Building the fischertechnik EM1 Model 1

Growing up, I spent many hours playing with both Lego sets and fischertechnik sets. In my memory, they were functionally equivalent – just with different connecting systems and with fischertechnik having a stronger emphasis on mechanics and gears. I recently acquired some fischertechnik from that era and was pleasantly surprised by one additional difference.

Detail of fischertechnik gears

The EM1 Grundkasten is the first in a line of sets designed to be added on to the core sets in order to learn about electromechanics. As a kid, I saw some of the components of these sets in catalogs and wanted very much to add lights to the models I built (there’s more to these sets; but, that’s my clearest memory of them). As an adult, it was very satisfying wiring up my first light block and running the cable.

Detail of wire routing for fischertechnik light

Building the first model was interesting, as the only instructions I have found are in French or German and I understand very little French and even less German. There is a bit of iteration for me – see what Google Translate thinks of the text, mull through any unlikely sounding idioms, attempt to true things up with the illustrations. And this is where I hit my biggest frustration followed by my biggest delight.

Detail of support between front and back of model

This construct is presented, in assembled form, in a small black and white diagram without comment or inventory list. I stared at it. I reread the translations. I skipped forward and back. I consulted the basic sets’ instructions to see if this was borrowed from one. No dice. The challenge is that there are a few ways I know of (and likely many more I don’t) to build this. Which one is correct? Which one did the designers intend me to use? Is this in the text and not being translated accurately? Unclear. I finally decided to build it the first way that came to mind; but, felt vaguely guilty about not following the designers’ intentions… and then I found a marketing piece from fischertechnik.

All Fischertechnik instruction manuals are deliberately kept simple — they illustrate the different ways the parts interconnect to form basic mechanisms, and the child takes over from there. Even the models used as illustrations do not show full details of construction — the child is urged to figure these out for himself — or improvise new ones.

fischertechnik marketing flyer

This was fascinating – the instructions weren’t vague so much as they were leaving space for learning to occur. As a fan of Seymour Papert and LOGO, I was pleased to see a philosophy that seems to be of a piece with constructionism… even if my own notions of “how a construction set works” blinded me to it in the moment. It unlocked memories of growing up building with fischertechnik and how much I’d enjoyed the aspects of problem solving which were baked in. Hopefully, I can unlearn some of my current preconceived notions and take joy in the space to solve the problems in different ways.

Front view of first model from fischertechnik EM1
Back view of first model from fischertechnik EM1
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