Alfred Carlton Gilbert
February 15, 1884|
|Died||24 January 1961
Alfred Carlton Gilbert (February 15, 1884 – January 24, 1961) was an American inventor, athlete, toy-maker and businessman. Born in Salem, Oregon and died in Boston, Massachusetts, Gilbert is best known as the inventor of the Erector Set.
Gilbert was educated at the Tualatin Academy and attended Pacific University in nearby Forest Grove, Oregon. While attending Pacific University, Gilbert was a brother of the Gamma Sigma Fraternity. He left Pacific after 1902 and transferred to Yale University. Gilbert financed his education at Yale University by working as a magician, earning a degree in sports medicine. An accomplished athlete, he broke the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) in 1900 and distance record for running long dive in 1902. He invented the pole vault box and set two world records in the pole vault including a record for 12' 3" (3.66 meters) at the Spring meet of the Irish American Athletic Club, held at Celtic Park, Queens, New York, in 1906. He tied for gold with fellow American Edward Cook at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London for pole vaulting. That same year he married Mary Thompson, whom he had met at Pacific University. They had three children: two girls and a boy.
Choosing not to pursue a medical career, Gilbert co-founded Mysto Manufacturing, a manufacturer of magic sets, in 1907. This company would later become the A. C. Gilbert Company. Gilbert developed the Erector Set, a popular construction toy, in 1913 (preceded by the similar Meccano set first conceived of by Frank Hornby in 1898 which he developed and patented as "Mechanics Made Easy" in 1901). His inspiration was steel construction girders being used on the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. In 1918, with the United States embroiled in World War I and the Council of National Defense considering a ban on toy production, Gilbert argued successfully against it. The press gave him the nickname "The man who saved Christmas."
By 1935, he had sold more than 30 million of the sets. He also added chemistry sets, microscope sets, and other educational toys to his product line, accumulating more than 150 patents during his 50-year career. In 1938, he acquired the rights to the American Flyer toy train line from W. O. Coleman and moved their production from Chicago to New Haven. At the same time, he adopted a 3/16 scale for this train line while keeping the three-rail O-gauge track now associated with Lionel. Following World War II, O-gauge track was abandoned in favor of two-rail S-gauge track. Gilbert was lauded for his strict adherence to scale realism, making American Flyer trains look more real and less toylike.
Frustrated that invention was an important part of American society but not taught in schools, in 1941 Gilbert opened the Gilbert Hall of Science in New York City, an early science and technology museum. It served the dual purpose of promoting interest in science and selling Gilbert's products.
In 1950–1951 he sold the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory, which makes his toy company well-known in modern days.
Upon his retirement in 1954, Gilbert turned his company over to his son. The same year, he published his autobiography, titled The Man Who Lives in Paradise. After his death in 1961, the family sold its remaining shares in the A. C. Gilbert Company to Jack Wrather. It went out of business six years later.
A museum in Gilbert's birthplace of Salem, Oregon, A. C. Gilbert's Discovery Village, is named in his honor. The museum comprises several historic structures, including the house of Gilbert's uncle Andrew T. Gilbert. It opened in 1989. A biography titled The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made was published in 2002.
The television movie The Man Who Saved Christmas is a dramatization of Christmas during the years 1917 and 1918 when America was involved in World War I. He was portrayed by Jason Alexander. The film takes several historical liberties. It debuted December 15, 2002.
- Pacific University Heart of the Oak, 1902, page 85.
- "World's Record Vault by Gilbert of Yale; Collegian Clears Bar at Celtic Park at 12 Feet 3 Inches." New York times, May 31, 1906.
- Yale Alumni Magazine, July/August 2008
- Walsh, Tim (2005). Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers who Created Them. Andrews McMeel Publishing. pp. 23–24. ISBN 9780740755712. Retrieved November 12, 2012.
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- The Eli Whitney Museum's extensive A. C. Gilbert Project includes essays, pictures of Gilbert, pictures of the products produced by Gilbert and a bibliography
- A. C. Gilbert's Discovery Village
- The A. C. Gilbert Heritage Society