Erector lacks Lego's flash, but it has inspired countless budding scientists and engineers. Photo by: John B. Carnett

Remember the Erector Set, those interlocking nuts, bolts, and metal strips that kids used to build things with? Well, the Nobel-prize-winning chemist Sir Harry Kroto does. “One of the disasters of modern life,” he recently told startled listeners on BBC radio, is that it has been “displaced by Lego.”

It’s high time someone spoke up for the toy, for this year marks its hundredth anniversary. It was patented in 1901 as Meccano (and still marketed under that name in Europe) by Englishman Frank Hornby. Twelve years later, Yale graduate and Olympic pole vaulter A.C. Gilbert started selling his strikingly similar Erector Set in the U.S. Sir Harry lauds the toy as “a real engineering kit” that teaches “the sensitive touch needed to thread a nut on a bolt.” He claims that almost all scientists and engineers over 40 played with the toy as children.

So what happened? One word: plastics. In 1958, Lego started selling its colored blocks that, along with other plastic toys, effectively put Erector out of business. The Lego people seem unruffled by Sir Harry’s criticism. “Lego bricks are about more than engineering,” says Lego spokesman Michael McNally. “They’re about creativity.”

The good news is, Erector could be poised for a comeback. Meccano kits are still manufactured in France and the Brio Corp. has signed an agreement to sell them here under the Erector name. According to Brio, they should be hitting the shelves right about now.