|by Doug Graves
Lincoln Logs, the stackable wooden construction set, first appeared in 1917. But 10 years prior to that a metal construction toy hit the market with a bang. Called the Erector set, this toy targeted young boys and coincided with the lure of industry and engineering at that time.
Alfred Carlton “A.C.” Gilbert, the entrepreneur behind the Erector set, was a toy-industry titan and son of a successful businessman and medical student at Yale University. In the early 1900s Gilbert was making a name as an athlete and a professional magician on the local vaudeville scene. At the 1908 London Olympics, Gilbert tied American Edward Cook for the gold medal in pole vaulting.
Ah, but as creative as Gilbert was, he was not the first to conjure up a construction toy set. That would be Frank Hornby, who patented such a toy in England in 1901. These toys, named Meccano in 1907, consisted of half-inch wide metal strips with holes at half-inch intervals. The strips could be connected with metal rods and wheels to build bridges, buildings and vehicles of all sorts.
In 1909, Gilbert, a New Haven, Conn., resident, joined with his friend, John Petrie, to found Mysto Manufacturing to produce Mysto Magic Kits and provide supplies like interlocking rings, trick cards and magic wands to magicians.
Gilbert took a construction-toy prototype he called Mysto Erector Structural Steel Building to the 1911 New York City Toy Fair. In 1913, Gilbert began selling these Erector sets along with the Mysto kits. By 1916, Gilbert had ended his partnership with Petrie and renamed his business The A.C. Gilbert Company.
Gilbert improved on Hornby’s concept by including gears, pinions and electrical motors in his Erector sets to make them more versatile. To be unlike Petrie’s version of this toy, Gilbert included steel parts bent at a 90 degree angle so that four of them put together could form a hollow support beam. When World War I stopped the flow of high-end toys from Germany and England, Gilbert was able to establish his own learning toy brand.
In 1922, Gilbert expanded his learning toy line to include chemistry sets and microscopes for children. But it was the Erector set which took hold of the interest of children and the toy market.
Erector sets arrived in an era that celebrated industry and engineering. Modern buildings and power lines were being erected across the nation as speeding trains and automobiles connected cities and towns more than ever before. By purchasing Erector sets, it was the hope of many American parents that their sons would develop skills in engineering and science that would propel their education and eventually their future.
In the mid-1920s, the top-end Erector sets sold for $25. That was a week’s wage for some at that time. Accounts say that Gilbert persuaded parents with these “instruments of learning”, saying they were essential for success in a time when parents were reluctant to spoil their children with too much amusement.
“Erector sets were very time-consuming and difficult to build,” said Clyde Donovan, a construction toy collector and former client of Global Toy Experts. “There were all these small parts that required dexterity and came with little instruction for the user.”
Donovan points to the Erector Ferris Wheel, a toy that normally took a day to assemble.
“The Erector Set was ahead of its time, but if it were produced now it would sit idly on the shelves of any toy store,” Donovan said. “What set this toy apart from so many others was one had to use the brain and have the time to spend learning how to construct things.”
In 1941, Gilbert opened a science museum and toy story for children in New York City called the Gilbert Hall of Science. There he showcased the Erector Set, Gilbert chemistry and science sets, and the American Flyer model trains.
“Gilbert insisted that teaching children the principles of science and engineering was his top priority, so he opened other Halls of Science in cities around the country,” Donovan said.
By 1952, Gilbert was one of the most famous toymakers in the U.S., but the peak wouldn’t last long. That decade, his company offered an expensive science kit called the Atomic Energy Set with a working cloud chamber, Geiger counter and radioactive samples. These product ideas were failures on the market and eventually interest in such educational toys waned severely.
A.C. Gilbert died in 1961, leaving the company to his son, Alfred Jr. The Erector set name was first sold to Gabriel Toys in the 1960s, and later to Ideal Toys.