Building Block Month: Memories

To wrap up Building Block Month, I wanted to think back to my childhood where some of my fondest memories are of those long afternoons when I would sit on the floor and build with colorful blocks, assembling new worlds and interlocking the shapes I created in my mind. I remember the sounds, like plastic wind chimes plinking together as the pieces were rummaged through, hearing that satisfying click as they connected sturdily. I recall the feel of the pieces in my fingers, simultaneously sharp and smooth, teaching me about form and structure as my hands developed dexterity that would aid me my entire life. Pure nostalgia for me comes in the form of plastic building bricks.

Building Block Month at The FoundryCast website has made me very sentimental for those old days; I thought long and hard about the many different building sets that came and went and I was surprised that I remembered so much about toys I haven’t thought of in over thirty years. I decided to review some of the construction toys that I played with which personally; some of them hold very dear places in my cube-shaped heart. Since Zach and I already covered our experiences with Lego in a recent podcast, I will let that stand on its own, and instead, share with you some of the less common sets of building blocks that were out there at the time.

And, yes, I am aware that many of these toys are meant for preschool age children, but the dynamic and creative nature of the invention of each toy can also be expressed in how transcendent they are beyond initial intentions. Take for example the Slinky! In the Vietnam War, U.S. soldiers had employed it as a makeshift antenna. It had also been used in light fixtures, for keeping leaves out of rain gutters, in pecan picking machines, and in any number of school science demonstrations. Today, an adult can find themselves whimsically spending hours on end cascading that metal spring back and forth from hand to hand, enchanted by the sound of the coil slinking its way to and fro. Speaking of Slinky…..

The original Slinky was created in 1945 when inventor Richard James watched a spring fall off a desk. Slinky became a household name in 1962 with the television advertising campaign featuring the "It's Slinky" song. In 1979, the Plastic Slinky was introduced. Over the years James Industries had also added other products including pin wheels, plastic rings, building blocks, etc., but their sales were dwarfed by those of the Slinky, which was still priced inexpensively at less than $3. All puns intended, how did some of these other toys stack up?

Slinky Triangles by Slinky

Far from the old laceration hazard masking as a toy, Slinky Triangles were awkwardly shaped triangular blocks that appeared to have been based on the design of a comb or of the treads on a German Army Tiger Heavy tank. I will concede that these blocks were more fun and better designed than I am making them out to be, but just one look at these pieces and you can see how stubborn they are to build with. I believe they started making these in the 1970’s and I am shocked that they stayed around for very long with the increase in construction toys in the 1980’s.

You would piece these blocks together very carefully and methodically. Once you got to a certain point, you would realize that half of your pieces were assembled with the small teeth interlocking only one tooth too far in a direction. The edges would hang over the sides, additional pieces wouldn’t connect correctly, and you would have to start all over again.

The colors were bright and childlike, reminding me of Easter with their pastel blues, pale greens, yellow, red, and white. The pieces weren’t always the easiest to assemble with the plastic teeth requiring some finesse to interweave. Small hands would have trouble disconnecting the triangles, calling for an adult’s assistance, or the abandonment of large chunks of unyielding plastic. The best thing about Slinky Triangles was that they held together as if they were glued into one piece. The worst thing about Slinky Triangles was everything else about Slinky Triangles.

Ringa-Majigs & Ji-Gan-Tiks by Slinky

These are two other building block sets that made me question what the people over at Slinky were thinking. Ringa-Majigs debuted in the early 1970’s, featuring plastic rings with four legs on one side, much like a round table with the middle cut out completely. Pegs on the top face of the circle would connect to legs from other circles, creating tall structures like towers and walls. You couldn’t build in any other directions unless you staggered them, which would only work horizontally. So, you could build up and over, but not with any depth.

I read a description on one website calling the Ringa-Majigs a collection of interlocking holes and pegs that can be configured into towers or tunnels. There is no way you could make tunnels with these blocks because as you lay them on their side and attempt to interlock them, they have no support and all you have is a brittle line that is tube-like. I can see the theory, as the pieces are round, but I remember these rings being a novelty at best.

