Stonemason Charles Pajeau and partner Robert Petit dreamed up the “Thousand Wonder Toy” in the early 1910s after watching children create endless abstract shapes with sticks, pencils, and old spools of thread. They improved on the kids' idea by adding holes for the sticks on a round spool and named their invention “Tinkertoy.”
The main part of the set is a wooden spool roughly two inches in diameter with holes drilled every 45 degrees around the perimeter and one through the center. Different length sticks were intended to be based on the Pythagorean progressive right triangle.
After that, it was just a matter of creating advertising displays in the Chicago area in which shop owners built elaborate displays and Tinkertoy was off to match other construction toys in the early 20th century such as Lincoln Logs and Erector Sets.
The toys were promoted to parents as toys that would help kids to learn by exercising what is now called spatial intelligence. The fact is though, they were just plain fun to play with.
Originally Tinkertoy was intended for younger boys, but after 1919 Tinkertoys attracted budding engineers through the addition of an electric motor. The toys even came with instruction for creating elaborate mechanical tools such as printing presses, lathes, airplanes, and power saws.
Color was introduced in the postwar boom years of the 1950s.
The new version featured colored plastic parts with each set designed to create particular objects.
Tinkertoys were used by Danny Hillis to build a computer that plays tic-tac-toe-playing computer (!) and they have been used to create other equally complex machines.
Originally they came packaged in mailing tubes to reduce shipping costs. The early versions even had an address label and space for postage. The packages came in different sizes and had numbers and names so customers could distinguish sizes.
In addition to the spools, the now standard Tinkertoy set includes wheels, which are thinner than spools, but larger in diameter, caps (cylindrical pieces with a single blind axial hole), couplings (small cylindrical pieces with a blind hole in either end and a through hole crosswise through the center of the part), pulleys, a "Part W" (a spool, but with perimeter holes 90 degrees apart, loose-fitting center holes, and four tight-fitting through-drilled holes parallel to the center hole) The Part W allows for free-spinning parts and gears. There are also fan blades and various other small parts. Most of the larger sets also include a driveshaft, an unfinished wooden rod without slotted ends that can be turned with a small plastic crank.
Sticks are slotted on each end, both to provide some give when inserted into snug-fitting holes, and to allow thin cards, flags, and strings to be inserted into the slots. They are color-coded by size.
While only a toy, there are benefits to kids who play with Tinkertoys, Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs and other similar toys. They help sharpen focus and patience as they ponder how to build whatever it is in their imagination. These toys develop motor skills that can be used in everyday mundane tasks like buttoning clothes or zipping up a jacket. Building toys is hands on and teaches children to use their imagination and helps them develop problem solving skills.
Another major advantage is that they are just plain FUN...even for adults. When I received not one, but two, Erector Sets for Christmas one year, I couldn't play with it Christmas day because my Dad was playing with it...he built a huge Ferris wheel.
Take a gander at THESE Tinkertoy sculptures.