A lfred Carlton Gilbert was a Yale medical degree holder, Olympic gold medalist and successful industrialist, and he accomplished at least two of the three by magic.
Mr. Gilbert, you see, was an illusionist. Income from his act helped him pay tuition at Yale, and the world-famous toy manufacturing outfit he would subsequently build in New Haven, the A. C. Gilbert Company, was first known as the Mysto Manufacturing Company, formed in 1909 to produce and sell magician’s kits.
To most people at that time, engineering and the sciences might as well have been magic given the special knowledge they required and the astonishing ways they were changing humanity’s experience of the world. In 1911, Mr. Gilbert was so awed by ambitious construction projects in New Haven and elsewhere that he resolved to harness that maker’s spirit with a toy, for the masses. Two years later, in 1913, the first iterations of his company’s signature Erector product line, known by the umbrella term “Erector Sets,” went on sale.
Toymakers can be expected to tinker, and the toymakers at Gilbert encouraged kids to tinker, too: there wasn’t just one Erector Set, and there wasn’t just one thing that any Erector Set could do. Over the next 54 years, until the company’s demise in 1967, the sets evolved greatly, containing new and varied combinations of nuts, bolts, fasteners, steel girders and plates, pulleys, motors, magnets and light bulbs—“hundreds of parts to build thousands of models,” as advertised on one particular Erector Set that, among other things, promised the ability to build a “mysterious walking robot” with “electric eyes”—along with tools and instructions for putting the pieces together.
A kid could build miniature working tractors, derricks and magnetized cranes to make a not-so-make-believe construction site. Model twin-engine airplanes and motorized tanks could lead a battalion into bloodless battle. Erector girders combined with A. C. Gilbert’s American Flyer mix-and-matchable train cars, electrified to run on tracks and built to the scale of real trains, could explore an imaginary frontier. And then there’s that robot, which could take any of those scenarios to new creative heights.
No wonder, then, that last Saturday, at a crowded reception for the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop’s ongoing special exhibit, The Erector Set at 100, young children weaned on iPads and Xboxes ooh’ed and ahh’ed at toys older than their parents. The kids—actually, the adults, too, as you can see in one of the images above—crowded around a long, thin table holding Erector knicks and knacks, free to play and build with, which many did. They could hardly keep their hands away from a button causing an Erector Ferris wheel to turn, or from switches powering American Flyer trains around an elaborate model village and countryside, with a town green that looks suspiciously like New Haven’s. (This latter installation is in fact part of an annual exhibit, Mr. Gilbert’s Railroad, that’s riding shotgun this year next to the one-time-only The Erector Set at 100.)
The very best qualities of the Whitney Museum’s Erector exhibition, among many good ones, are its honesty and droll humor. One of the exhibit’s several bright red placards, titled “Faults and all?,” says of Erector Sets, “There were flaws in usability, which mattered to young hands. And there were safety flaws that those young hands rarely pointed out to their parents.”
Contrasted with today’s cultural and legal emphases on child safety, some of A. C. Gilbert’s toys seem shockingly dangerous. Erector Sets contained sharp parts and easily exposed electrical components, but they don’t seem half as perilous as the company’s home chemistry sets, which contained numerous chemical agents and detailed instructions for combining and testing them. The set on display at the Whitney Museum, kept behind glass, holds 19 screw-cap jars marked with chemical names like sulphur, potassium nitrate, ammonium chloride and sodium bisulphate. The first two can be used to make sulphuric acid. The next two? Hydrochloric acid.
An instruction booklet accompanying at least one version of the chemistry set, published in 1936, advised kids on how to make both of those highly corrosive compounds, alongside scores of other experiment suggestions. The manual even called for young chemists to use their thumbs—as opposed to, say, rubber or glass caps—to cover the tops of their test tubes as they shook the contents into sulphuric acid.
Risky? Oh yes. But it was a less risk-averse time, and these were toys that treated kids like adults, which in some ways seems a pretty noble and attractive approach. When a company talks up, not down, to kids—Yale academics wrote that chemistry manual in consultation with Mr. Gilbert himself, and they didn’t pull many intellectual punches—it challenges them to rise to the occasion, and maybe even to become genuinely knowledgeable on a subject. Marketers at the A. C. Gilbert Company used this as a key selling point, probably aimed at parents, leading off a catalog sent out in 1958 with the phrase, “Career-Building Science Toys…” (That catalog is notable for another reason: after decades of marketing explicitly to boys, the mailer contained a “Lab Technician Set for Girls.” The product’s progressivism extended to the inclusion of a technical manual that read just like the boys’ version, though it ended at the heavy use of the color pink on the girls’ version’s packaging and, more fundamentally, at the use of any separating qualifier at all.)
It puts into starker relief the insights of the Whitney exhibition’s aforementioned placard, which also observes, “Scars that are worn now with pride … harken to an age of trust and independence,” when kids went largely unsupervised. “The scars are small lessons that wisened hands for bigger risks,” it goes on—perhaps the kind of lessons that today’s kids are too shielded from?
The Erector Set at 100 offers many other big and small ideas to ponder, but it would be criminal to reveal any more than we already have. After all, the joy of discovery is what A. C. Gilbert and his remarkable toys—like the Eli Whitney Museum, which sees so much in them—were all about.
The Erector Set at 100 and Mr. Gilbert’s Railroad
Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop – 915 Whitney Ave, Hamden (map)
Sat 10am-3pm & Sun 12-5pm through Jan. 26. Special hours Dec. 23, 26, 27, 30, 31 (12-5pm) and Dec. 24 (12-3pm).
(203) 777-1833 | www.eliwhitney.org/museum/exhibitions/erector-set-100
Written and photographed by Dan Mims.