Construction Sets: The Principle of Modularity

Beyond the Sum of the Parts

Construction Set Components, Materials, and ToolsGerman Museum of Technology

Whether it's radios, smartphones or computer circuit boards –

not all technological devices are plug and play, not by a long shot. Many come as prefabricated parts that need to be put together. In the past, devices such as computers and radios were sold as assembly kits due to shortages and restrictions. Today, with the do-it-yourself (DIY) trend and rising concerns about sustainability, assembly kits are becoming more and more popular. They make us want to understand technology and to tinker with it, and they allow us to fix our devices more readily. Children’s toys can also be based on this design principle. For generations, construction sets have been a part of our childhoods. By playing with them, we gain an understanding of the world around us.

Anchor Stone Building Sets DS 9 and DS 9A Anchor Stone Building Sets DS 9 and DS 9AGerman Museum of Technology

Anchor Stone Building Sets: Little Blocks with a Cult Following

Children have been working and playing with Anchor Blocks for more than 140 years. Using instruction booklets, they build castles, bridges, and towers from these sets. Expansion sets open up even more possibilities, and it was this principle that made the Anchor building sets a smash hit, paving the way to future popular construction toys such as Lego.

Anchor Stone Building Sets DS 9 and DS 9A How to Build a Pavilion from Anchor Stones (after 1910)German Museum of Technology

The sets were created by the German aviation pioneers Gustav and Otto Lilienthal, who experimented with quartz sand, chalk, pigments, and linseed oil. They pressed these materials into standardized and combinable blocks. The red ones were for roofing tiles, the yellow ones for sandstone, and the blue ones for slate, just like real houses in Germany at the time. Their vision: a learning game that allowed children to discover the basics of architecture and structural engineering.

Stabil Construction Set No. 51 Stabil Construction Set No. 51 (around 1915)German Museum of Technology

"Stabil is the name of a boy's best game."

This is a translation of the slogan the company Walther & Co. from Berlin-Kreuzberg adopted for their metal building set "Stabil" around 1915. The company’s targeting of boys was motivated by the knowledge that many parents wanted to prepare their sons for careers in highly-respected fields such as structural and mechanical engineering.

By reading the instruction booklet and using perforated metal strips, nuts, bolts and other components, they could build models of technologies such as windmills, railroads, and circular saws. Tools such as flathead screwdrivers and wrenches were included.

Beginning in 1924, builders could enter annual contests and send in their own creations.

Stabil Construction Set No. 51 Stabila Construction Set No. 2 (around 1930)German Museum of Technology

Although girls did not belong to the target group, they were successful participants in the contests. This was enough motivation for the company Walther & Co. to put a construction set for girls on the market in 1932. It was called "Stabila – Technik für Mädchen in Sport und Beruf" ("Stabila – Technology for Girls in Sports and Working Life.") While boys were meant to construct complex devices from the metal components of the model construction sets, girls were encouraged – as per the instruction booklet – to build dollhouse furniture, which could be covered using strands of wool.

Introduction to the Instruction Booklet for the Stabila Construction Set No. 2

In the instruction booklet of 1933, the manufacturer addressed his female audience. While welcoming a female exploration of technology, he also pointed out that the toy would still help maintain the "characteristic of girls."

Lectron Construction Set Lectron Construction Set, Lid (1967)German Museum of Technology

The Lectron Kit: Modular, Simple, Fast

The practical Lectron kit, released in 1967, allowed users to quickly get a handle on electronic circuitry. In no time at all, circuits could be created using transparent blocks with magnetic contacts – all without time-consuming soldering, clamping, and screwing.

Lectron Construction Set Lectron Construction Set, Circuit (1967)German Museum of Technology

With the help of the instruction booklet that came with the experimental kit, users could learn how to correctly use the blocks, which were marked with electronic symbols, identifying for example capacitors, diodes, and resistors. The blocks stuck to the base plate thanks to their magnetic underside and transmitted the current via metal contacts.

Lectron Construction Set Lectron Construction Set, DetailGerman Museum of Technology

The blocks were designed in such a way that their inner functioning was visible and could thus be understood. The minimalist design, created by the Braun company's chief designer Dieter Rams, became a classic among experimental kits. Drawing on Rams's reduced form language, the American computer company Apple revolutionized the design of electronics.

