In the fall of 1961, the world was coming apart. The Berlin Wall had been built that August, and by October, Russian and American tanks squared off one hundred yards apart at Checkpoint Charlie. The two superpowers had resumed nuclear testing, making thinly veiled threats about their nuclear muscle and sending explicit messages in megatons. The Soviet Union unleashed a terrifying sixty-megaton bomb above the Russian steppe. In a nationally televised speech, President Kennedy urged Americans to build their own fallout shelters, and Life soon whipped up the frenzy with a cover story. Panicked, some 200,000 families built shelters and stockpiled supplies for the coming Armageddon. Elsewhere, there were crises in the Congo, in Laos, and in a festering sore called Vietnam. Across Africa and Asia, tired old empires were dying while sanguine new countries were struggling to be born.
In those days before around-the-clock news, fear filtered slowly into elementary schools. I knew no more about the world's unraveling than what I learned in third grade. Our teacher, Mrs. Williams, a short, blond woman with a pleasingly plump face, assured us we would be safe. We were thirty miles from L.A., she said again and again. The worst an atomic bomb might do was blow in our classroom windows. That's why we had to lower the blinds-to block any flying glass-before we ducked and covered under our desks. But I had little time to care about things falling apart. I was too busy putting things together with the gift I had received for my eighth birthday-an Erector set.
It was the heaviest of all the packages I found on the dining room table. It was the only one that rewarded me for shaking it-clanking like some steel robot in a cage. When I emptied the set on our linoleum floor, pure possibility spread before me. Shiny girders, notched along their length, clattered against each other. Each seemed to invite the tiny nuts and bolts that came in a separate package. Perforated steel plates promised to be the flatbed of any truck or the road crossing any bridge I cared to build. There were bright brass wheels notched around each rim to double as pulleys. There were miniature crankshafts, six-inch axles, and yellow and red steel plates in odd assorted shapes. The set came with a manual, but like all manuals, it wasn't much good. It pictured dozens of models but offered no instructions whatsoever. Merely by studying the drawings, I was supposed to whip together a Walking Beam Engine, a Gantry Crane, or a Grocery Wagon. I tossed the manual aside. I was eight now. I'd build what I wanted to build. Besides, what was a Gantry Crane, anyway?
Within days of opening my Erector set, I had made several metal mutants. Dutifully, I cranked out a simple slide, a small wagon, and a crane that looked more like those found in wetlands than on a construction site. Only then did I look at the manual. On the inside cover I found "A Personal Message from the Inventor of Erector." I was "a lucky boy to get an Erector Set," the message said. "No other construction set contains so many different parts and builds so many different models." Did I know that the U.S. Patent Office had issued more than one hundred patents for Erector parts? I sure didn't. But I was about to learn that Erector provided "double-header fun" because "every new model will bring you a new thrill." The message was signed, "Your friend, A. C. Gilbert." And there on the inside cover was a black-and-white picture of the "inventor of Erector and founder of the Gilbert Hall of Science."
Slightly balding with a hint of a sneer, A. C. Gilbert didn't look like anyone's friend. He looked more like some physics professor in dire need of a sabbatical. I found it hard to believe he had invented the Erector set, or that anyone had. This pile of girders, nuts, and bolts couldn't be an "invention" like our TV or hi-fi. Instead it seemed like a replica of the industrial world, as if the steel girders of local buildings in progress had been re-created in miniature. The Erector set couldn't have been "invented." It just was.
Throughout that fall, while the world unraveled, I struggled to assemble a world of my own. I managed to build a simple Sled and a miniature bridge. One rainy weekend, I even built the Farm Wagon. While the rain drummed on my bedroom window, my wagon rolled across the floor. After several days of rolling, I parked it on a shelf for the winter. But for every model I finished, I trashed two or three. Frustrated by screws the size of ants, I hurled my Windmill Pump across the bedroom. Furious at girders that would not fit where I needed them, I twisted my See Saw Wagon until it could neither see nor saw. Finally, after months of wrestling with it, I put my Erector set in the closet and only took it out on rainy days. I had other toys to play with by then. Robots that talked. Police cars with real sirens. Walkie-talkies. Silly Putty.
