Capsela is Dead, Long Live Capsela

In the magical 80s, there was a building set that stood apart from the rest. Capsela, originally created by Mitzubishi Pencil Company (the Uniball folks) looked like a series of clear plastic spheres with gears and motors inside. The signature Capsela modules served as both enclosure and functional component. The set came with a variety of gear options like planetary gear, worm gear, and clutch capsules. You could use chain drives and propellers. A lot of the parts were water-resistant, and part of the toy’s shtik was that you could make boats out of it with pontoons keeping most of the robot out of the water.

Hex connectors printed by ericd3

Capsela’s sets were relatively simple, with only DC motors to make things move. However, as the product found success, the company built increasingly larger and more complicated sets with  greater capabilities. For instance, in ’87 they released the Robotic Workshop that included an IR remote that could be configured with a Commodore 64. Later on the Capsela Voice Command 6000 was released, featuring a microcontroller that could understand 8 verbal commands as well as interpret IR signals within 25 feet.

I never got any of those fancy sets, but I still found a lot to do with the basic set my parents bought me for Christmas. The unique architecture of the set was both boon and bane–it certainly was a striking set, in terms of its appearance. However, there were only so many ways you could those spheres together. Also, if you weren’t making a boat the pontoons were fairly useless, with the most clever solution being to use one as a wheel substitute.

The thing that really did it for me, other than hacking out reconfigurable boats in my bathtub, was being able to see everything. All the gearboxes could be seen though the clear plastic. How many nerds learned about mechanical engineering by peering through Capsela spheres?

As with all things, Capsela had its peak and faded away. The product was licensed to a number of new manufacturers, but never found the same success. They tried focusing on the educational market but no dice.

Nevertheless, the product has retained a degree of  nostalgia for those of us who outgrew it. A few years ago, software developer [José Romaniello] described how the toy set him on a path toward being an engineer. He started a Hacker News thread that engaged a bunch of fans in a nerdfest about how great the toy was and how one might 3D print new pieces. Not much was done in the 3DP world that I have seen, other than re-creating Capsela’s hex connectors and that sort of thing.

It’s Baaaaack….

“If they can remake Beauty and the Beast they can bring back Capsela”, is how I’m assuming the thought process went. Sure enough, a company emerged with a redesigned version of the set, available over the internet and in brick and mortar stores. Put out by a shell company called the Unitrust Development Company, the product has been renamed IQ Key.

The new kits seem very similar to those classic sets from  the 80s, other than superficial changes in the product’s appearance — the faceted geography of the pontoons and capsules suggest a refreshed product — it looks pretty much the same. The battery pack (slash switch) has also been redesigned, and looks like it may have an IR receiver built in. The company has also redesigned those hexagonal connectors and now they are circular and bayonet into place.

Is it the same old Capsela we knew and loved? Maybe, maybe not, but there’s only one way to find out: to hack the hell out of it!

[Main image source: Capsela model with swivel by Adrian J. Hunder CC-BY-SA 3.0]

31 thoughts on “Capsela is Dead, Long Live Capsela

  1. Ah, Capsela. I have fond memories of putting together random capsules to see what they’d do, and watching the clunky blue walking robot try to take 10 steps without falling over,. Also, less fond memories of discovering what happens to plastic gears when you try to backdrive a reduction gear capsule a little too forcefully.

  2. My cousin and I had sets when we were kids. I actually found one of the pieces recently.

    Too bad they changed up the connector on the new version, it would have been cool to merge old sets and new.

  3. I had quite a comprehensive set here in France. They were sparsely knew, and never saw one in my street-corner toy store. Only the ubiquitous Meccano was to be seen here. My parents found some for me as only “engineering-like” toys pleased me :D

    However many fond memories I have with those, it was pretty frequently a source of hassle to use. Anyone who had stuck two flat peices of lego together that resorted to a knife to part them will understand me. Those pesky hex connectors had the very bad habit of getting stuck and nearly impossible to remove. Mine had teeth bites all over the place from me trying to remove those.
    Moreover, the battery packs had long leads without any kind of stress releif. I lost count of how many broke due to a wire breaking at its root.

