scope. We had loads of Lego though - all bought cheap from the local nursery when it shut.

    I used to dream of owning all those mechanical things, but we couldn't afford them.

  25. Mike 16 Silver badge

    A serious Meccano addiction

    can lead to

  26. ecofeco Silver badge

    *sigh* I miss those things

    The Science Fair Electronics, Chemistry, microscope and mechanical kits should ALL be required courses in elementary school.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    yes, yes, no etc

    I had the Mamod steam roller (no canopy) - ran in meths, family still have it somewhere.

    Not mentioned was the Philips construction set (

    My set is almost complete save for a couple of small parts and a chipped large plastic wheel that my sister broke due to pushing the construction pin tool at an angle, can still recall the scene now, pristine set to that point, then that broken wheel taunted me for the rest of its life. Bitter! me? mmmmnnn.

    Our family was too short of funds for most of this stuff so any kits that would need building then frequent batteries or more repair outlay never got started as I could not stand the long construction run for five minutes of fun before having to put it away, in kit form at least the potential is still there.

    In the 80's or 90's i would sometimes fire up a CB at Xmas to see who had got one as a gift (at least give them some response from a call) or look outside to see the new bikes teetering along with small concentrating kids atop.

    This year for modern comparison I looked out and could see virtually nobody, even checked the skies for the milion drones expected to be sold this year, nothing, I guess the toys are inside things now. I did see one lad with a new bike, full suspension, full sports downhill kit with expensive helmet, could not help feeling how much simpler our wants were.

    1. heyrick Silver badge

      Re: yes, yes, no etc

      "even checked the skies for the milion drones expected to be sold this year" - I noticed that. I want to get myself a drone. I live on an old farm in the middle of nowhere so it'd fall out of range and crash before it gets anywhere like interfering with other people. Might be useful for photography, checking the barn gutters, blah blah. I thought I could pick up one as a Christmas toy. Well, there was barely a helicopter, other than a little IR indoor model or two. Huh?

    2. Andrew Moore Silver badge

      Re: yes, yes, no etc

      I took our dogs for a walk in the local park on Christmas morning and the place was overrun with kids with new bikes and scooters.

  28. Dr. Ellen

    The Christmas present that started me off was a crystal radio kit. This was the mid-forties, when I was about five years old. Got it in the evening, put it together in time to wake my parents the next day with the weather report.

    In subsequent years there were Lincoln Logs, Lego, an Erector set, chemistry set, and a lot of model airplanes. As somebody earlier mentioned, many flew like scalded cats when you put a Jetex engine on them. Others didn't survive. That was about when I started making model rockets. Making them, because there weren't any kits back then. I survived.

    1. Graham Lockley

      So many mentions of Jetex, not one mention of the burns you suffered.

      Bloody lethal units, I loved em :)

  29. Oldfogey

    Real tools

    Does anybody else remember a woodworking kit - targetted at about 8 yrs or so- in a wooden box with real small scale tools, including a saw, chisels, and drills.

    Good enough to actually make small items, but they should have included bandages!

  30. Steve 114


    At prep school, we persuaded our fathers to smoke cigars, because the flat cedar boxes could be converted to handhelds - containing key, switch, buzzer, bulb (and a few rare stamps). By public school, transistors had been invented (OC72?) and a 2-transistor radio could rebroadcast 'Lux' (by coilwire aligned down the floorboard cracks of the dormitory) to any of the 40 beds who could afford my bootleg headphone-hire. No pay? We streamed the Third Programme instead. That's education.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Basics

      "By public school, transistors had been invented (OC72?) "

      Mullard had a complete set of germanium devices for a medium wave heterodyne radio from about the late 1950s. OC44 mixer, OC45 IF, OA70 diode, OC71 audio - and if you were really affluent a push-pull pair of matched OC72. The early OC71 could have its black paint removed so its translucent encapsulation made it an effective photo-transistor - the official version was relatively expensive. Unfortunately Mullard later changed to an opaque encapsulation

      There were also the GET range by GE/GEC? ... or the discount generic red spot, white spot graded ones - later sold as "Forty for 10 bob".

