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Fascinating facts about A. C. Gilbert
inventor of the
Erector Set in 1913.
A. C. Gilbert
Inventor: Alfred Carlton Gilbert
Alfred.C. Gilbert photo courtesy A. C. Gilbert Heritage Society
Criteria: First to invent. First to patent. Entrepreneur.
Birth: February 13, 1884 in Salem, Oregon
Death: January 24, 1961 in New Haven, Connecticut,
Nationality: American
A. C. Gilbert, was one of the most multi-talented inventors of all time. With many fields open to his ingenuity, he chose to educate and entertain children through toys.

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was born in Salem, Oregon in 1884. His boyhood love was magic tricks: he became so proficient that he once matched a traveling professional magician trick for trick, and earned the prescient praise, "My boy, you will be a great success." In high school, Gilbert discovered his talent for athletics, especially wrestling and track and field; in college, he was a football star.

But Gilbert was also a brilliant student, and soon went on to Yale Medical School. He helped pay his tuition by performing as a magician, and founded a company, Mysto Manufacturing, which sold magic kits for kids. In 1908, he took time out to compete in the IV. Olympiad in London, England, and came home with the gold medal in the pole vault --- thanks in part to a new, spike-less bamboo pole that he was the first Olympian to use.

In 1909, Gilbert finished medical school, but decided to expand his budding toy business rather than practice as a doctor. Like many residents of New Haven, Connecticut, he often took the train to New York City; and on one trip in 1911 he was inspired with what would be the most popular of his dozens of inventions.

Watching out the train window as some workmen positioned and riveted the steel beams of an electrical power-line tower, Gilbert decided to create a children's construction kit: not just a toy, but an assemblage of metal beams with evenly spaced holes for bolts to pass through, screws, bolts, pulleys, gears and eventually even engines. A British toy company called Meccano Company was then selling a similar kit, but Gilbert's Erector set was more realistic and had a number of technical advantages --- most notably, steel beams that were not flat but bent lengthwise at a 90-degree angle, so that four of them nested side-to-side formed a very sturdy, square, hollow support beam.

Gilbert began selling the "Mysto Erector Structural Steel Builder" in 1913, backed by the first major American ad campaign for a toy. The Erector set quickly became one of the most popular toys of all time: living rooms across the country were transformed into miniature metropolis, filled with skyscrapers, bridges and railways. Those kids who already owned a set would beg Santa annually for an upgrade, aiming for the elusive "No. 12 1/2" deluxe kit that came with blueprints for the "Mysterious Walking Giant" robot.

It is difficult for anyone under the age of 35 today to appreciate just how popular the Erector set was for over half a century. But that was not all A. C. Gilbert produced: he manufactured some of the finest model trains ever made (1946-66), a glass blowing kit (1920s), various chemistry sets (including one specifically for girls, in 1958), an "Atomic Energy Lab" complete with real radioactive particles and a working Geiger counter (1950-52), and of course his old standby, the Mysto Magic Exhibition Set.

By the time of his death in 1962, A. C. Gilbert was credited with 150 patents for the inventions that went into his products, which were really much more than just "toys." Gilbert was not only a proponent of "good, clean fun," as he put it; he truly wanted his products to better the minds of the children that enjoyed them so much.

Gilbert's original rival Meccano Company (now Meccano Toys Ltd.) acquired the rights to the Erector Set after 1962, and still sells them today.

TO LEARN MORE

RELATED INFORMATION:
The Entrepreneur    from The Great Idea Finder
Erector Sets, Invention Facts  from The Great Idea Finder

ON THE BOOKSHELF:
The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made: The Life and Times of A. C. Gilbert
by Bruce Watson / Paperback: 224 pages / Penguin Books; Reprint edition (October 28, 2003)
Athlete, magician, marketing genius, millionaire- A. C. Gilbert was all of these, but he made his name by refusing to grow up. In 1913 Gilbert poured his boyish enthusiasm into a new toy. He called it the Erector Set, and the A. C. Gilbert Company sold 30 million of them.

Kid Stuff: Great Toys from Our Childhood (Limited Availability)
by David Hoffman, Viktor Budnik (Photographer) / Paperback - 108 pages (1996) / Chronicle Books
Ever wonder if Barbie had a last name? (It's Roberts.) Who invented Lincoln Logs? (John L. Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright.) Filled with a host of curious facts and little-known anecdotes about the creation of dozens of timeless toys and games, Kid Stuff is a celebration of classic playthings, mostly from the 1940s throught the 1960s, that are still popular today.

ON THE WEB:
Official Erector Set Web Site
The site is operated by Brio Division of Maccano Company,
(URL: www.briotoy.com)
Invention Dimension - Inventor of the Week
Celebrates inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual awards to inspire a new generation of American scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs.
President (TMA)
A.C. Gilbert was a native Oregonian who was born in Salem and was the famous inventor of Erector Sets and Gilbert Chemistry Sets. Gilbert was the first president of the Toy Manufacturers Association (TMA), an association that hosts the largest toy fair in the world.
(URL: www.acgilbert.org/about.htm)
A.C. Gilbert Heritage Society
From 1909 till his death in 1961, AC Gilbert would revolutionize the toys that we would play with. For a little over fifty years he brought us toys that made science fun.
(URL: www.acghs.org/)

AC Gilbert's Discovery Village
A.C. Gilbert's Discovery Village

Hands-on children's museum with interactive exhibits in the sciences, arts and humanities.
(URL: www.acgilbert.org
)
Erector World
Everthing you ever needed to know about Erestor Sets.
(URL: www.girdersandgears.com
)
Erector Set Heart Pump
Using a toy Erector set, William Sewell Jr. and William W. L. Glenn, Yale University medical students, built this section of a heart pump, which Sewell successfully used in experimental bypass surgery on dogs.
(URL: www.smithsonianlegacies.si.edu/objectdescription.cfm?ID=17
)
Construction Toy Homepage
These pages are devoted to vintage construction toys of all types. This site is intended for the enjoyment of its visitors and has no connection with any commercial firm.
(URL: www.chem.sunysb.edu/msl/lego/homepage.html
)
The Construction Site
This site is dedicated to providing a complete selection of high quality blocks and building toys and accessories. Invemtory includes the entire line from each manufacturer in stock, including basic sets, extra pieces, add-on sets, and storage bins with many new and hard-to-find construction toys.

(URL: www.constructiontoys.com/)
The Man Who Saved Christmas

Abstract of an article by Bruce Watson, originally published in the April 1999 issue of Smithsonian.
(URL: www.smithsonianmag.si.edu/smithsonian/issues99/may99/erector.html)

DID YOU KNOW?:

  • By the time of his death in 1962, A. C. Gilbert was credited with 150 patents for the inventions that went into his products, which were really much more than just "toys."
  • Christmas of 1918 was just months away, and the United States — immersed in the war effort — was considering calling off Santa. Perhaps parents should invest in Liberty bonds rather than in toys, the powers-that-be reasoned. Why should toys be saved when so many other items were being sacrificed during wartime? Addressing the Council of National Defense in a special meeting, an energetic businessman from New Haven, Connecticut, explained why. America, argued A. C. Gilbert, was the home of educational toys, toys that prepared our boys for adulthood. He was touted in the press that year as "The Man Who Saved Christmas."
Reference Sources in BOLD Type This page revised October 9, 2006.
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