I don’t know what it says about me that I spent a good part of Saturday morning obsessively trying to remember the name of a toy that I had twenty-five years ago. In my defense, I was only trying to get the second movement of Bolcom’s 8th out of my head.
The toy I was trying to recall was a construction set. The main parts were a polygonal hub to which one connected struts to build the structure. After a good amount of aimless Google searches (though building toys 80s rods does turn up some funny things), the name swum into my head, unbidden. Ramagon.
The best image I found of the Ramagon toy was in an eBay listing. You can see the struts, in multiple lengths, in the front of the photo, with the soccer-ball-like hubs beside them. I had forgotten the snap-in panels, which were in different shapes to adopt to the different angles that could be formed from the intersection of hubs and spokes. And this was one of the cooler bits about the toy: while you could build right angles with it, its native symmetry was triangular and pyramidal. The symmetry came from the hubs, which are octagonal in cross section. The hubs could accept eight spokes in the same plane around their equator, eight more above or below the equatorial plane, coming off at about 45 degree angle, and one more at each pole. The spokes snapped in and out easily, as their tips were composed of two prongs that could be compressed together to fit into the holes in the hubs, and compressed again to come out.
The spokes were the weak link in the set; while the rest of the construction was solid, the plastic was just on the brittle side of strong and those prongs were prone to snapping off. (You’ll notice in the eBay image that a few prongs, disconnected from their struts, are included). But the set as a whole was very cool. You could build stuff with it that simply outclassed anything that you could do with either Lego (of the time, with its strongly rectilinear bias) or Erector. In fact, I remember hearing from one of my Dad’s NASA colleagues that the set strongly resembled something that was to become the foundation for the Space Station frame, and that NASA used the Ramagon sets to model future structures (this mention of the toy in a Kennedy Space Center kid’s book is kind of suggestive).
So what happened to Ramagon, and why isn’t it remembered in the same breath as Lego? One issue, perhaps was the purity of the hub and spoke model. You’ll notice in the eBay picture that the hubs had to do a lot of extra duty as engines, gun barrel mouths, and even wheels (with special rubber wraparound “tires” applied). There was no real room for the custom pieces that allowed Lego builders to extend beyond the basic brick.
And the company building the toy had its own issues. The founder, Richard Gabriel, took the concept from licensee to licensee but was apparently never able to get enough going to build market momentum.