      Many kits were straight receivers with an RF amp, diode, and audio stage.

      1. Nigel Whitfield.

        Re: Basics

        Wasn't there an OA81 diode too? I think that's what I used when I made my first crystal set.

        I then enhanced it using the info from the Ladybird book Making a transistor radio

        I remember using the OC71 with paint scraped off in a couple of projects, too.

        1. Zog_but_not_the_first Silver badge

          Re: Basics

          He he. I bet you made the Ladybird electric motor using a cork, some pins and a magnet too.

          1. Nigel Whitfield.

            Re: Basics

            Yes, I did.

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  32. Mark York 3 Silver badge


    This brings back memories of:

    My stationary Mamod Engine going permanently a bit wrong (sorry Dad), when I tried to liven it up by adding some form of Meccano big wheel, the use of spacers, to stop nuts catching on the body failed to occur to me at the time & resulted in a piston blow out.

    One David T******r proudly demonstrated to me with a random chemical mix brewed up in a test tube, over the "tea light" flame, his experiment may have changed the future of chemistry as we knew it, but as he had decided to cork it with the rubber bung during the heating process it redecorated his parents living room ceiling instead. His mother nearly killed him & his pharmaceutical ambitions at the same time which is probably why he ended up working in Debenham's from the day he left school.

    Had the woodworking set didn’t engage with that (Sorry again Dad), one aged relative thought I destroyed a neighbour’s wooden gate with it at the age of 4, in truth it wasn’t until the advent of power tools & Dalek building that I finally managed to cut a straight line with a saw & get some woodworking abilities under my belt.

    I'd have loved the Science Fair Electronics Kit especially as a precursor to the ZX80, as it was it took me a few years until I got a proper introduction to electronics & computers by jumping on a Manpower Services Commission course in Electronics & Computers for 13 weeks, after that the only was up with City & Guilds courses & a BTEC HNC.

    This year’s big toy failure, was daughter forgetting her pass code for her new I-Pad after lunch.

    Result - The youngest worked out how to drive his robot from his Android tablet instead of his phone so there's hope yet for the technical\engineering gene in my progeny.

  33. jake Silver badge

    For me, Heathkit H11A

    Dad & I built her in 1978.

    Mom was totally pissed off when we boiled the boards in the kitchen.

    Result? 16-bit computing, at home. The old girl still runs. Loudly.

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  36. Gannettt

    I'll just throw in a few more memories into the pot!

    There's nothing new under the sun, and cut-price 'me too' products aping the more expensive 'real thing' were around back then. Lego was fantastic and we had a couple of 1960s hand-me-down sets, but a well-meaning relative bought us the incompatible Tente blocks.

    Same with train sets: our mates all had Hornby 00 sets, we ended up with the continental Lima set (British rail class 20 in British Railways green if I remember rightly) that was incompatible with the 'real thing'.

    Other stuff: Stylophone with song book (Bloody "amazing grace"!), one of those wheezing organs with an air compressor louder than the actual organ.

    My memories of childhood Christmases are tinged with guilt at being an ungrateful little brat who thought a lot of this stuff was crap, and didn't appreciate the sacrifices and effort my family put into choosing and buying these gifts.

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    4.5V electric lego

    I had a motor set like the one pictured (which combined with another kit to build a train set). In mine, the wires linking battery and motor boxes had individual plugs for each wire, like tiny versions of hi-fi "banana" plugs.

    I learnt (probably from my engineer grandfather) that the higher the voltage, the faster the motor would run. So early one morning, while my parents lay in bed, the 5 year old me decided it would be a great idea to see how fast the motor block would go when powered at 240 V AC. The miniature plugs fitted perfectly into a tape recorder mains lead. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to connect up my experiment before turning the lot on at the wall, so I suppose I must have learnt something. Cue loud pop, 2 inch high flame from the motor block, and walk of shame to my parents. Had to send off somewhere for a replacement motor. Found the dead motor at the bottom of a box of 1970s Matchbox cars from my parents loft recently. Compared to today's toys those motors were pretty substantial (though not enough to withstand mains electricity!).

