It all began in 1920 when Mr Jaroslav Vancl founded the company Inventor, Ltd., in the Czech town Police nad Metuji. It first manufactured a construction kit called Inventor, a predecessor to Merkur. In 1925, Mr Vancl came up with the idea to manufacture Merkur as we know it today. The first version was hard to assemble because instead of screws and nuts, it used a system of hooks - the same mechanism is used to this day with some types of scaffolding. The metal beams had hooks at the ends, which you connected to holes.
Difficult assembly is one of the reasons why, in 1925 Mr Vancl opted for screws, nuts and bolts, giving birth to Merkur. "We will probably never know to what extent Jaroslav Vancl was inspired by similar toys already marketed in the West, but abandoning the old Inventor version paid off." says Radko Kriz, current owner.
It proved a fortunate step because Merkur provided great versatility and a great variety of combinations. That's one the reasons why there is still such a demand for Merkur. In the beginning, Mr Vancl produced a very simple set, with only 30 parts but in a few years' time he came up with new kits, new packaging, new construction possibilities. Merkur kept on improving, even in the communist era. Nowadays Merkur consists of around 250 different parts.
The company prospered in the 1930s, after adding new parts including simple electrical appliances. Electric toy trains were added to the line also. But WWII seriously affected Merkur. Production was reduced because there was a general lack of metals. With Stalin's takover in Eastern Europe, the company was absorbed by Kovopodnik, a state owned operation. Mr Vancl was still allowed to work there. No one knows what ultimately happened to him, however. "It is a paradox that the most difficult times for Merkur came after the fall of communism.", says Radko Kriz. "The most critical period came after 1989. The factory was not returned to the heirs of Mr Vancl but privatised. The company that acquired it soon went bankrupt. Production was interrupted for some two years. That was the worst time for Merkur. Two contenders appeared then: my father who had been involved in the metal business and a rival company, Meccano, which wanted to buy Merkur to get rid of competition in Eastern Europe. But they did not succeed and Merkur is now successfully developing."
Merkur is a phenomenon outside the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The founder of the company, Mr Vancl himself took part in the Chicago World's Fair in the 1930s. Merkur was exported mainly to the Soviet Union. Often it was not available in Cold War Czechoslovkia because everything was exported in order to get foreign currency. Today Merkur exports to the EU and also to the United States, Canada, the Russian Federation and former Soviet countries." A shining moment for Merkur was when the inventor of the soft contact lens, Professor Otto Wichterle, used it in 1961 to construct his "cockostroj" or "lens machine" to make the first pair of contact lenses. "Of course, Professor Otto Wichterle made his first contact lenses on a machine made from Merkur. It was on Christmas Eve and he had nothing else about the house but Merkur. Using a small dynamo and a small motor he built this primitive machine and produced the lenses," says Kriz. The original machine is at the National Technical Museum. Today competition is tough. Children have many more options how to spend their free time than 100 or 50 years ago. But Merkur has a place among the toys, especially for manual skills, because no computer, no virtual reality can replace it. It is necessary to return to reality once in a while and try and make something with your own hands with a screwdriver. Merkur is an ideal tool for that. And that's why there is still demand.
Source: a story by Czech Radio 7, Radio Prague and other sources.