Kids in the 1960′s grew up in a world with Eames furniture in their living rooms, fun and dangerous compounds in their chemistry sets, and toys that could make other toys. Two toys in particular stand out in this era of unbridled physicality.
The Vac-U-Form is a miniature vacuum forming machine. The toy consists of a platform with small holes that allow air to be sucked through it and a frame that can hold small sheets of plastic over a heating element which makes them malleable . An object is placed on the table, the plastic/frame is flipped onto the object and a hand powered vacuum pump pulls out the air, draws the plastic over the object, and creates a replica.
This is an exact replica of larger industrial machines and is truly capable of creating almost any plastic shape, for almost any application you can imagine (as long as it is <4″ x 4″). Hobby train enthusiasts, hardware hackers, and other motivated groups could use these to make plastic enclosures for their projects.
The Thingmaker consisted of a set of molds that you poured a heat sensitive plastic (Plastigoop) into. The molds were placed on an heating element and the plastic hardened into a final form ready to be played with.
Thingmaker was a platform product giving rise to a variety of “expansion packs” including: Fighting Men, Creeple Peeple, and Jillions of Jewels. Kids could pool resources and share molds to increase their manufacturing output. Timing was essential with the Thingmaker, molds left on the heat too long would forever damage the mold and those removed prematurely created a gooey mess, but for the true artisan impressive plastic objects could be fabricated.
Unfortunately, both toys relied heavily on heated elements and in an increasingly litigious society the profit quickly became unbalanced by potential liability. Both products have faded from the toy world, but are kept alive on ebay and fan web pages.
My hope is that a generation of Maker parents will be able to revive toys like this. Used in conjunction with other interactive toys like Lego NXT the potential for rewarding play and creation is immense. You could design a skeletal robot with Legos and fabricate an aesthetically pleasing shell using vacuformed components, or undertake a million different projects which is the beauty of these tools. They help make the manufactured world more understandable which in turn increases the number of people who can participate in it. The United States has lost stature as a manufacturing power for a number of reasons, but you have to believe it is partly due to people not learning at an early age how much fun it can be.