Alfred Carleton Gilbert was born February 15, 1884 in Salem, Oregon, and when he was eight, his family moved to Idaho. They lived in relatively rural areas throughout "Gillie's" childhood, and he and his friends had to find their own amusement. Gilbert would later reminisce about doing magic tricks, trying to parachute off the family barn, putting together a Fire Department of school-aged boys (complete with a pole to slide down), racing tricycles at four in the morning, and finally settling down a little into an Athletic Club. By the time he was fourteen, Gillie was organizing track meets sponsored by local stores.
Pole vaulting was a favorite sport, and he came up with the idea of digging a small hole where the end of the pole would rest while he vaulted. At the time, this was unheard-of; the standard was a pole with a spike at the end for keeping the pole in place during the vault. In his teens, he worked summers on his uncle's farm and as a flagman for the Northern Pacific Railroad, but during the school year he attended prep school and captained the football and track teams and also wrestled and did gymnastics. His gymnastics team went to the Chautauqua Institute in New York state, and there Gillie met coaches who encouraged him to come to Yale University.
At Yale, "Gil" received letters in wrestling, gymnastics, and track, winning the middleweight division of the National Intercollegiate Wrestling Championship. At 22, he broke a world record in pole vaulting with a leap of 12 feet, 3 inches. Two years later, in 1908, he went on the American team to the Olympics in London. It was a tense time; the U.S. had won 80% of the medals in the previous Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri because many countries couldn't afford to send teams there, and the English and other Europeans were determined not to let that happen in London. Gilbert wrote to his fiancee that he found the English to be "the poorest sportsmen in the world." He may have felt this way because he was forced to use a spiked pole rather than his own technique (his hole idea now modified to an indented metal vaulting box) when he pole vaulted. Also, he was the only vaulter to clear twelve feet in the finals, but because he did not beat the twelve feet, 2 inches that Edward Cooke of Cornell University had made earlier in the heats, the result was officially listed as a tie between Gilbert and Cooke. Cooke, however, let Gilbert have the gold medal.
On coming home, Gilbert got to meet his hero, Theodore Roosevelt, and make a profit selling the bamboo vaulting poles he'd bought in France. A few months later, he married his fiancee Mary, settled down in New Haven, Connecticut,and put his profits into the magic business where he'd been working. The Mysto Company sold magic kits, some of which had tricks invented by Gilbert, and Gilbert performed as a magician as a sideline and to promote Mysto products. In 1911, on a train ride to Manhattan to perform at the Mysto store, Gilbert saw construction going on towers to hold electric lines, and had an idea -- a toy where a child could build similar things with metal girders. Gilbert and his wife spent a few evenings cutting out cardboard prototype pieces, which Gilbert took to a machinist to get steel versions. The first set of girders didn't work too well -- they kept coming away from one another. His second version had a thin lip on the edges which made the girders overlap securely, to the great improvement of the projects built from them.
However, when he showed them his idea in 1912, Gilbert's two partners in the magic business said that the construction toy was not within their line of business, and there were already construction toys on the market. This was true; tin and nickel-plated brass Meccano sets had been sold in England for ten years and the U.S. for two, and both Struktiron and the American Model Builder used steel for their pieces. Gilbert was not discouraged; he got a loan from his father, bought out his partners in Mysto, and leased an old carriage factory to produce the pieces. He spent a year tinkering with ideas, coming up with the idea of including motors in the sets so that his Erector sets could be used to make things that moved. The Erector Set made its debut at the 1913 New York Toy Fair; there and at another toy fair in Chicago, the construction set seemed a lot more interesting than the Kewpie dolls and carved wooden animals that other exhibitors had. Gilbert came home with more orders than he could fill with the set-up he had, but a bank loan helped him turn out Erector sets for that Christmas's toy rush.
The sets were numbered 0 to 8; each provided more pieces than the one before, and cost more. Fifty cents to try out the number 0 set; a dollar to get the number 1 set for more fun, and so forth up to the number 8, which cost $25 and came in a three-layered walnut case with its own lock and key. The ads Gilbert placed in magazines were directed more at children than their parents, which had been the common practice before: "You alone can build big towers, bridges, cars to go by little electric motor, etc." Gilbert often went by his own preferences; he enjoyed competition, so he held contests for the most original models built with Erector parts. He started a magazine, Erector Tips, which not only talked about the sets, but told stories of his own boyhood and other things he thought would interest the boys who had Erector sets ("How To Save $5.00," "How To Be A Wrestler," etc.). And boys were definitely who Gilbert aimed at; despite the fact that his own first two children were daughters, throughout his career Gilbert rarely seemed to think about toys for girls. (In the 1920s, he did start the LaVelle line of girls' toys, mostly "playing house" props, but this line was only produced for a few years.) Two years after the introduction of the Erector set, Mysto's profits had increased 1800% from their magic-only days.
Erector Tips succeeded in capturing readers' loyalty; Gilbert received bags of mail from boys, telling him about their Erector set creations, their pets, how they earned money, anything else they felt like writing. In 1915, the company received more 60,000 letters with entries in the Erector design contest, six times what Meccano's similar contest brought in. No wonder, when first prize was a real automobile valued at $395, easily a year's wages for many grown men! That prize was won by the inventor of a replica Panama Canal with locks opening and closing through the motor, but other contestants won bicycles, canoes, air rifles, hockey skates, and of course, Erector sets. Later, Gilbert started the Gilbert Institute of Erector Engineering For Boys, a club where boys could earn the titles of Engineer, Expert Engineer, and Master Engineer, the latter holding the promise of getting paid to demonstrate Erector sets in local stores during the Christmas season.
