When one thinks of building things as a hobby, everyone talks about Legos. These were a large staple of my childhood and gave me a lot of things to do outside of video games and other endeavors on the computer. However, there was an alternative to Legos for those who grow out of them, or want to grow in another direction. This toy was called K’Nex, pronounced like the word “connects.”
K’Nex is a series of interlocking plastic rods, connectors, blocks, gears, wheels, and other various components. K’Nex’s creator, Joel Glickman, attended a wedding and got the idea while connecting a straw to other straws. He and his brother, Bob, started the company in the early 1990s. Builders who were more advanced used wheels and pulleys. The first set of K’Nex came out in 1993 with hand cranks to make things move. However, gears and motors became available in latter models so they could move on their own.
K’Nex had a lot of difficulty during its initial run. The four largest toy companies at the time—Hasbro, Mattel, Lego, and Tyco—turned down K’Nex. Glickman eventually got a contract with then retail giant, Toys R Us, Where he sold his brainchild directly. One of the most interesting things about K’Nex is that in its earlier years, the brand did not make sets with licensed brands (which Lego did), but based their toys around popular fads like RC cars. By 2001, the brand eventually made sets using BattleTech/MechWarrior labels, and eventually did Orange County Chopper, Sesame Street, and even Mario Kart Wii by 2011.
Many of the popular designs that were made by K’Nex included roller coasters and other pulley systems. Some hobbyists have went as far as to construct entire life-sized bikes out of K’Nex, showing the versatility of the brand. Concordia University has created models of a space shuttle and real-life landmarks such as the Sears Tower and Eiffel Tower. The brand has even made it into the Guinness Book of World Records several times under the category of World’s Largest K’Nex Sculpture. The brand also has a traveling exhibit that visits schools and museums across the country to show what one can do with K’Nex.
While it is not as popular today as it was during the 1990s and early 2000s, K’Nex definitely gave kids an alternative to building models that Lego dominated for many years. If you can find these old sets, you can reminisce about what you have built, and even hand it off to a new generation.
Also published in GADGETS MAGAZINE April 2018 Issue
Words by Jose Alvarez