    But heh, still had a lot of fun with those, especially with the crappy IR remote, which proved to be the best battery pack of all (stress releif FTW !)

  4. My future in engineering was evident before my parents bought me a Capsela kit. In my single digits I would break apart my toys to see how they worked to my parents’ frustration. They bought me a transparent toy train so I could see the moving gears in hopes I wouldn’t break it. No dice. I didn’t just want to understand how things worked, I wanted to rework them. Capsela was a toy I couldn’t break (I remember trying) but could reconfigure into many different working machines. So glad to be reminded of it.

  5. Ah, memories. Capsela was one of my favorite toys when I was in my late single digits, but I ran into some of the same issues with it that [Tuetuopay] lists above. It didn’t take long (a year or two) for the set I had to have most of its parts either lost or broken. I ended up moving on to Erector (as Meccano was known in the US) and Lego, and learned a lot while having fun with both of those, especially the Lego.
    I don’t really miss Capsela, and the new ones look pretty lame. They should concentrate more on the engineering blocks (okay, “spheres”) with gears, motors, transmissions, and the like. It looks like they are trying too hard to be something that Capsela never really was, a modeling toy.

  6. Capsela was truly amazing in its simplicity and the range of vehicles and contraptions you could build with it. From cars, tanks to “boats” with the attachable floats, it was great fun and probably what made me love engineering.

    Unfortunately I found out about the demise and unavailability of the kits a few years ago, the IQ Key replacement was out but the website was unavailable (exceeded data allowance, ha!) and trying to find it in Australia would have been futile.

    Any other great simple kits for kids people might recommend? Age 3-7. Admittedly I played with Capsela probably 7-11.

  7. I remember capsela well! Meccano, during it’s hayday might’ve been more versatile, but the basic idea was beautiful. circuits are nice, and there are dozens of toys to let one play with them, but toys for playing with mechanics are sadly lacking.

  8. I used to have Capsela when I was a kid. Too bad I dont have it anymore, it was very fun to play with.
    At least with LEGO (my other childhood love) I can still walk into a store and buy some.

  9. Something that I always found interesting is the similarities between Capsela and object oriented programming. Capsela modules had inputs, outputs, and properties. I could modify the power flow by using the right modules, so fun!

    … don’t get me started on Choose Your Own Adventure books and HTML. :)

  10. Erector rules. Meccano second, but first in beautiful gear sets until tri shaft plastic. Real Erector sets died a couple years after A.C. Gilbert did. Both still the sturdiest construction toy/development tool. Spin Master trying at least to keep Erector/Meccano names meaningful. Long over due Erector /Meccano robotics entry Meccanoid but slid back to not quite ‘MAX”. Meccanoid has a limited programmabilit thru smart device. LEGO still busting up the school bots scene. Expensive to ridiculous. Capsela was too expensive. Awkward and limited to build with. Fragile. Reminded me of DC-3 Erector Gabriel motors. Like to snap and break under no stress whatsoever. And that was just assembly. Models dont really look like anything. Only a few parts were waterproof and even those barely. Wasn’t uncommon to get rust in drive modules and water in others. Wires liked to corrode to pretty green after building one of their water models. Condensation was not accounted for.
    Milton Bradley Robotix slightly better than capsela. Robotix continues on too but not a MB product anymore. K’nex would be just below LEGO. They have a robot entry with STEM programming environment now as well.

  11. Octagonal, not hexagonal.

    Octagonal, not hexagonal.

    I looked at the instructions for one of the IQ Key sets, and the connectors don’t use a bayonet mechanism in any way. They’re still octagonal, just the male part is circular with four splines (rather than an octagon) to fit into the octagonal coupler. I would be extremely surprised if it’s not 100% compatible with Capsela.

  12. My coworker found a huge box of these at a thrift store and asked if I wanted them. Of course I wanted them. I have them sitting under my desk waiting for the next big rain so we can make a boat in the ditch next to the office.

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