Merkur: The Czech toy with which you can build cities
For nearly 100 years, Merkur toys have been a popular component of many a child’s toy set. Its easy-to-use metal strips can be used to construct almost anything, including miniature cities, railway lines and towers. Merkur has also been praised as an educational tool. Despite being a sought after toy until this day, the story of its founder resembles that of many Czech twentieth century entrepreneurs in its tragic turn from hero to zero.
The story of the Merkur toy set begins with locksmith Jaroslav Vancl. Born in the Central Bohemian town of Benátky nad Jizerou, Vancl worked as a locksmith and in an automobile factory before he decided to become a businessman after the end of World War I. He first founded an artesian aquifer company, but just two years after the end of the war he sensed that there was public demand for toys.
Vancl first patented his idea for an original method of using connectable metal strips for a construction toy. Then, in 1920, the Czech entrepreneur founded a company called Inventor, which produced them.
At first, Vancl’s metal strips used coupling pins to connect with each other, in a similar way to how scaffolding is held together. However, the system did not last long. In 1925, Jaroslav Vancl switched to a new system, which continues to be used in his toys until this day. He drilled several holes into thin metal strips which made it possible to connect the pieces with the help of screws and pulleys. This led to far more flexibility when building with the Merkur toy set. Vancl soon decided to trademark the set under the name Merkur, which it still carries today.
Children now had the freedom to create various structures and the company boomed.
Jaromír Kříž, who is the current director of the company, told Czech Radio that Vancl was also eager to introduce Merkur toys as educational tools for children.
”During the Great Depression in the 1930s, Vancl managed to carry through his proposal that Merkur sets should become educational tools in schools. He said that, if the youth learns about all aspects of technology, Czechoslovakia will survive the crisis and its people will become the best.”
Several new sets were made during the 1930s. Vancl’s company sold the Metropol set, which focused on buildings. From 1933, Merkur Elektrus came out, which featured the option to incorporate electric models into the metal toy set. Aside from this, the company also started producing metal electric toy trains, developed chiefly by Vancl’s son-in-law, František Jirman. The design was very popular on the interwar market and eventually became the most widespread electric toy set in Czechoslovakia.
Construction ceased in 1940, due to a shortage of nonferrous metals, and was only restarted two years after the end of World War II. Merkur soon added new wagons to its toy train sets, including cargo, stanchion and refrigeration wagons.
A year after Inventor restarted production, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia seized power through the February 1948 coup d’état.
Soon after, the government announced that it would be nationalising all businesses with over 50 employees. Jaroslav Vancl may have thought that he did not have anything to worry about. Despite his company’s success, it was still relatively small with just around 20 employees of which several were family relations. However, the Communists developed a ploy in which they transported several more workers to Vancl’s factory on the day that the inspectors came. This gave them the excuse to nationalise his business and Vancl was demoted from director to lathe operator.
To add insult to injury, Vancl was also forced to repay the company orders that he had made as director. Now, as a private individual on his meagre, lathe operator salary, he could barely afford to do this. He would therefore be forced to continue working in this junior position until he was 80 years old. Although he was officially not part of the management, Vancl nevertheless maintained respect and was allegedly still treated as the head of the company by his colleagues.
Despite Vancl’s demotion, Merkur toys experienced their golden age in the next several decades. In the 1960s, these toys were exported Europe-wide and, during the normalisation era of the 1970s, Merkur construction sets became a popular birthday and Christmas present for children.
One of those children was Jiří Mládek, who started playing with Merkur toys at his friend’s house. A machine engineer by education, Mládek would become perhaps the most famous and talented Merkur constructer of them all. In 1975, at the age of 29, Mládek started properly focusing on his designs and would eventually build what is known as the “Steel City” (Ocelové město). A huge toy city assembled from Merkur pieces, the Steel City was inspired by the writings of French author Jules Verne, whose books were very popular among the youth of Communist Czechoslovakia. Another famous construction of Mládek is “Mechanický Říp”, a model of the famous Czech hill which is criss-crossed by tunnels, tracks and trains made out of Merkur construction sets.
In fact, Merkur sets were so versatile that they would be used in the twentieth century not just by Czech children, but also by several scientists. For example, the inventor of the soft contact lens – chemist Otto Wichterle – used Merkur to build the first contact lens producing machine.
Jaromír Kříž told Czech Radio that Merkur played a significant role in enabling scientific discoveries.
“Recently, there was a book published on the occasion of 100 year anniversary since the founding of Czechoslovakia. It features 22 companies with special note given to our business. This is because several scientific discoveries were made by using Merkur toy sets. Otto Wichterle of course developed the soft contact lenses, which are used by tens of millions of people today. However, there were also two scientists who began their work by using Merkur and ended up winning the Nobel Prize.”
As so many other Czech companies, Merkur struggled in the years immediately after the Velvet Revolution. It was privatised in 1989 and given the name Komeb. However, the company went bankrupt just four years later.
This is when Jaromír Kříž entered the stage. An engineer, who inherited a metal factory through restitution, Kříž planned to buy several machines from the recently bankrupted Komeb. But soon he warmed up to the idea of renting the Komeb factory instead and resume production of the Merkur toys.
He faced competition from the French company Meccano, which wanted to buy the Merkur producer in order to remove a potential competitor. After three years of negotiations, Kříž managed to buy not just the machines, but the factory as well. He was able to found a new company, the successor of Inventor and Komeb, and called it Merkur Toys Ltd.
Merkur toy production was back by the mid-1990s. Kříž also made sure to introduce new products and to bring back Merkur train sets, whose production had been discontinued in 1968.
“After 32 years we were able to restart production of [Merkur] trains in size 0, which is the designation for the size ratio of 1:45. These trains were produced by Merkur from 1930 to 1968. However, then the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (an economic organization under the leadership of the Soviet Union) decided that toy trains will only be produced in the German Democratic Republic.
“When I asked: ‘Shall we start making toy trains again?’ Everyone said no and that it would be a great risk. We developed a few models by hand, because we had no proper tools for it, and ended up coming up with something that could be produced cheaper but more constructively.”
The new director has since been eager to stress the educational value of Merkur Toys. Indeed, he had already made use of Merkur construction sets as audio-visual education tools when he was in charge of a vocational school during the 1980s.
Merkur Toys’s has therefore introduced a new collection called Merkur Education System. It includes a wide range of products, such as work benches, several measuring mechanisms, or a programmable mini-construction line with a mini robotic arm that can sort out items on the conveyor belt. Most of these products are of course made out of Merkur materials.
“I am trying to push Merkur Education System l products into schools, because they are practically useful in all subjects. We want students to be prepared for the fourth industrial revolution. That means not just being able to work practically on a mechanical basis, but also learning digitisation. This should in turn help our industry.”
A large slice of the company’s toys are also exported abroad to countries such as Slovakia, Austria, France and the United Kingdom.
Aside from widening the company’s product selection and placing weight on their educational utility, Jaromír Kříž has also established the Merkur Museum in the company’s hometown of Police nad Metují. Its spaces are home to some of the wildest and most megalomaniac Merkur constructions. Jiří Mládek’s Steel City is among them.
According to Jaromír Kříž’s father, Radko, the museum reopened just this month after a period of reconstruction.
“We have created a new reception, livened up our exhibits, created a playing area and are preparing a new exhibition space in the cellars.”