Ji-Gan-Tiks came out 4 or 5 years later and were the exact same toy; albeit this time they were squares instead of rings. Both Ringa-Majigs and Ji-Gan-Tiks came in the very basic primary colors of red, blue, green, and yellow, but the square shape lent to more creative uses of this toy. Now they could be tables and chairs for larger G.I. Joes or Barbie dolls, boxes, buildings, tanks, and landing pads. Building with this toy was still limited, but the square shape allowed for more abstract interpretations. Ringa-Majigs and Ji-Gan-Tiks were easy to manipulate but neither sturdy nor an adaptable set with which to build. Finding a full set with the original tin still intact could be a really cool nostalgia piece for display, but the actual toy was pretty inadequate.

Zaks (Ziegler's Animated Konstruction System) by Irwin Toy

A giant leap forward in the triangular building block market was Zaks. Zaks consisted primarily of equilateral triangles and squares with toothed, hinged, and interlocking edges. Instead of the many small plastic forks on the side of the Slinky Triangles, Zaks had only 3 or 4 tabs which connected tightly and released easily from other pieces. The basic shapes were further modified by different face styles, including holes or extended sockets that allow them to connect face-to-face. It was quite easy to create shapes such as cubes and tetrahedron, but you could build even more complex polyhedra as well.

Since the pieces primarily connect with hinges, building a rigid structure takes some work, either by clever geometry or socketing together smaller polyhedra. To build with more sophistication meant to learn how to take advantage of the interlocking tabs that would either remaining rigid or be allowed to swivel. This bending action allowed for curving or bowing of structures, which felt very natural and adaptable to builds. You could make a face, make a swan, or make an orchid; as long as you had enough pieces and years of experience in origami.

I remember only having these blocks in red, blue, and yellow; although I have seen them in green, black, and grey as well. I found them to be cooler by a large margin than the Slinky Triangles, but I never found myself wanting to play with these any more than the two or three times that I did. Maybe I needed more sets than I had available at the time, as I can see how awesome Zaks can be now as an adult. A Geometry teacher could really use these in their classroom to explain Platonic solids!

Stickle Brick by Hasbro

Taking a huge leap backward, Stickle Bricks were pastel colored plastic shapes which had a "brush" of small plastic "fingers" on one or more edges. The fingers of adjacent stickle bricks will interlock, allowing them to be joined in various ways and in various directions. The brushes also usually covered all of the exposed flat surfaces, giving Stickle Bricks a somewhat fuzzy appearance.

They were a construction toy primarily intended for toddlers, which is evidenced by the design when closely examined. The gridded pin system looks ugly, but it would be easy for a small child to simply push two pieces together and have them stick. Of course, they wouldn’t be perfectly even and they could be assembled in very haphazard ways, but that was the point. This interlocking method was more about ease of use that it was about final design or balance.

Standard sets of stickle bricks contain triangular, square and rectangular pieces. Most sets also include other types of pieces such as heads, wheels and teddy bear shapes. Stickle Bricks had some of the widest varieties of colors, still leaning towards the pastel shades with tulip pink, sky blue, daffodil yellow, etc. Builders with time and imagination could create different objects like cars, robots or houses, but it took a lot of patience and with the bulky edges of the pin system, the objects never looked all that good.

I read that while Stickle Bricks were invented in 1969, they are still being manufactured today under the name Clipo today. Several companies manufacture similar toys like Stickle Bricks, but not all of them compatible. Names for these toys include "Nopper", "Bristle Blocks", "Fun Bricks", "Clipo", "Krinkles" and "Thistle Blocks". That’s a lot of knock-off brands for a fairly poor toy.

Popoids by Tomy

This is a weird one, folks. The colors were bright, the main sections were hollow but larger than regular building blocks, but the connectors were bendable plastic tubes which were something like large plastic drinking straws. What you sacrifice in rigidity and structure, you gained in flexibility. Now you could adjust the connectors to create the shapes you wanted, which was great for wacky animals, aliens, robots, and silly faces. I believe there was even a musical set where you could make a trumpet or a saxophone.

The larger pieces were interesting as they had really dynamic polygonal shapes with rounded edges so they weren’t sharp or dangerous. If you wanted to make detailed vehicles, spaceships, or buildings and walls then this was not a toy for you. The bend of the connectors were better suited for cartoonish and organic shapes. I think that this design was intentional so that instead of making inanimate objects, you could make the exact creatures and monsters you wanted, creating toys that you could actually play with.

