Before 1880 you didn't actually have to go to school, and now - over 130 years later - you do. And what's more, you have to stay there until you're 16. Quite a lot's changed over the years: slates aren't really practical any more (bit heavy, and prone to breaking should you drop them on the floor, but at least you wouldn't get caned if this happened today); indeed even exercise books seem to have become a rare species. It's mostly digital now, or so I'm told. I lose track.
But one thing that has remained more or less constant in all these years of education is the brand that so many of us associate with school: Helix. Now the UK's oldest and largest manufacturer of school stationery, it came into being in 1887, only a few years after education in this green and pleasant land of ours became compulsory. Its first project was the production of a wooden ruler: perfect for drawing nice straight lines and even better for rapping knuckles. A few years later came another potentially painful item - a drawing compass.
In 1912, notorious for being the year that the Titanic took on an iceberg with disastrous consequences, the very first set of 'Universal Mathematical Instruments' was produced. The tin's design was a little different to its modern counterpart - shades of beige and brown featured heavily - but it's recognisably the great-great-grandfather of the set we know and love today.
1935 saw the birth of the Oxford brand, and the maths set took on the new 'Complete and Accurate' branding. It stayed pretty much the same for quite a while after that - an advertisement in a magazine from 1960 described it as 'A COMPLETE-ACCURATE-ROBUST SET…' (why change something that works so well?) - until last year (2017) when the Colours range was introduced. The tins in this range are very slightly different, in that they feature a coloured insert, but the real (and quite startling) difference is in the contents: you can choose from bright blue instruments, shocking pink ones, a lime green layette or a set in rich purple. Not content with leaving it at that, this year saw the launch of the Metallics range: rose gold and silver sets - and they popped in a ballpoint as well.
But there's more to Helix Oxford than maths sets. The wooden ruler has been joined by a plastic version and one that folds in half. The compass - no doubt due to 'elf and safety - has a blunter, shorter tip and is now self-centring. Probably not an awful lot of good for piercing ears anymore but spot on for drawing accurate circles. You can get a packet of full length HB pencils now, rather than using the pencil that comes with the compass, and some erasers for all the mistakes you're bound to make, plus a pencil sharpener with a canister for catching all those pesky shavings. And a pencil isn't the only writing instrument that Helix Oxford produce: there's now a matching set of fountain pen, ballpoint and rollerball, which all take widely-available refills - the Parker-style in the case of the ballpoint, and international standard ink cartridges for the fountain pen and rollerball. And these days there's no need to try and cram other bits of stationery into your maths set tin: instead, you can use a neoprene pencil case to store your stuff, or a rather sophisticated hard shell case. If you're about to be subjected to an exam, there's a couple of sizes of transparent, invigilator-friendly pencil cases as well.
More than a century after its launch on an unsuspecting world, the maths set has sold in excess of 150 million units. It's taken on iconic status. You sort of have to have it if you're at school (even if it was thrust upon a mystified you by an eager parent or grandparent, for reasons that hopefully have now become clear). It simply has everything you need for an average school day: something to write with (even if it's strictly part of a compass ensemble), something to measure lines or draw a circle with, a few things to measure angles with, and even something that enables you to create fancy lettering. And all of this comes in a sturdy tin that fits nicely in your bag, and can put up with a bit of bashing, dropping and being stood on. And when you've left school you can discard the contents - they might have become a bit the worse for wear by now, anyway - and use it to keep all sorts of things safe: a puncture repair kit, Allen keys, stray nuts and bolts, makeup, needles and thread, even a basic first aid kit… what better way to remember your schooldays - and the company that saw you through them - than by keeping some of life's useful bits and pieces in your old Helix Oxford maths tin?
31 July 2018