A.C. Gilbert was one of the most multi-talented inventors of all time. With many fields open to his ingenuity, he chose to educate and entertain children through toys.
Alfred Carlton Gilbert was born in Salem, Oregon in 1884. His boyhood love was magic tricks. He became so proficient that he once matched a traveling professional magician trick for trick, and earned the prescient praise, "My boy, you will be a great success." In high school, Gilbert discovered his talent for athletics, especially wrestling and track and field; in college, he was a football star.
Gilbert was also a brilliant student and soon went on to Yale Medical School. He helped pay his tuition by performing as a magician and founded a company, Mysto Manufacturing, which sold magic kits for kids. In 1908, he took time out to compete in the IV. Olympics in London, England and came home with the gold medal in the pole vault, thanks in part to a new, spikeless bamboo pole that he was the first Olympian to use.
In 1909, Gilbert finished medical school but decided to expand his budding toy business rather than practice as a doctor. Like many residents of New Haven, Connecticut, he often took the train to New York City. On one trip in 1911, he was inspired with what would be the most popular of his dozens of inventions.
Watching out the train window as some workmen positioned and riveted the steel beams of an electrical power-line tower, Gilbert decided to create a children's construction kit: not just a toy, but 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 Erector 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. Living rooms across the country were transformed into miniature metropoles, filled with skyscrapers, bridges, and railways. Those kids who already owned a set would beg Santa annually for an upgrade, aiming for the elusive "No. 12 1/2" deluxe kit that came with blueprints for the "Mysterious Walking Giant" robot.
It is difficult for anyone under the age of 35 today to appreciate just how popular the Erector set was for over half a century. But that was not all A.C. Gilbert produced. He manufactured some of the finest model trains ever made (1946-1966), a glass blowing kit (1920s), various chemistry sets (including one specifically for girls, in 1958), an "Atomic Energy Lab," complete with real radioactive particles and a working Geiger counter (1950-1952), and of course, his old standby, the Mysto Magic Exhibition Set.
By the time of his death in 1962, A.C. Gilbert was credited with 150 patents for the inventions that went into his products, which were really much more than just "toys." Gilbert was not only a proponent of "good, clean fun," as he put it; he 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 continues to sell them today.