I rarely got my hands on these toys, probably encountering them at my cousin’s houses. I mostly associate Popoids with McDonalds, as they were a frequent toy item in Happy Meals in the mid 1980’s. I remember getting a small set once, playing with it for a few days, and then throwing it into the toy chest with other random odds-and-ends, never to be seen again. I remember my favorite part was that they would make a cool noise when you bent them around. With the whimsical themes and large building pieces, this was another construction set that was aimed at smaller children, so they didn’t hold my attention for very long.

Lincoln Logs by K’NEX (currently)

Of course I had Lincoln Logs. I feel like every child in America should have gotten their hands on a box of repurposed kindling like this at some point. Lincoln Logs were notched miniature logs, used to build small forts and buildings. They were invented sometime around 1916–1917 by John Lloyd Wright, second son of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, based on the architecture of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo which was designed by FLW. The name has been attributed to three different possible sources: either as a patriotic gesture to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, after FLW’s original middle name of Lincoln, or an alteration of ‘linkin logs’ (linking logs).

I remember being simultaneously let down and impressed by the idea of building a log cabin with actual logs. I thought it was a cheap medium, but it felt very authentic. I didn’t like that some of the supports for the wooden slats on the roof were made of plastic, but everything else was real wood. Even the little red nub of a chimney was wooden! The set I played with came in a large metal tin that was dented and worn. There were some plastic figurines of horses, trees, and cowboys that may or may not have come with the set. I could tell that my Lincoln Logs carried sentimental value for my dad, and that he enjoyed letting me build with them.

They smelled like wood, they felt very tactile in your hands, and they required a little bit of creativity and economy. Each log would have notches on the top and bottom side. A few pieces were cut in half, usually smaller pieces, to act as flats with which to create bases so that your structure would sit flush on the ground. Then you would build your bottom layer and work your way up. If you ran out of pieces, you would have to tear it back down and add more windows or shorten it up by one piece so as to have enough logs to finish. After a time, I grew bored of only building houses and shacks, as Lincoln Logs weren’t very customizable and only covered one theme. I do remember, however, still using the Lincoln Logs as fence pieces around my other building block houses, or to make tracks in which my cars would cruise around.

In this day and age, it is heartwarming to see the younger generation playing with Lincoln Logs and have a good time. My niece and nephew love a real-life wood cabin that my family owns and so building with these toys makes them think of being outdoors, making a special cabin out in the woods for themselves. This is a toy that still has the original magic, 100 years later!

Construx by Fisher Price

This is one of my all-time favorites. Debuting in 1983, Construx featured beam-like pieces of varying lengths that snapped on to cubical connector knots in order to build large shapes. You could snap on panels in between shapes, allowing assembly of flat surfaces. You could also attach hinges, cockpit doors, motors, wheels, and other movable parts to expand the number of different shapes that could be built, and make moving creations possible!

I would use Construx to build everything from movable bridges to realistic spaceships. They were the only beam-like construction set I ever owned, and I felt like they had the edge over any other toys like Girder and Panel Building Sets or Erector Sets. They were plastic, they held strong, and they had really cool colors! The first sets were all sold with grey beams and blue connector nuts - titled the Imagination Series. Next came the Construx Space Series with white beams and glow-in-the-dark pieces. Motorized Construx sets were added in 1985, then the Alien Series was introduced with black beams and purple-tinted panels. The Military Series was introduced in 1986 with military green beams and tan panels with green camouflage. I had some weird mixtures of all of these sets after a time: I could have a creation with green beams mixing with purple panels, with blue transparent window pieces and glow in the dark rolling wheels! My favorite set was the Alien Series with the darker pieces and the small alien figures.

I remember getting a motorized set that I placed in the very center of our foyer. I attached branches out in either direction, adding a wheel on each end, and then I would turn it on. I enjoyed this rotating machine with its two rolling blades. I would see how long figures could hang on or adjust the length of the arms to see if the reduction in weight made the motor turn quicker. We burned through a ton of C batteries that summer.

Super Blocks by Tyco

I can’t say enough good things about Tyco blocks. I think that’s because I don’t actually have a lot of good things to say about Tyco blocks. I believe that part of the issue is how I feel about Tyco as a company and how the quality of their building blocks establish a representation of their business practices. Yes, I do know that Lego brand blocks are a rip-off of Kiddicraft blocks, but I always felt like Super Blocks sets were just second class Lego sets.

