Erector Set

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Print advertisement for Erector Set, circa 1922

An Erector Set (trademark styled as "ERECTOR") is a brand of metal toy construction sets, originally patented by Alfred Carlton Gilbert and first sold by his company, the Mysto Manufacturing Company of New Haven, Connecticut in 1913. In 1916, the company was reorganized as the A.C. Gilbert Company.

In 2000, Meccano bought the Erector brand and unified its presence on all continents. Today, these two brands have joined forces under one global brand name – Meccano. After over 100 years, the original values and objective remains the same: to inspire builders around the world to bring their imaginations to life. From basic building to high‐tech robotics programming, Meccano and Erector by Meccano (US) offer something for everyone through fun play in support of STEM learning.

System Description[edit]

Some components of a modern Erector Set

Basic Erector parts included various metal beams with regularly-spaced holes for assembly using nuts and bolts. A frequently-promoted feature was the ability to fabricate a strong but hollow lightweight structural girder from four long flat pieces of stamped sheet steel, held together by bolts and nuts. Flat or curved pieces of sheet metal in various shapes and colors could be added to the structural skeleton. Hardened steel rods and screw clamps allowed the construction of hinges and the transmission of mechanical power via rotating parts such as pulleys, gears, wheels, and levers.

Unlike some earlier wooden construction sets, Erector could be used both for static structures and for dynamic structures incorporating mechanical linkages and other moving components. Modular, standardized construction sets like Erector provided the ability to build a model, then take it apart and build something else, over and over again.

Both AC-powered electric motors and battery-powered DC motors became available, usually equipped with gears to increase their torque and effective mechanical power. Later sets added miniature light bulbs and simple switches to control electrical power.

Erector History[edit]

Erector was first envisioned by Alfred Carlton Gilbert (A.C. Gilbert) in 1911, as he rode the train from New Haven to New York City. This section of track was being converted to electrical power, and Gilbert watched as steel girders were erected to carry the power lines, inspiring him to develop the toy. Gilbert was a skilled magician and manufactured magic tricks and magic sets with his existing company the "Mysto Manufacturing Company". The first Erector set was made there in 1913, called "The Erector / Structural Steel and Electro-Mechanical Builder", and labeled as "Educational, Instructive and Amusing". The toy was first introduced and sold to the public in 1913 at the Toy Fair held at the Broadway Central Hotel in New York City.

Erector quickly became the most popular construction toy in the United States, most likely because it was the only construction set at the time to contain a motor.  In 1914, the name was changed to "The Mysto Erector, The Toy That Resembles Structural Steel". In 1916, the company was reorganized and became the A.C. Gilbert Company. The product was renamed "Gilbert Erector, The Toy Like Structural Steel". [citation needed] In 1924, more changes occurred, as the entire Erector system was completely overhauled to include over 70 types of parts. Erector was now called "The New Erector, The World’s Greatest Toy".

Through 1932, Erector was sold in wooden boxes, but 1933 through 1962 the sets would be sold in colorful boxes made of painted steel. Early boxes were colored red, green, or blue; by the 1950s all set boxes were painted red. As the company grew, the area around the Gilbert factory became known as "Erector Square".  

A.C. Gilbert died in 1961, and the company went into decline, filing for bankruptcy in 1967. The product was redesigned, adding many plastic parts, but the "clunky" looking models failed to compete with the new, more-realistic scale plastic models coming onto the market. The Gabriel company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania bought the "Erector" name and continued to market the recently redesigned system. Sales were slow and by the 1980s the trademark Erector was acquired by Ideal Toys and then Tyco Toys. In 2000, Meccano bought the Erector brand and unified its presence on all continents. Today, these two great brands have joined forces under one global brand name – Meccano.  

In 2002, a movie based on A.C. Gilbert's life called The Man Who Saved Christmas was made for television. It focused on Gilbert's successful appeal to the Council of National Defense to reject a proposal to ban toy production in favor of wartime related materials during World War I.

An extensive collection of A.C. Gilbert Company scientific and educational children's toys is housed at the Eli Whitney Museum, in Hamden, Connecticut.

Applications of Erector + Meccano[edit]

Meccano model of a steam shovel excavator powered by a restored 1929 Meccano steam engine. It was built by Chris Els in 2004.

With a Meccano set there was a wide range of models that could be built. Here are the models for which instructions were given in the largest set of the late 1950s, the "Outfit 10":

"Railway Service Crane", "Sports Motor Car", "Coal Tipper", "Cargo Ship", "Double Decker Bus", "Lifting Shovel", "Blocksetting Crane", "Beam Bridge", "Dumper Truck", "Automatic Gantry Crane", "Automatic Snow Loader", "4-4-0 Passenger Locomotive"

On top of these there were instruction leaflets available for:

"Combine Harvester", "The Eiffel Tower", "Showman’s Traction Engine", "Twin-Cylinder Motor Cycle Engine", "Trench Digger", "Bottom Dump Truck", "Road Surfacing Machine", "Mechanical Loading Shovel"

It has been said that the instructions sometimes contained deliberate errors to challenge the ingenuity of its users. However, those involved in their production maintain such errors were accidental, and are no more common than the unintentional errors in other modelling plans.[citation needed]

Since this time, enthusiasts such as G. Maurice Morris and MW Models have taken to publishing their own model plans, ranging from small models up to large and complex machines.