Heinzelmann Radio Set Heinzelmann Radio Set, Front (after 17.09.1947 but before 07.07.1948)German Museum of Technology

The Heinzelmann: A Trojan Horse with Radio Reception

In the postwar period, the Allies regulated the delivery of radios to private households. Only people with a ration coupon were allowed to purchase a radio, which created a market gap. In 1947, the company Grundig, from Fürth, Germany, began selling a radio assembly kit called "Heinzelmann" – disguised as a toy.

Heinzelmann Radio Set Heinzelmann Radio Set, Back (after 17.09.1947 but before 07.07.1948)German Museum of Technology

This was only possible because two essential parts were not included: two electron tubes. Without these tubes, the radio had no reception.

Functional tubes such as the RV12P2000 were present in large numbers in the devices of the former Nazi armed forces and could be acquired on the black market. With the help of an assembly plan, consumers could build the radio, but they needed to know the correct designations for the parts and be able to solder.

This assembly kit contributed substantially to Grundig's success as a company.

Motorcycle MZ ETZ 250 KiWo Motorcycle MZ ETZ 250 KiWo (1984 bis 1985)German Museum of Technology

The KiWo – A Motorcycle Dressed in an Assembly Kit

No, there is no Yamaha-style Japanese racing motorcycle under this fairing but instead an MZ ETZ 250. In the East Germany of the 1980s, three friends – Martin Wolfien and Marko and Tino Kindermann – realized their dream of an elegant sports tourer by creating homemade fairing parts from fiberglass-reinforced plastic.

They called the result "KiWo", a word they coined from the first syllables of their last names, Kindermann and Wolfien.

Motorcycle MZ ETZ 250 KiWo Making the Moldings for an MZ ETZ 250 KiWo (1984 bis 1985)German Museum of Technology

In 1985, the three East Berliners, working from their home in a concrete-slab building in Berlin-Lichtenberg, developed an assembly kit from fiberglass-reinforced plastic that they used to create a complete fairing.

Motorcycle MZ ETZ 250 KiWo MZ ETZ 250 KiWo on Tour (1984 bis 1985)German Museum of Technology

With the finished bikes, the three toured all around East Germany together. The decked-out MZs garnered so much attention from motorcycle fans that they later sold fifteen assembly kits, some to contract laborers from Cuba and Vietnam.

GDR Microcomputer Assembly Kit Z1013 GDR Microcomputer Assembly Kit Z1013 (1983 till 1985)German Museum of Technology

A Circuit for the Tinkerer – The Microcomputer Assembly Kit Z1013

In the 1980s, self-assembly computers such as the single-board computer Z1013 by VEB Robotron were the German Democratic Republic's response to the growing need for personal computers. But unlike today, users then still had to assemble the Z1013 before they could use it.

GDR Microcomputer Assembly Kit Z1013 Portable DIY Computer, Microcomputer Assembly Kit, Robotron Z1013, 1987–1991 (1989 till 1991)German Museum of Technology

Due to the modular design of these single-board computers, a variety of DIY computers were created. With this version from 1987, Sven Thanert from Plauen, Germany, was realizing his vision of mobile computing technology. For this, he relied on his IT knowledge and improvisational talent: he had to buy components such as the RAM module, read-in interface, and power transformer and solder them to the board. The supplied model railroad pushbuttons served to make a control unit, while the family television was a substitute for a monitor.

Obscure Systems Showcase: 10 Games For The Robotron Z1013German Museum of Technology

With 32 x 32 characters, the screen was able to display letters along with primitives in black and white. A number of games such as Demolation, Boulder Dash, and Galactica could be written on these computers, using the programming language BASIC.

Smartphone SHIFT5me (2019)German Museum of Technology

Tackling E-Waste with Modular Smartphones

Year after year, millions of smartphones wind up in the landfill. Some manufacturers offer alternatives to cell phones that are destined for the trash heap. Phones made by the company SHIFT can be repaired in a few steps, even by lay people. Replacement parts can be purchased online. This extends the life of the devices and saves rare mineral resources. So far, such niche products have hardly been able to hold their own in the face of major electronics companies.

Credits: Story

Sandra Erber
Anne Stabler
Johanna Weißler
Friederike Wode
SDTB | Clemens Kirchner
Deutsches Spielzeugmuseum | Thomas Wolf
Kennedy-Unglaub Translations
Special thanks to Katja Boegner, Bernd Lüke, Jannis Petersen, Jörg Rüsewald, Matthias Stier and Frank Zwintzscher.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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