When Alfred Carlton Gilbert was a Yale medical student riding the train between New York and New Haven, he noticed cranes assembling steel girders alongside the train tracks. That sight inspired him to create a new toy -- an assemblage of metal beams with evenly spaced holes for bolts to pass through, screws, bolts, pulleys, gears and eventually even engines.
A British toy company called Meccano Company was then selling a similar kit, but Gilbert's set was more realistic and had a number of technical advantages --- most notably, steel beams that were not flat but bent lengthwise at a 90-degree angle, so that four of them nested side-to-side formed a very sturdy, square, hollow support beam.
Gilbert began selling the "Mysto Erector Structural Steel Builder" in 1913, backed by the first major American ad campaign for a toy. The Erector set quickly became one of the most popular toys of all time.
During World War I there was an attempt to ban the manufacture of toys to concentrate on the war effort. "The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys," Gilbert told the Council on National Defense when he appeared before the Council, armed with Erector set parts. The Secretary of the Navy was soon on the floor playing with a toy submarine. Other members could be seen tinkering with toy engines and building models of bridges. In the end, the Council decided not to ban toys, and Gilbert became known as the "man who saved Christmas."
The basic design of Erector sets changed very little over the decades, although Gilbert updated them as innovations appeared on the scene, adding Mysterious Walking Robots and Rocket Launchers in the 1950s, for example.
By the time of his death in 1962, Gilbert was credited with 150 patents for the inventions that went into his products. Gilbert truly wanted his products to better the minds of the children that enjoyed them so much.
Gilbert's original rival Meccano Company (now Meccano Toys Ltd.) acquired the rights to the Erector Set after 1962, and still sells them today.
last updated: April 12, 2007
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