    1. Toastan Buttar

      Re: 4.5V electric lego

      My big brother's mate borrowed my motor so he could build a bubble-blowing machine for a school disco. He managed to knacker it with a simple 9V PP3.

      I had quite a substantial layout of Lego railway, too.

  38. Chris Reynolds

    I think Big Trak...

    ...deserves a mention as an introduction to programming and debugging. Entering a program to get it from the lounge through the hallway and into the kitchen and back was a lesson in data entry, testing, debugging and rerunning.

    1. Nigel Whitfield.

      Re: I think Big Trak...

      We talked about Big Track in a piece last xmas

      1. Nigel Whitfield.

        Re: I think Big Trak...

        Here you go: Ten tech treats of Christmas past

        We do like an annual nostalgic wallow round these parts.

      2. Adrian 4 Silver badge

        Re: I think Big Trak...

        Bigger trak.

  39. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I have loved reading the comments

    Genuinely. It was fab to read some nice nostalgia to go along with my own.

    Thanks, all.

  40. MacroRodent Silver badge

    Polaroid Zip

    I never had a Polaroid Swinger, but while at high school, a local tiny photo store offloading some older stuff sold me a Polaroid Zip, which I believe was the follow-on version. Had the similar "Yes" exposure meter. It was fun using it at school (you kids who are used to digital cameras have no idea how cool it was a the time to see the resulting photograph immediately, instead of days later), sadly some of the prints have faded a bit, even though the Zip shot only B/W film.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Polaroid Zip

      The Polaroid was a technology step for amateur pr0n at a time when Boots wouldn't accept nudity unless it was a child. It didn't need the hassle of home developing - and untoward circulation was limited by there usually only being the original print. The equivalent of sexting was an exchange of Polaroid prints.

  41. Toastan Buttar

    Still got a 75-in-1 in a cupboard at my dad's house

    It still mostly works, though the LED is blown, IMSC. My own kids were fascinated when I built up a crystal set radio and it made a sound without batteries!

    Best Xmas present EVAR, though, had to be my first real computer - a 1K ZX81.

  42. Zog The Undeniable

    The Mamod steam engine always seemed terribly weak to me; the steam pressure is very low and it can barely move itself on level ground. Unlike Stephenson's Rocket, it doesn't use a multi-tube boiler, nor does it use the exhaust steam to create draught for the fire. The most annoying thing was that you couldn't top up the boiler without allowing it all to go cold first, although if you were a bit adventurous you could get two fills of meths to every fill of the boiler. It would run at impressively high speeds with the drive band disconnected, though; probably 1000 rpm or so (the cylinder was a blur).

    When I got a bit older and wanted to know how big steam locomotives worked, the Mamod was no use at all. Oscillating cylinder (which covers and uncovers the steam and exhaust ports without the need for valves), no crosshead, no smokebox, no superheater, no reversing gear, no regulator...pfft.

  43. David Paul Morgan

    I had 2 electronics kits...

    my first was a merit - I think that was illustrated.

    I remember my older cousin teaching me

    Bye Bye Rosie Off You Go (to) Bristol Via (the) Great Western for the resistor colour values when I had the Philips kit. Other variations available!

    My mate had the mamod steam engine.

    I had the later mecanno.

    We had a Matchbox slot car set, powered by a loop of spring - like a san-francisco street car, and you put sticky pins under your favourite car to convert them into slot-cars. Me and my brother used to race a Beetle and a Sports Car, to represent Herbie & the Apollo from "The Love Bug"

    I had the Prinz microscope, too! My mate had some sort of russian modular microscope which cost a fortune, but the bugs looked just the same in either!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I had 2 electronics kits...

      I inherited my cousin's electrical set from the 1940/50s. It had magnets, electromagnet, switch, bulb, simple dynamo/motor parts, galvanometer, and possibly a telephone earpiece.