I soon forgot all about my Erector set. Its pieces were scattered and left to rust who knows where. The simple steel toy that helped me assemble a world no longer seemed a part of my childhood, nor of anyone else's. In college, when talk turned to beloved toys, we boomers shared fond memories of hula hoops and Etch A Sketches. Erector sets? No one I knew ever mentioned one. But years later I learned that I had been asking the wrong kids. And I was just as wrong about A. C. Gilbert, the ersatz college professor who claimed to be my "friend." To me he was just a casual acquaintance, but he had once been the best friend boys and the toy industry ever had.
A. C. Gilbert made more than toys. He manufactured future engineers and scientists. For fifty years, toys made by the A. C. Gilbert Company stood above the crowd of cheap doodads and gewgaws peddled to make a quick buck. Gilbert himself-athlete, magician, toy tycoon, radio pioneer-was an assemblage of diverse parts. An American original, he was part Horatio Alger, part Jim Thorpe, and part P. T. Barnum. Conservative and straitlaced, he nonetheless embraced the most progressive views on education. In an age when learning was by rote, Gilbert encouraged children to make up their education as they went along. He knew kids learned this way because he had been a boy in the truest sense, in our truest, bluest era.
Growing up in the 1890s, Gilbert came of age in a time almost devoid of irony or cynicism. Concepts such as honor, duty, and success were touted in public on a daily basis, and except for Mark Twain, few dared snigger or scoff. Terms like "plucky" and "alert" were applied to boys like Gilbert without the slightest sarcasm. Pride was still pride, and heroes were not yet doomed to be toppled from their pedestals by scandal or skeletons in closets. Stiffened by such moral fiber, Gilbert drove himself to become a mass of muscle in a slight frame. From 1900 to 1910 he was America's greatest amateur athlete. A national champion collegiate wrestler, he also won sprints and hurdles, quarterbacked a college football team, and set world records in the pole vault. But although he had devoutly followed the Protestant work ethic, Gilbert then thumbed is nose at it.
In 1909, shelving his M.D. from Yale University, Gilbert chose to practice boyhood instead of medicine. While others went to work, he made a living by making and selling magic tricks. Two years later, he invented the Erector set. It was an instant success, allowing him to remain a boy in a businessman's body. Throughout his life, he had a childlike delight in fun tempered by a business sense that made him a millionaire back when that term was still gilded. While other toy makers were content to surrender their toys to the market's whims, Gilbert created the modern toy industry by selling fun all year round. He promoted his products with a dizzying array of contests, monthly magazines, and engineering "institutes." In sprawling full-page magazine ads filled with a homespun paternalism, Gilbert spoke to boys as if they were his friends. And they wrote back, sending him some 300,000 letters a year, many of them signed "your loving son."
Between 1913 and 1966, Gilbert sold more than 30 million Erector sets, earning its nickname as "the world's greatest toy." But it's hard to consider it a toy. During the late 1920s the top-of-the-line Erector set, packed in a wooden box two and a half feet square and eight inches thick, weighed 150 pounds and made hundreds of models, including a five-foot-long zeppelin and a four-foot Hudson steam locomotive. The set sold for $70, a month's wages during the Great Depression. But along with Erector sets, A. C. Gilbert made science in a box. He manufactured weather kits, astronomy kits, chemistry sets, microscopes, telescopes, and mini-labs that let kids play with physics, hydraulic engineering, mineralogy, sound, light, telegraphy, civil engineering, magnetism, even atomic energy. Gilbert's toys allowed boys (and any girls who could get their brothers' permission) to apprentice at an early age, trying on the world of science and industry to see how it fit. But above all, A. C. Gilbert made memories. Too many of these have passed on with their owners, but some still cause adults to behave rather strangely in their wake.
from The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made by Bruce Watson, Copyright © October 2002, Viking Press, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.