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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?
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
“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."
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How Toys Have Changed
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.
Check out our full line of Erector Sets at New Horizon Toys: