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A.C. Gilbert and The Power of Play

© Copyright DiscoverThis

What toys do you recall most fondly from your childhood? If you’re over 50 – and male – you likely remember your first Erector Set. Magnificently packaged in a metal or wood box, complete with trays full of nuts and bolts and girders, the Erector Set opened a world of creativity for decades of twentieth-century boys. With patience and care you could build a truck, a draw bridge, a parachute jumper or a Ferris wheel, complete with working motors and realistic moving parts. The possibilities were endless, and it was all thanks to a man you’d never meet but would nonetheless consider among your greatest friends – Alfred Carlton Gilbert.

Who Was A.C. Gilbert?
A.C. Gilbert was born in Salem, Oregon, in 1884. He graduated from Yale medical school yet never practiced medicine. During college he worked as a professional magician often earning over $100 in one night – a considerable sum in the early 1900s! – and after he graduated he co-founded the Mysto Corporation to develop and sell magic tricks. He shared a gold medal in pole vaulting at the 1908 London Olympics, and he earned over 150 patents during his lifetime.

But most people who know A.C. Gilbert know him as the inventor of the Erector Set. Inspired by seeing steel girders erected in New York in the early 1900s, he designed kits using realistic steel pieces for children to recreate the skyscrapers, trains, trucks, bridges and amusement rides that captured their attention and their imagination.

Gilbert’s first Erector Sets hit the market in 1913, and for the next four decades he continued to invent and reinvent them. He never lost his passion for play and his enthusiasm was evident in his products and his marketing. He encouraged boys throughout the nation to design and create their own toys using his ever more elaborate sets, and he made them feel as though he knew and cared about each and every one of them.

A.C. Gilbert died in 1961 but his legacy lives on in those who remember his toys and those who share his belief that play provides a child’s best education.

Toys That Teach
When A.C. Gilbert introduced the Erector Set in 1913, it was unlike any other toy on the market. “Other toys were just sort of there," says Bill Bean, an avid collector of A.C. Gilbert Erector Sets, former president of the A.C. Gilbert Heritage Society, and the author of Greenberg’s Guide to A.C. Gilbert Erector Sets. “You picked them up and played with them and when you were done you put them back. …It wasn’t a creative thing necessarily." Erector Sets, on the other hand, were all about creativity. Each set came with detailed instructions for building a variety of mechanical objects, from cars and trucks to merry-go-rounds, locomotives, elevators, cranes and more.

“One day you can be an automobile engineer and build a big motor truck," reads the introduction to one of Gilbert's Erector Set manuals as posted on the A.C. Gilbert Heritage Society website. “Another day you can construct a giant Derrick with a real electric motor in it …Then you can build a draw bridge that actually opens and closes …and dozens of other thrilling engineering marvels. …I'll tell you boys, being an engineer is the most exciting thing in the world. And that's just what you are when you have on of my new Erectors." Gilbert encouraged children to create their own designs in addition to those included in his instruction manuals, and he offered elaborate prizes – including automobiles, ponies, and large sums of money – for those who showed the most innovation.

There seemed to be no limit to what could be created with an Erector Set. An article in Forbes magazine (November 11, 2002) notes, for example, “In 1940 Donald Bailey of Britain's Royal Engineers used his Erector Set to design the portable Bailey Bridge, which spanned creeks and rivers and was hailed by Eisenhower as one of the three most important technological advancements of the war, along with radar and heavy bombers. In 1949 Yale Medical School student William Sewell used Erector girders, an Erector motor and rubber flaps from a party noisemaker to craft the first functional artificial heart. In an experiment, it kept a dog alive for 63 minutes." In his book, The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made, Bruce Watson details numerous engineering feats in which ErectorSets played key roles, including the development of soft contact lenses and the design of Disney's California Adventure amusement ride Soaring' Over California.

In addition to Erector Sets, Gilbert sold chemistry sets, microscopes, atomic energy kits, telescopes, interlocking metal puzzles, American Flyer trains, and many other toys. He knew – long before it became the conventional wisdom – that children learn through play. His toys were “very scientific oriented and engineering oriented," says Bean. “I think they really started a lot of children on the path to science and engineering careers." Adds Pamela Vorachek, Executive Director of A.C. Gilbert’s Discovery Village in Salem, Oregon, "A lot of people have told me they went into chemistry because of A.C. Gilbert’s influence. ...(That’s) a perfect example of how playing is so important."

The Man Who Saved Christmas
In 1918, A.C. Gilbert added another title – The Man Who Saved Christmas – to his already impressive list of accomplishments. World War I was a national priority and there was talk of focusing all factory production on the war effort. As president of the Toy Manufacturers’ Association, Gilbert met with the U.S. Council of Defense to lobby for the continued production of toys. “He took his Erector Sets and the other toys that he had at the time and he met with these gentlemen," says Vorachek, “and he had them down on the floor of the legislature (playing with the toys). He said, ‘You can’t stop toy production. These are your future architects. These are your future engineers.’" Gilbert convinced the council that play is essential to learning and they decided not to halt the production of toys. The council members got to take home the toys they enjoyed that afternoon, and A.C. Gilbert became the hero of the season.

How Toys Have Changed
Times have changed since A.C. Gilbert’s heyday, and nowhere is that change more evident than in the world of toys. “When I was a kid," says Bean, “every boy got a Schwinn bike, a Lionel train, a baseball glove and an Erector Set. It was standard issue kid stuff." With all the toys on the market these days, you’d be hard pressed to find anything considered “standard." But the interesting thing isn’t how much more you can find in the way of toys: It’s how much less.

The collection of A.C. Gilbert toys at A.C. Gilbert’s Discovery Village features a few items that would shock the modern parent, like a chemistry set that contained the poison sodium cyanide and an atomic energy kit that included a small sample of radioactive material. “He also had a glass blowing kit for boys," says Vorachek, pointing out the extreme temperatures necessary to turn molten sand into glass. “You wouldn’t be able to do that now." In addition to radioactive material, the atomic energy kit included a Geiger counter and an offer to earn $10,000. “The U.S. Government was willing to pay people up to $10,000 to take that Geiger counter and go prospecting for uranium," says Vorachek. “Toys have really changed!"

A.C. Gilbert left behind a rich legacy that includes a colorful and accomplished life story as well as a passion for the educational value of play. And even with the glut of toys on the market today, children are still drawn to the excitement of creation and discovery with Erector Sets, chemistry sets, microscopes, and more. They are still the future architects, engineers and scientists of the world, and play is still the first step on their journey to success.

At Discover This and New Horizon Toys, we’re proud to feature toys that continue A.C. Gilbert’s legacy to encourage children to discover and create.

Check out our full line of Erector Sets at New Horizon Toys:

  • Classic Erector Sets include parts for up to 50 different models, depending on the set.
  • Classic Special Edition multi-model sets are perfect for the collector or builder, with mechanical functions and realistic assembling principles.
  • The Design line of multi-model Erector Sets features flexible metal pieces with molecular memory steel for more realistic models.
  • Erector Speed Play allows for quicker model building with new parts, a new construction system, and an easy-to-use new power tool.
  • The Erector Crazy Inventors series mixes the past with the future using special materials including wood and latex.

At discoverthis.com science kits, we want you and your kids to learn and play together for years to come with chemistry sets, physics kits, and microscopes we think even A.C. Gilbert would enjoy!

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