Hornby Railways' roots date back to 1901, when Frank Hornby, a clerk from Liverpool, invented and patented his Meccano line of construction toys. He had previously created model toys for his sons using sheet metal, and came to the realisation that regular perforations in structural pieces could be used to join them together with nuts and bolts and also to journal shafts and axles. By 1908, Meccano Ltd was formed, and by 1920, trading under the name Hornby Railways, the company produced the first Hornby train sets.
Initially, the Liverpool-produced trains were clockwork powered and sized at a 1:48 scale, or 0 gauge, named so because it was at the time thought impossible to make train models any smaller. Electric trains were introduced shortly thereafter, but were comparatively unsuccessful due in part to their design, and were discontinued. In 1925, a more successful electric train set was introduced, operating on high voltage (220-240V) AC power, but due to safety concerns this was changed to 4V, then 6V, and finally a reliable 20V system in the early 1930s.
Production also began in France, where a local range of outline trains were developed, but in other markets, British-produced trains became successful exports, with large numbers of trains sold in New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and Scandinavia. These Hornby locomotives were often painted in the local liveries, but still had a distinctly British look to them.
Hornby's attempt to enter the American market was less successful. Setting up a factory in New Jersey in 1927, Hornby found its trains were undercut on price by local established competitors, and despite the American-made trains being colourful and attractive, they were not quite sophisticated enough to aim at the high-end market. The Wall Street crash of 1929 didn't help matters, and by 1930, Hornby had all but disappeared from the US market.
In 1938, Hornby introduced a range of 00 gauge (1:76 scale) trains, named Hornby Dublo, which were very successful. These locomotives were die-cast, with wagons and carriages mainly made of tinplate. The range set 12 V DC adaptors and the 00 gauge as the de facto standard for model trains in the UK, but production halted during World War II.
After the war, Hornby initially thrived, but met with difficulty by the late 1950s. The company was slow to recognise the threat posed by rival manufacturers, in particular Triang-Rovex and to realise the potential of plastic. The company released a two-rail track and moulded plastic rolling rock in 1959, but the system was too complicated to use compared to its rivals, and it kept on producing 0 gauge model trains, which were by now considered old hat.
Hornby then went through changes in corporate ownership. In 1964, it was bought by rival Tri-Ang Railways' parent company and merged into Tri-Ang Hornby, which discontinued Hornby designs for the less costly Tri-Ang's and sold off the Hornby Dublo tooling to G&R Wrenn. Tri-Ang Hornby was then sold on to Dunbee-Combex-Marx, becoming Hornby Railways in 1972, increasing detail on the product line to compete with newer companies like Airfix.
In the late 1970s, Hornby introduced the Zero 1 control system. Though an important milestone, it was not successful for several reasons - the controller units and modules required for the trains were expensive, the system didn't run smoothly, and once Hornby trains were equipped with Zero 1 modules they could not run on conventional systems.
By 1980 the market was extremely tough and while its parent company folded, Hornby Hobbies was formed after a management buyout, going public in 1986. In the 1990s Hornby moved its production to the Guangdong province in China, cutting costs and improving quality in response to an increasingly competitive market place.
Hornby has in recent years bought several of its competitors, including Corgi Classics, Rivarossi, Arnold, Lima, Airfix and Humbrol paints, with its main competition coming from Bachman and Dapol. It is generally accepted amongst modellers that Hornby train sets are better quality and more detailed than Bachmann models, which is somewhat ironic as it was the competition of Bachmann and others that lead to Hornby's production move to China.
Hornby currently produce a large range of highly detailed steam and diesel model trains, including digital and steam powered trains, called the Hornby Live Steam range, as well as ranges of resin and track accessories, named Skaledale and Lyddle End, for the 00 gauge and N gauge (1:148 scale) ranges of trains, respectively.
In addition to these, licensed products, such as the Hornby Thomas the Tank Engine and Hogwarts Express lines have been particularly profitable for the company and firmly cementing Hornby's place as the UK's leading brand of model trains.