Building beyond Lego

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When it comes to building toys, most people will instantly think of Lego bricks. I know I do and I was as much a Lego maniac as Zack, but Lego wasn’t the only option if you wanted to create castles, spaceships, trains and towers.

A building block pioneer

If I remember hard enough, I probably played with Tinker Toys well before “Lego” was a part of my vocabulary. I remember my grandma had some Tinker Toys that I played with when my family visited. For some reason I always ended up with a giant cube when I put the Tinker Toys together, but as a small child that was quite an accomplishment. Tinker Toys were all-wood and had a limited set of parts so to me Tinker Toys felt more like a math problem than a toy. Tinker Toys really don’t keep you interested very long, especially when you have things like Lego bricks at your disposal. Once you start down the path of Lego you rarely look back and things like Tinker Toys are just inferior, but the concept Tinker Toys was not lost on later generations.

Tinker Toys

Tinker Toys. 60% math problem, 40% toy. All wood.

From wood to plastic

I’m honestly too old to have enjoyed them, but it’s easy to see the lineage from Tinker Toys to K’Nex. The K’Nex building toy is just a souped up Tinker Toy. They combined the rigidness of Tinker Toys with the plastic of Lego bricks to get the best of both worlds, and the result is really quite impressive. Like Tinker Toys, K’Nex was essentially rods and connection joints, nothing too fancy, yet a quick search for K’Nex will result in tons of fantastic K’Nex creations from kids young and old. However, K’Nex had something Tinker Toys did not: motion.

K'Nex

K'Nex, The modern Tinker Toy.

Following Lego’s lead, K’Nex added electric motors to some kits that let kids construct even more fantastic things like giant Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds. Personally, I probably would have created some sort of catapult (like I did with my Lego bricks), but to each his own. Of course, Lego had their Technics line well before K’Nex was even in stores, but had I been 11 years old in 1993, I’m sure I would have found K’Nex to be a lot of fun. I would have made one heck of a bridge.

Build and smash

Being a child of the 80s, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I had an extensive collection of Contrux toys. Contrux had a very limited run, only about five years or so, but they had a huge impact on my life, right behind Lego. If I had to guess, my huge collection of Contrux came to be because of their relatively short retail life, which put them on sale very quickly and my mom was known far and wide for her smart spending. However, I’m glad she was because my best friend and I beat the snot out of our Construx to the point where almost none remained.

Construx

Construx, one of my all-time favorites.

My next door neighbor and I had thousands of Construx between us and we would make these huge cars and trucks, and then we’d ram them into each other destruction derby style. It was our own version of Robot Wars…just without the robots. We would design our vehicles with spikes, rams,  shields and the whole bit and then let em rip. It was a lot of fun but Construx were made of some very rigid plastic so they shattered wonderfully when smashed together. Much like Tinker Toys and K’Nex, Construx were pretty much just rods and joints. Construx were themed like a construction site so their pieces mimicked i-beams that connected at small ball joints. For the most part Construx pieces were all straight, but some playsets had curved beams and angled connectors so you could make wings and stuff for your super futuristic ramming machine. Plus, Construx had awesome rubber wheels that made your creations faster than any Lego car.

Building for the smart kids

The other building toy I had and loved as a child is by far the most complicated construction toy of all time, the Erector set. Not until the Lego Mindstorms many years later did a building toy have more complexity than an Erector set. With tiny nuts, bolts, screws, wrenches and pulleys, you would lose half the parts before you even got started. I don’t even want to think about how many little metal pieces got sucked up by my mother’s vacuum cleaner.

I didn’t appreciate my Erector set until much later in life when I had the capacity to engineer the the things I wanted to build. And yes, you really had to engineer your Erector creations. You couldn’t just jump into an Erector set and have something fun after an hour play. You had to go into things with a plan. If you wanted to play with your Erector set, you had to block out a good chunk of time…and possibly have a slide rule.

Erector set

Tell me that doesn't look complicated.

Long before Lego and K’Nex spiced things up with motors and computers, the Erector set was the only toy that let you make functioning creations with motors, gears and pulleys. I remember making a crane with a crank that I used with my Lego sets. The Erector set also has the distinction of being all metal and they still are to this day, a feature I admire in these days of over-bearing child safety. For the most part, the Erector set was great for building stationary objects, although later sets did include things like wheels to make cars and tractors

However, due to the very small parts and effort required to even make something as simple as a tower, the Erector set was only for the smart, dedicated kids. I was way too lazy for an Erector set. The Erector set just couldn’t do enough to justify the amount of time needed to create something cool when I had snap-together Lego bricks and Construx at my disposal. I’m glad I had my Erector set, as it helped teach me the importance of organizing your tools and parts, but in the long run the Erector just couldn’t compete.

For once, my toys are really better

Like Tinker Toys, the Erector set may have been hot stuff in its time, but even these pioneers of building toys can’t compete with the fun and excitement of more modern and creative toys like Lego bricks, K’Nex and even the short-lived Construx. It’s easy for all of us to say that our generation’s toys were better than the previous ones, but in the case of construction toys I have absolutely no reservations in declaring that to be 100% true. The building toys I grew up with may owe their existence to the Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs and Erector sets of the world, but our toys were just better. Period.

Brian is a freelance writer that blogs and tweets about video games, toys and other retro fun.

Want more articles on classic toys? Then check these out:

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Brian is a staff writer at TMA. He races Hot Wheels at RedlineDerby.com while watching cartoons with his kid. You can follow @morningtoast on Twitter.

1 Comment

  1. Construx Vs Lego wars.

    I use to love crashing my construx creations into my brothers lego creations. Yes I would break some contrux parts permanently sometimes, but my brothers lego stuff would shatter into a million parts.

    Also we only had the basic lego stuff and maybe a few technix gears but on the construx side I had lots of various size pulleys motors and lights. I made a large motorized rolling rocket launcher platform for my model rocket. I also made a Turntable that used a sewing needle to listen to the old records we had in the closet.

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