MOTAT's Meccano differential analyser in use at the Cambridge University Mathematics Laboratory, c. 1937. The person on the right is Dr. Maurice Wilkes, who was in charge of it at the time.

In 1934, Meccano began to be used in the construction of differential analysers, a type of analogue computer used to solve differential equations which has long since become obsolete. Though invented on paper in the 19th century, the first such machine had only been built in 1931, and normally they would be built by specialist manufacturers, at great cost. For example, in 1947, UCLA in the US installed a differential analyser built for them by General Electric at a cost of $125,000.However, a "proof of concept" model of a differential analyser which made extensive use of Meccano parts was built at Manchester University, UK, in 1934, by Douglas Hartree and Arthur Porter: use of Meccano meant that the machine was cheap to build, and it proved "accurate enough for the solution of many scientific problems".This machine is now in the Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London, England. A similar machine built by J.B. Bratt at Cambridge University in 1935 is now in the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) collection in Auckland, New Zealand. A memorandum written for the British military's Armament Research Department in 1944 describes how this same machine was modified during World War II for improved reliability and enhanced capability, and identifies its wartime applications as including research on the flow of heat, explosive detonations, and simulations of transmission lines. After a lengthy period of neglect, a restoration effort began in 2003, and a successful "full run through" of this machine was completed on 16 December 2008.

In 1949, an Erector set was used to build the precursor to the modern artificial heart by William Sewell and Dr. William Glenn of the Yale School of Medicine. The external pump successfully bypassed the heart of a dog for more than an hour.

In the 1970s, information theory pioneer Claude Shannon constructed a bounce-juggling machine from an Erector set.

In the late 1980s, with an Erector Set, various old toys, and bits of jewelry, Dr. Kevorkian jury-rigged a machine he called the Thanatron (later renamed to the Mercitron.) Three bottles were suspended from a rickety beam, one filled with a saline solution to open a patient’s veins, another with barbiturates for sedation, and a third with potassium chloride to stop the heart. After the Doctor connected the patient to an IV, he or she would pull a chain on the device to start the lethal medications flowing. He called it his “Rube Goldberg suicide device.”  

In 2005, Tim Robinson displayed his own Meccano differential analyser at the Computer History Museum, at Mountain View, California, US, and Robinson has also built and exhibited two models of Charles Babbage's difference engine, also using Meccano.

In 1990 Meccano S.A. built a giant Ferris wheel in France. It was modelled after the original 1893 Ferris Wheel built by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. at the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago and was shipped to the United States to promote "Erector Meccano" after Meccano S.A. had bought out the "Erector" trade name and began selling Meccano sets in the U.S. It went on display in New York City after which it was purchased by Ripley's Believe It or Not! and put on display in their St. Augustine, Florida museum. The model, the largest in size at the time, is 6.5 metres (21.3 ft) high, weighs 544 kilograms (1,200 pounds), was made from 19,507 pieces, 50,560 nuts and bolts, and took 1,239 hours to construct. At this mass and size, some deviation from Meccano-only parts was a necessity, to prevent it collapsing (mainly in the structural spokes). The largest model by mass would certainly be in contention but some models have topped 600 kg.[citation needed]

In the late 1990s, engineer Mark Sumner utilized Erector to create a working model for "Soarin’”, an attraction at Disney’s California Adventure in Anaheim, California and Walt Disney World's Epcot near Orlando, Florida.

A large model, weighing approximately 500 kg and 23 m long, was built in September 2009 by TV presenter James May and a team of volunteers from the engineering department of the University of Liverpool, who created a Meccano bridge spanning the Leeds and Liverpool Canal in Liverpool. As with other models of this size and weight some non-Meccano parts were used. It was built from "[about] 100,000 pieces of real Meccano", taking 1,100 hours, and consisted of a 9-metre (29.5 ft) "swing bridge" section, and a 12-metre (39.4 ft) "drawbridge" section. A contender for the largest model on record was built in 2014 by Graham Shepherd of Grahamstown, South Africa. The fully motorized Krupp 288 Bucket Wheel Excavator (as used on large opencast mining) is complete with auxiliary conveyors. Construction utilised Meccano parts as well as replica and strengthened parts (thickened profile plates and high tensile bolts in areas carrying large loads). Shepherd reports the model as being 1,335 kilograms (2,943 pounds) in mass and 17 ft tall. It required substantial timber support frames to facilitate final assembly.

Meccano and Erector remain very versatile constructional mediums. Almost any mechanical device can be built with these systems, from structures, to complex working cranes, automatic gearboxes or clocks. They are frequently used to prototype new ideas and inventions. Model realization using Meccano and Erector is limited only by the imagination and ingenuity of the builder.

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