Dr Alfred Carlton Gilbert graduated from prestigious Yale Medical School, but eschewed a lucrative career in medicine. Instead, having supported his family and put himself through school as an amateur magician, together with magician John Petrie in 1909 he established the Mysto Corporation to sell a series of childrens’ magic sets, under what was to become the coveted “Mysto Magic” label. Not simply a single set, but an entire range of “Exhibition” sets, from beginner to advanced, bringing real stage, during what was then the Golden Age of Magic into the parlour.
One day in 1911, as Gilbert describes it in his memoirs, “The Man Who Lives in Paradise”, on his daily commute by train, watching out the window as workmen moved into place the steel beams of a tower being built as part of the electrification of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, the idea came to him for a children’s construction set which was not simply a plaything, but a full-fledged construction system.
Gilbert conceived this new construction system for kids as a series of steel beams, with holes evenly spaced for bolts to pass through, complete with nuts, gears, pulleys, and even engines. The Meccano Company of England was selling a similar kit, but Gilbert’s idea went far beyond that. Meccano’s flat beams resulted in relatively flimsy structures. Gilbert designed his “toy” with steel beams designed on structural principles – flanged for rigidity, with a 90 degree angle lengthwise bend – and a set that would enable the construction of massive rigid constructions, just like the real thing.
Accompanied by America’s first full blown advertising campaign for a “toy”, Gilbert began selling the “Mysto Structural Steel Builder” in 1913. What was ultimately simply the Gilbert “Erector” set (“The World’s Greatest Toy”) became a favored acquisition, with a series of upgrades, all the way up to the Deluxe No. 12-1/2 Kit, with blueprints and enough parts for the Mysterious Walking Giant robot.
(In 1914, one year after Gilbert introduced the Erector Set, The Tinkertoy Construction set, using wood dowels and wood hubs with drilled holes, was created by Charles Pajeau and Robert Petit in Evanston Illinois.)
Gilbert went on to develop and manufacture amazing “toys” that were far more, spanning chemistry sets, (including the first chemistry set marketed specifically for girls), microscope sets, the amazingly accurate and realistic 3/16 scale American Flyer electric train sets, and in the early 1950’s the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory complete with radioactive crystals and a working Geiger counter.
Gilbert retired in 1954, and published his autobiography, turning the company over to his son.
A C Gilbert died on January 24, 1961.
To pay inheritance taxes, the Gilbert family had to sell stock, and lost control.
In 1964, the A C Gilbert Company was purchased by Jack Wrather, who had produced television shows including the Lone Ranger and Lassie on what was to become known as television’s ‘formulaic basis”, and who subsequently went on to purchase the Queen Mary, Howard Hughes’ giant Spruce Goose wood transport plane, and the Disneyland Hotel. He also purchased the Muzak corporation (purveyors of elevator and in-store music), and founded the PBS television station in Los Angeles.
Within three years, by 1967, the A C Gilbert Company was bankrupt, and out of business.
It was purchased for $0.00 by Gabriel Industries, with the promise to pay a royalty based on future sales.
The “Erector” name was ultimately sold to the Kenner Corporation, who sold the rights to Meccano.
Erector sets are still produced today – by the Brio Company. Without flanged beams. In pre-assembled sets.
Similar sets are produced in China, Russia, and elsewhere.
AC Gilbert’s motto was “Good, clean, fun”. The AC Gilbert Company not only delivered it, but, until its demise, set more geeks in motion than anyone before.