Alfred Carlton Gilbert (1884 — 1961) was an incredible man of many talents. Although he was a record setting Olympic athlete, professional magician, industrious toymaker and successful entrepreneur, today he is most widely known as the inventor of the popular Erector construction sets. Born in Oregon, Gilbert was an athletic kid with a bit of wild streak who once impulsively joined a minstrel show, “to become the ‘Champion Boy Bag Puncher of the World.’”
Eventually, the young man attended Tualatin Academy (now Pacific University), where he excelled in sports and earned more than 100 hundred awards. In 1904, Gilbert transferred to Connecticut’s Yale University, where he completed his degree in sports medicine. While there, “he competed in the 1908 Olympics in London, breaking the world record and winning a gold medal in pole vaulting.” He also married Mary Thompson, who he’d met while attending Tualatin Academy, together they’d go on to have three children.
Throughout his college experiences, which included breaking a total of three world records in two different sports and inventing the pole vault box, Gilbert supported himself by performing magic shows. During senior year, in 1909, he partnered with his friend John Petrie to start the Mysto Manufacturing Company, which sold boxed magic sets. Just two years later, Gilbert would get the inspiration he needed to create one of the world’s most popular toys, which he “based on steel building girders he observed while on a train ride.”
Rumor has it that Mary Thompson helped her husband develop cardboard prototypes of the invention, to ensure they got the right dimensions and patterns. The Erector Set was officially released in 1913 and presented at the New York Toy Fair. It was the only construction toy on the market to feature a motor. By this point, Gilbert bought out his partner, anticipating the company’s impending success, with his toy propelling it forward. By 1915, Gilbert’s invention received a Gold Medal at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.
The Erector Set, much like its creator, ended up setting a new bar in several different areas. It is widely considered to be the first toy that was advertised in print media. And, more importantly, its success on the market made The Gilbert Company, as the Mysto Manufacturing Company came to be known in 1916, “among the first companies in the United States to provide a benefit package for its employees.” Gilbert also founded and became the first president of the Toy Manufacturers of America (TMA).
According to Rodney P. Carlisle, author of Encyclopedia of Play in Today's Society, Volume 1 (2009):
“First offered at a time when skyscrapers were becoming popular and engineers were earning more money a year than doctors, playing with the Erector Set seemed like the first step toward a lucrative career. Businessmen and industrial psychologists touted the Erector Set’s ability to encourage constructive instincts; parents paid a considerable sum to buy the toy and invest in their son’s futures. Americans saw the Erector Set as a means of producing the next wave of scientists and engineers who could continue to make life better and easier.”
In 1918, however, Gilbert and his growing enterprise encountered a problem. The Council of National Defence, an organization birthed during World War I that was responsible for the coordination of resources in support of the war effort, considered a ban on toy production. Gilbert stepped in with a passionate plea to abandon the idea, making the argument that in a stressful time, such as the one they were going through, required giving children a healthy distraction in the form of play.
The rationale behind his objection made an impression and toy production across the country was allowed to continue, earning Gilbert the moniker of “The Man Who Saved Christmas” in the press. An American film by the same name was released in 2002, with Jason Alexander portraying the charismatic Gilbert. It’s worth noting that the Erector Sets used in the film were of a different, smaller size form the originals, which were produced between 1913 and 1923. The change was implemented in 1924, when the entire Erector Set was reimagined and expanded by more than 70 pieces.
After the war, business was good. Gilbert’s company grew its list of offerings to including science kits, crystal radio sets, and many other toys that were intellectually provoking and, therefore, educational for kids. But, the Erector Sets were still its most iconic and profitable product, not to mention the most culturally diverse one. ”Much to the delight of A.C. Gilbert, the Erector Set was actually used by two Yale New Haven doctors — William Sewell and William Glenn — in 1949 to build the first artificial heart pump.”
Being a fan of innovation, Gilbert was concerned with how little attention was given to inventing at institutions of formal education, so “he issued certificates to boys for the Gilbert Institute of Engineering and in 1941 opened the Gilbert Hall of Science in New York City.” In 1942, his company briefly aided in the war effort by producing equipment for military aircraft, but resumed as usual shortly after the end of WWII. Throughout the 1950s, his company expanded to include the production of home appliances as well as other ventures. Throughout all of this, Gilbert still wrote books, invented numerous toys, and lived one of the most amazing lives in the world.
“He retired in 1954 and published his autobiography, The Man Who Lives in Paradise, the same year.” By the end of his life, Gilbert had over 150 pattens to his name, earned his place in sports history, and founded one of the most profitable toy companies in the world while somehow managing to remain a family man. He died in 1961, at the age of 76. Although his company went out of business just a few years after he passed, Gilbert’s legacy continues to live on. Today, Erector Sets are sold by a company called Meccano, its mission is: “To give today’s young minds the tools to become tomorrow’s innovators.”