Gilbert also founded the Toy Manufacturers of America, a new organization for the growing American toy industry. Until World War I, a large percentage of toys in the U.S. had been imported from Germany, and Gilbert wanted to promote the American manufacturers and also shore up industry ethics. His own products were high-quality, but Gilbert hated others' flimsy toys and thought they made the whole industry look bad.
The company name was changed to the A.C. Gilbert Company, and the Mysto name reserved only for magic tricks, which Gilbert still manufactured. In 1916, the A.C. Gilbert Company started manufacturing non-toy items so that they could sell items year-round without so much depending on the Christmas rush. The Polar Cub portable electric fan started out his appliance lines, but the company would eventually make electric pencil sharpeners, mixers, vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, and the Gilbert Vibrator, patented in 1928 as a massager for backs and limbs even though a document in Gilbert's files makes it clear that Gilbert intended it as a marital aid.
In 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I, Gilbert worked as one of the "Four Minute Men" doing short speeches in movie theaters encouraging the purchase of goverment Liberty Bonds and other patriotic topics. His factories made parts for gas masks and guns, but he also kept turning out toys, since the lack of imported German toys was a golden opportunity for his company. In 1918, as president of the Toy Manufacturers of America, Gilbert "saved Christmas for the children," in the Boston Post's words -- his persuasion and sample toys were instrumental in persuading the U.S. Council of National Defense not to ban all toy sales for the 1918 holiday season, as they had proposed to do to cut out non-essential industries during the war.
After the war was over, Gilbert started a the U.S.'s fifth licensed radio station, WCJ, broadcasting from a transmitter on top of his factory, and he also made science toys such as Gilbert Magnetic Fun and Facts, Gilbert Electrical Set, Gilbert Glass Blowing, Gilbert Soldering Outfit, and many more with manuals written by university scientists and experts from General Electric. He opened a plant in Austria and sales offices in Canada, England, and France. In the U.S. Northeast and Midwest, he promoted all his children's products by touring in a train car exhibiting the toys, doing magic shows with both the traditional magic sets and the science toy sets. Most of the science toy sets were not made for long, but the chemistry set was a long-running product, and later Gilbert would add telescopes and microscopes to the roster of science toys. But it was the Erector that kept on making the company the most money, and which Gilbert would concentrate on. In 1929, he bought out British rival Meccano.
Gilbert always seemed to have energy for any project. He raised German shepherd dogs and Jersey cattle, served as a pole vaulting coach (even accompanying Douglas MacArthur, head of the American Olympic Committee, to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic games as a coach and morale officer, and managing the U.S. team at the 1932 Los Angeles games), and went camping and big-game hunting in the Canadian Rockies. When he bought out the American Flyer toy train company, he opened the Gilbert Hall of Science with a floor full of Erector creations and another floor of trains. During World War II, the A.C. Gilbert Company again turned out war materiel.
The company was getting quite large, employing 2,500 workers in the early 1950s, and Gilbert Senior had his own ideas about running it. He hated unions, but his method of keeping them out of his factories was to treat his workers extraordinarily well; both with benefits and by knowing almost every one by name, even visiting the night shift once a week so that the people working then would not feel he did not care about them. In 1946, Gilbert's third child and only son Albert Junior joined the A.C. Gilbert Company after working at General Electric for a while at his father's recommendation. Al was not much like his father; he was interested in music rather than hunting for a hobby and was more intellectually oriented. However, Al did well at the company and would eventually take over his father's position when the elder Gilbert retired in 1954. However, times were changing -- many boys preferred to work on real cars instead of Erector sets; science was seen through B movies rather than home science sets. The company tried to make space-age sets, but by the late 1950s had to use cheaper materials and stop making some of their sideline appliances. The elder Gilbert was a little frustrated at the way things were going under his son, but his health was getting unreliable and his energy was gone. He had two heart attacks in January 1961; the second one was fatal.
Inheritance taxes combined with slow business, and Al Junior sold a controlling interest in the company to Los Angeles businessman Jack Wrather. The company's toys became the "flimsy gimcracks" that Gilbert Senior had hated, and sales continued to worsen. Gilbert Junior had remained as company president until he died of a brain tumor in 1964; the company held on until 1967. The American Flyer train name was sold to the Lionel Train company, and the Erector name is now owned by Meccano SN of France, though "erector set" is commonly used in the U.S. as a generic name for any metal construction toy. There is now an A.C. Gilbert Heritage Society which has conventions where Gilbert toys are exhibited and sold (sometimes for prices up to $10,000.00), and one can tour the Connecticut factory where Gilbert had his headquarters for most of his career or the A.C. Gilbert Discovery Village children's museum in Salem, Oregon, where the National Toy Hall of Fame is housed.
Proof of not just fun, but useful ideas generated by Gilbert's toys: parts from Gilbert Erector sets were used by:
Watson, Bruce. The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made. New York: Viking Penguin, 2002.