Alfred Carlton Gilbert: He Challenged Us to Think as We Played, Part I

by | Jun 27, 2006

Hey! C’mon. I wanna show you my toys. This is my American Flyer set. It really smokes–and it has a diesel roar! Hear it? Look! There’s my microscope set–and my weather station! Over there is my clock building set and next to it is my kit radio. This is my chemistry set. Those on the […]

Hey! C’mon. I wanna show you my toys.

This is my American Flyer set. It really smokes–and it has a diesel roar! Hear it?

Look! There’s my microscope set–and my weather station! Over there is my clock building set and next to it is my kit radio. This is my chemistry set. Those on the shelf above it are my Visible Man and Visible V-8 models. Next to them are my Tinker Toys. That’s my trusty, tripod-mounted telescope by the window.

And here–here is my pride and joy. My Erector Set.

As a boy, I always liked to show off my toys to friends and visitors. Though I didn’t know it then, one man made all those toys possible–even though his company only manufactured some of them. The production of the rest, and many, many others like them, was the result of his influence and that of his toy company’s, once among the largest in the world.

It all started just after the beginning of the last century. This new fangled toy idea of his. By the time I was born, this man of imagination and invention had changed the way kids had played for millennia. He showed them new toys–a new way to play, one fit for a brand spanking new 20th century of progress. Over the better part of that century, he sent not just a generation, but an entire civilization of children scampering into the future. He did so by showing youngsters that thinking is fun.

His name was Alfred Carlton Gilbert. AC for short.

Born on February 13, 1884 in Salem, Oregon, A. C. Gilbert loved magic. Indeed, he earned his degree in sports medicine by paying his way through Yale Medical School as a performing magician. AC, while performing magic on the stage, also performed a little magic in the field of athletics. During his time at Yale, AC set a new world’s record for consecutive chin-ups. A member of the track team, AC also set the collegiate distance record for the running long dive, as the long jump was then called. In 1909, AC reached the summit of amateur track and field by winning a gold medal at the London Olympics, setting a new world’s record in the pole-vault.

The real magic performed here, of course, was self-made. Always cheerful and upbeat, AC early on forged within himself a strength of mind, a purity of character and a sharpness of focus that gave his small 5′ 7″, 135 pound frame the power of a steaming locomotive. Throughout his life, AC happily raced past goal after goal, following into the future his vision of life as an unobstructed right of way.

AC’s first stop along that right of way occurred while he was still at Yale. As an offshoot of his magic performances, AC started a company that sold magic kits. He called it the Mysto Manufacturing Company. In 1909, AC graduated from Yale; but instead of going into medicine, he decided to expand Mysto. He did so by creating new and more complex magic kits. No amateur sleight of hand man, AC once matched a well-known professional magician trick for trick. But AC wanted to do more than just manufacture kits of illusion. He wanted children to experience the fun he found in the adventure of industry and progress, which was during those times humming everywhere across America.

For the real magic that AC loved was the “magic” of Progress–the magic of bridges flung across great divides to carry speeding trucks and automobiles; of girders knitted together by giant cranes to form the steel cages of skyscrapers; of trains, boxcars, tracks and switches; of science, industry and technology forged together by capitalism, blazing new trails in invention, manufacturing and commerce. AC greatest achievement was discovering a way to bring that “magic” to children.

It happened on a day in 1911, while AC was riding the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad on his regular commute. As the train sped to Manhattan, AC noticed some steel girders stacked neatly by the side of the track, next to a half-completed electrical tower. His mind always active, AC imagined putting those girders together–to form a building; or a factory; or a train trestle. He saw in his mind the giant cranes needed to lift the girders; the motors driving those cranes; the men pounding rivets into the girders to put together the structure.

AC, 27 at the time and going on 7, as Bruce Watson puts it in his book (12), thought that it would be swell if he were a giant who could do all that building himself. Now that would really be fun, AC thought as he smiled to himself. Then it occurred to him that he needn’t be a giant to have that sort of fun. All he needed to do was to shrink the size and weight of the steel girders. It was then that the Erector Set was born.

AC’s idea wasn’t just to give kids a toy–a toy bridge or toy building, pre-assembled with miniature girders and such. No siree. AC wanted to give children much more than that; he wanted to give children the means to make their own toys. The Erector Set was in fact “a children’s construction kit … an assemblage of metal beams with evenly spaced holes for bolts to pass through, screws, [nuts], pulleys, gears and eventually even [electrical motors]” (The Great Idea Finder). The fun of the Erector Set for AC—and what he knew children would find fun also—lay in the doing. AC’s “toy” you see was the act of creating, the act of learning how to build cranes and bridges and buildings. Then doing it.

The act of turning ideas into reality.

How cool is that!

The only thing children needed to play with AC’s Erector Set was the desire to think, to imagine—and then, to do. That was AC’s great gift—and great challenge—to the children growing up in the early 20th Century: Learn that thinking—and its result, progress—is fun! Eventually, throughout the civilized world of the time, children—and their parents—came in droves to buy AC’s Erector Set; to delight in his gift; and to meet his challenge, again and again and again.

First manufactured in 1913, the “Mysto Erector Structural Steel Builder” soon became the gift every boy hoped to find under the Christmas tree. Every so often, AC would bring out another Set in the line. After “Structural Steel & Electro-Mechanical Builder Set No. 1”, there followed other, larger, more complex Sets. Eventually there was a set for building a giant, mechanized robot. It’s estimated that A. C. Gilbert is responsible for setting more boys—and even some girls (those lucky enough to have had enlightened parents who bought them an Erector Set)—on the career path of engineering than any other person in history, certainly more than has any other toy maker, before or since.

That’s not as farfetched as it sounds. Indeed, it was this capability of the Erector Set—and AC’s other toys and those of his competitors who had learned from him—to teach children how to think, how to create, how to build, that AC stressed in his presentation before the War Department the year after America had entered World War I. That was 1917, the year that A. C. Gilbert saved Christmas in America.

Works Cited

  1. Alfred Carlton Gilbert.”  A.C. Gilbert’s Discovery Village.  2006
  2. Erector Set.”  The Great Idea Finder.  2006
  3. Watson, Bruce.  The Man Who Changed How Boys And Toys Were Made: The Life And Times of A. C. Gilbert—The Man Who Saved Christmas.  Penguin.  New York, 2002.


Steven Brockerman, who has a Masters degree in English education, is the owner of WrittenWord Consulting, an education consulting company that contracts with businesses and colleges, develops 1-8 grade curriculum for the home education market and does contracted research. In addition, Mr. Brockerman has been an assistant editor of Capitalism Magazine and is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the New York Post, Florida Today, Salt Lake City Tribune, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Bangkok Daily News, Tallahassee Democrat, Charlotte Capitalist, Mideast Newswire, Free Republic and Jerusalem Post, among others.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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