Construx and Capsela the OTHER building sets from the 80s
Construx and Capsela the OTHER building sets from the 80s Lego has been the leader in toy construction for generations but many other interesting systems have come and gone filling niche markets. In my youth I, like many kids, had an allowance and I had a knee jerk reaction to blow my money on toys, specifically building toys. In the 80s I discovered a toy line called Construx by Fisher-Price. Every time my parents took me to the local TG&Y or Venture stores I would make a bee line to the toy isle to plot and plan my next set.
Construx were first introduced in 1983 and consisted of unique building parts that snap together allowing children to build larger and stronger items then what could be done with Legos at the time. Construx included lots of action parts such as wheels, pulleys, hinges, turntables and more allowing kids to build everything from movable bridges to realistic spaceships.
The first sets were all sold with grey beams and blue connector nuts - titled the "Imagination Series" in 1984. That same year they introduced the Construx Space Series with white beams and glow-in-the-dark pieces, these were my favorites and the most common in my collection. Motorized Construx sets were added to the Imagination Series in 1985. After that The Military Series and Alien Series were introduced each with their own color schemes but all compatible. The Imagination Series, Space Series, Alien Series, and Military Series all remained in production until 1988.
The 1989 Toy Fair catalog pictured several new Construx sets that were to be introduced. These new sets include the Starter Construx (for ages 3 to 5), the Basix Construx (for ages 5 to 7), and the Advanced Construx (for ages 7+). However the toy line was abruptly discontinued in the fall of 1988 and the available sets soon dried up at the nearby stores forcing me to rely on garage sale finds to expand my collection.
I distinctly recall collecting and counting the change from my piggy bank and riding with my grandma to the store to buy the last clearance Stellar Exploration set. I was embarrassed that the line at the checkout counter was being held up because they had to count all my various piles of nickels, dimes and occasional quarter. I beamed with pride though as the cashier and my grandma told me to be proud I had saved up to purchase it myself. It’s funny how small moments like that stick with us. I must have been no more than 7 or 8 but I remember it in vivid detail like it happened yesterday. I took that set home and proudly added it to my yellow storage case like the one below.
I played with these toys up through the early 90s when my teenage years yielded other interests. In that time, they were used to build bases for my G.I. Joes, starships for Luke Skywalker, a rudimentary model of the lunar lander and hundreds of other generic structures to support my imagination. My collection is long gone but while researching for this piece I found many available on eBay and with my adult income I am tempted to buy some old pieces to share with my kids. Another favorite that supported my creativity and budding engineering skills was Capsela. Attempting to fill the high end science focused toy building market Capsela looked like a series of clear plastic spheres with gears and motors inside. The signature Capsela modules served as both enclosure and functional component. The set came with a variety of gear options like planetary gears, worm gears, and clutch capsules. You could even use chain drives and propellers. A lot of the parts were water-resistant, and part of the toy’s appeal was that you could make boats out of it with pontoons keeping most of the robot out of the water.
Capsela’s sets were relatively simple, with only DC motors to make things move. However, as the product found success, the company built increasingly larger and more complicated sets with greater capabilities. For instance, in 1987 they released the Robotic Workshop that included an IR remote that could be configured with a Commodore 64. Later the Capsela Voice Command 6000 was released, featuring a microcontroller that could understand 8 verbal commands as well as interpret IR signals within 25 feet. I had neither of these fancy sets but I had all the catalogs and dreamed of one day affording them! I still found a lot to do with the basic sets my parents bought me for Christmas and birthday (only after significant begging). The unique architecture of the set was both boon and bane–it certainly was cool in terms of its appearance. However, there were only so many ways you could put those spheres together. Also, if you weren’t making a boat the pontoons were fairly useless, with the cleverest solution being to use one as a wheel substitute.
The thing that really did it for me, other than hacking out reconfigurable boats in my bathtub, was being able to see everything. All the gearboxes could be seen though the clear plastic. I wonder how many nerds learned about mechanical engineering by peering through Capsela spheres? As with Construx, Capsela had its peak and faded away. The product was licensed to a number of new manufacturers, but never found the same success. They tried focusing on the educational market but with no luck. A few years ago, software developer José Romaniello described how the toy set him on a path toward being an engineer. He has a lot of quality scans of the parts and instruction manuals on his site. Boy looking at those pictures bring back memories!