Alfred Carlton Gilbert (February 13, 1884 – January 24, 1961) was an inventor, athlete, toy maker, outdoorsman, and businessman. Even though he held over 150 U.S. Patents and won a Gold medal in the pole vault at the 1908 Olympics in London, he is best known as the inventor of the Erector Set.
Gilbert graduated from Yale University with a degree in medicine. His plan upon entering school was to become a university athletic director, which at the time required an M.D. degree. Gilbert was also quite accomplished as an amateur magician. While still in college, he started producing magic trick boxes with his partner John Petrie.
After graduating from Yale, Gilbert dropped his athletic plan for the magic business. He and Petrie formed the Mysto Manufacturing Company in New Haven, Connecticut. They produced top quality apparatus for professional magicians and tricks for the general public.
The Erector Set was introduced in 1913 and soon after, Petrie and Gilbert parted ways. In 1916, the company changed its name to the A.C. Gilbert Company. In 1918, the Council of National Defense considered a ban on toy production to support the war effort. However, Gilbert successfully argued against it and was given the nickname “The man who saved Christmas.”
The A.C. Gilbert Company sold many other educational toys including chemistry sets, microscopes, tool sets, metal casting sets, and a series of engineering sets. In 1938, Gilbert bought the struggling American Flyer model train company. He quickly moved production from Chicago to New Haven.
Gilbert realized the country needed engineers and scientists to develop new technology. He opened the Gilbert Hall of Science in New York City in 1941. It was part science and technology museum, part promotion of Gilbert’s products.
Gilbert retired in 1954 and turned the business over to his son, A.C. Gilbert, Jr. The company was struggling as the Space Race was on, and the company was slow to bring out new products. Upon his death in 1961, the company was bought by the Jack Wrather group. Erector was still a major product in the toy line, but the parts were changed and the company went bankrupt in 1967.
The Erector portion of the business was sold to Gabriel Industries, and American Flyer was sold to Lionel. Gabriel continued to sell Erector Sets, microscopes, and other science toys under the Gilbert name until 1976.
Learn more about the Erector Set
Retrieve a copy of the Gilbert Erector Set Guidebook 1913-1988, by Bruce G. Hansen. (PDF, 72 pages, 8.6 MB)