What began as a company dedicated to model trains and later slot cars, eventually became a weirdly diversified company, acquiring several popular toy companies like View Master, Magna Doodle, Matchbox, and even Sesame Street themed toys. In the 1990s, the company also branched out with their clones of Lego brand building elements (after the basic patent ran out in 1983). These building block sets were shaped essentially the same as Lego with stackable bricks, colorful options, and various accessories to make vehicles, aircraft, or buildings. The biggest difference I remember was in the feel of the finished plastics; they were very flat and felt unrefined. Each set had a few specialized pieces that looked kind of cool, but they didn’t seem to work with all the pieces other than the way intended. Overall, I would just call them clunky and unfinished looking.

Tyco was competing in the same market space as Lego and where they had Lego beat hands down, was in the military and construction vehicle department. While Lego had fanciful houses and super-slick spaceships, historical themes and fantasy elements, Tyco had big bulky tractors and beefy army vehicles. What Tyco lacked in polish and sophistication they made up for in strong builds with recognizable imagery. The Adventure Road Builder series featured nine sets that included a bulldozer, a dump truck, a backhoe, a giant crane, and a construction helicopter that were all yellow and black. The Adventure Military Series featured ten different sets that included a halftrack, a combat tank, a mauler, a rocket launcher, a fast attack vehicle, and several other missile launching vehicles.

I had a Military set or two and a couple of Space Adventure sets. The Space Adventure sets featured the most unusual color pallet of light greys, pastel greens, and gummy purples. Most of their pieces were oddly shaped and barely held together once your build was completed. I discarded most of these blocks and just went back to the space sets by Lego that were way better realized and sculpted.

Lastly, Tyco’s branding had me really confused as a kid. I didn’t know the difference between the block sets that were out there, for the most part, so I just played with it all and enjoyed myself. I knew that Tyco brand was sub-par when they were gifted to me, but I played with them and used the pieces and was thankful! Then, the commercials caught my eye, and I was made aware that Tyco wanted to beat Lego at their own game. Or, did they? Watch these two commercials and see what I mean.

Tyco cannot decide whether they are better than Lego, or that they are just an alternative to Lego because they share the same interlocking mechanic. Their commercials state, “They work with Lego too!” Then, Betty White is pimping plastic tubs full of the stuff while a Russian submarine flees in terror from the architectural prowess of American children. It was a weird time for commercials.

So what does that tell us? I think Tyco had an inferiority complex and wanted to show just how American and badass they could be. They churned out masculine themed sets that were more about looking cool in their original form and less about replay-ability. In my adult years, I can see the novelty of what they were going for. If you see Super Blocks as an enhancement to Lego, providing vehicle types that were more aggressive and beyond what Lego was willing to do, then it’s a pretty good product. The construction toys were unique and looked to be incredibly accurate. Lego was too afraid to look much like real-world vehicles, so in an era where our youth were shifting from a cold war to a war in the desert, fighting vehicles were a smart move.

In Conclusion

Building blocks were an integral component of my childhood. At the time, I thought I was merely playing games and having fun, but I didn’t understand how these kinds of toys were helping in my development. I was learning social dramatic skills by pretending to be the people and the pilots of the ships. I was challenged by limitations of what I could build and I was rewarded by accomplishing the goals I set with feelings of satisfaction. I learned economic planning. I enhanced my spatial skills and mathematical skills. I navigated divergent problem solving and I developed symbolic thinking to better realize abstract concepts. I was playing, but I was also growing as a human thinking machine.

I cannot say for certain, but I can muse and posit this; maybe we remember things more fondly when they affect us on a deeper level than of which we might even be aware. Were those just the fun and lazy days of childhood that I am recalling, or do I remember the trials and successes better as I myself was crafted by them slowly over time? Was I building that spacecraft while the spacecraft was building me? I like to think that it was both, honestly.

In an American survey of high-achieving college graduates, adults holding degrees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics) were "far more likely than the average American" to have extensive experience with "hands-on" crafts and hobbies, including woodwork, mechanics, and electronics. Individuals reporting a lifelong participation in such activities were more likely to have produced inventions that yielded patents.

It sounds like there is hope for me yet.