      You had to assemble the microphone. It consisted of a small piece of plywood to which you bolted two small carbon blocks - with wires attached to the battery and earpiece circuit. The blocks had a conical hole in one end. A rod of carbon with pointed ends was then loosely held between these two end pieces. Talking at the rod caused it to vibrate - and the loose contact with the end pieces caused a sympathetic variation in electrical resistance.

  44. Stevie Silver badge


    Newfangled tat, the whole collection! Why, some of it is *digital* for Crom's sake!

    The Mamod steam tractor is the new Nanny-State version with scald-proof whistle and a reversing lever. Oh the happy days spent getting steam up, setting the thing loose to tear around in ever-widening circles at a scale 300 mph until it crashed into your leg. Oh the happy nights spent in the burn unit of the Coventry and Warwick.

    Fischer Teclknik? Damn you sir, I'm too busy with my Phillips Mechanical Engineering kit (the one in the wooden box) to play with such childish nonsense. Why does this clock count 40 seconds to the minute, dammit, and what the hell does "connect the motor bij means of green and grey glex" mean?

    And when I get bored I switch to my Phillips EE 20 Electronic Engineer set, of which that Tandy thing is but a pale imitation. Oh the happy hours coaxed out of those AC126s and the stalwart AF118. Oh the happy hours spent hunting the missing connection. Or capacitor.

    As for the "new" Meccano steam engine, a friend had one that dated to the early fifties.

    But I do miss the old chemistry sets, long gone thanks to the howling masses who demand "safety" in place of knowledge, science and peeling bedroom wallpaper. You knew it was a decent set if it had Logwood Chips in it (used to make an acid/base indicator a caveman would turn his nose up at had he a spiffy book of Litmus Paper from the local toy shop). I have never been able to identify the tree from which Logwood is Chipped. Litmus paper came in three colors: Red, Blue and Mildew.

    And wither the Tric-Trak? The Johnny Seven (which *isn't* a selection box of French Ticklers)? The Mighty Mousetrap Game? The Battlespace Turbo Car? Magic Robot? Or indeed any of the products from the factories of Waddingtons and Chad Valley?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Bah!

      "[...] Logwood Chips in it (used to make an acid/base indicator [...]"

      Thank you - I don't remember ever discovering the purpose of that ingredient. Suggests I was more interested in mixing chemicals for effects than than RTFM.

      This was the time that even breakfast cereals were scientific education. The Kellogs Cornflakes free "Nautilus" plastic submarine was primed with baking powder and put into a sink of water. It sank to the bottom, sat there for a while, then surfaced leaking bubbles of CO2.

  45. Christine Munro

    Wow, nostalgia!

    Thanks so much for this article! I had quite a few of the things mentioned at one time or another, or at least a close equivalent. Probably the one I got the most enjoyment from was the Science Fair electronics kit, same as the one in the picture. Bit of a shame I didn't progress further with that interest (I was hopeless with a soldering iron, but thankfully that kit had clever springs for holding the wires in place) but had loads of fun while it lasted.

    I don't really need any further incentive to fill even more of the house with yesterday's curios, though. :D

  46. Jonathan Richards 1

    Plastics Lab

    One of my most educational items (not at all a toy, really) was a plastics laboratory. In a perspex-fronted case came bottles of various solvents, samples of many different plastics of the time [1] in both film and rod forms, a small spirit burner, and some 2-part moulds. I particularly remember the boat mould: one would half fill it with unexpanded polystyrene beads (supplied), screw the mould halves together and place in a nice hot oven, then finally pop out a finished boat, about four inches long, I guess [2]. Lots of the experiments were about distinguishing the properties of the different materials, and I still remember which ones were soluble in acetone! I don't think I've seen anything like it in the following 50 years. [3]

    [1] This would have been the later 1960's

    [2] No, Virginia, centimetres had not then been introduced in our backwaters

    [3] Although it's probably on YouTube. Most everything else is!

  47. stringyfloppy

    My older brother and I collectively had most of those, and they did indeed help make us what we are. Fiddling with one of those electronics kits, a shortwave radio, or microscope was a great way to spend time.

  48. Snapper

    It's not only schools!

    I had most of these items and still have a couple of small scars from a Jetex implementation!

    Several years ago I was talking over some hobbies that I could share with my (then) 9-year-old son and suggested some aero-modelling along the lines of simple balsa wood and tissue that could then be ramped up to RC and engines if he liked it (like my father did with me).

    I got a complete spike-topped brick wall from my (hopefully soon Ex) wife who demanded that I forget anything of the sort because it involved sharp knives and glue. From the way she reacted you'd have thought I'd said petrol-driven chain-saws. After that most of my attempts to get him interested in anything got the full health and safety inspection and the unanswerable "Why do that? None of his friends do!".

    Result is a (now) 23-year old who has trouble changing a fuse.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: It's not only schools!

      Since about 2000 several of my neighbours' grandsons have helped me to do my gardening when they reached their middle teens. It surprised me that in spite of their IDT(?) classes at school they had not learned the fundamentals of woodwork. Hot metalwork was apparently too dangerous - no forging and tempering for them.

      They only used screws for wood joints - not the mortice or dovetail that we learned. When sawing they had not been taught to use controlled long slow stokes. Plasters had to be dished out before it was realised that they only used fast short strokes with the blade wobbling all over the place.

      I still carry chisels and scissors with the blade facing down and shielded by straight fingers. Sharp blades are used with controlled pressure - and hands/fingers are always out of the way behind the blade cutting edge.

  49. Backup Geek

    For those of us in the States, there was Estes

    Solid rocket motors! Could have been why I ended up working in aerospace for so long. Who didn't try and strap on extra motors, or substitute larger motors. So what if the cardboard tube blew up at apogee? At least you could see it when it exploded.

    We had Erector sets, no Meccano. My friend did have a Mamod and Fischer Technik (his father was Danish.) I did have a wonderful chemistry set (probably illegal now.) But, growing up on a farm with a lot of fertilizer and diesel fuel, well, the chemistry set had few other uses we found interesting. But we had soldering irons and Radio Shack - parts and breadboards too. And then the AY-3-8500 chip came out - Pong!

  50. GrumpyOldMan


    Yup - me too. I had most of those at one time or another - Still have the traction engine minus the drive band. Sits on a shelf gathering dust.

    These brought back so many memories.

  51. /dev/null

    Gakken Denshi blocks?

    Anybody else have one of these circa 1980?

    Gakken EX-System

    An electronic experimentor set with each component encased in a Lego-like block and inserted into a chassis incorporating various "peripherals".

    Learned a bit about electronics as I worked my way through quite a few of the experiments described in the sometimes baffling Engrish manual, though it did spend quite a lot of time as my bedside radio...

  52. Lost In Clouds of Data

    No ZX80 for me - I was a child from the ATOMic era

    My old man was a cheap fucker; knowing that he wanted his kids to get into computers, but wanting one that looked somewhat substantial, he skipped past Sinclair and went for an Acorn Atom. Being the aforesaid cheap bastard though he went for the kit version figuring he'd put it together.

    Yeah, right. Within 5 minutes he gave up and left it on the table in a pissed off mood. I ended up building it learning a shit tonne of stuff in the process. Lasted me years it did. Loved it to death and even ended up hard wiring on an Atari 2600 joystick onto it so I could use that to play games as opposed the keyboard.

    So, was he wrong? Cheap yeah, but hey, I was all the better for it! So, God bless him!

  53. gfx

    Over the years I had the Lego motor, a Wilesco steam roller (my dad's idea) and a Philips electronic set (from granddad).

  54. Winkypop Silver badge

    Prinz microscope - yes!

    Ahhhh, the insect population around my place took an unexpected dive after I got one of those.

    As for a science kit, all I needed was a 2 cent box of Redheads (matches), bwaahahaaaa!

  55. BongoJoe

    Bobbin Tanks

    What about making tanks from a cocktail stick, a large elastic band, a bobbin reel, a washer and a section of candle?

  56. Merlinski

    Mamod? Mamod???


    I had one of these.

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