Winning fame and fortune at play
How alumnus A.C. Gilbert made the Erector Set his brand and inspired generations of young people, including seven Nobel laureates.
Alfred Carlton Gilbert, M.D. 1909, won an Olympic gold medal for pole vaulting in 1908; graduated from the School of Medicine a year later; founded a company in New Haven to produce magic tricks that same year; and in 1913, introduced the product for which he is best known: the Erector Set.
Throughout his whimsical and wildly successful career, Gilbert had a Mary Poppins-like way of combining work and play. As a youngster in Oregon, he got his friends to help him bring in firewood by saying that they couldn’t play in his barn, which he had rigged up as an athletic club, until the chore was done. “I have never worked at anything to make money unless it was fun, too,” he wrote in his autobiography, The Man Who Lives in Paradise. Success through play became his brand.
Gilbert knew the importance of persistence as well as prizes to successful entrepreneurship. In addition to his athletic pursuits, Gilbert had trapped squirrels, caught wildcats, and sold magazine subscriptions in exchange for rewards, including the magic set that sparked his career. Athletic ambitions brought Gilbert to Yale for medical school; he hoped to become a college athletic director. But in addition to studying, Gilbert started giving magic shows to finance his Yale education. Just before graduating, he co-founded the Mysto Manufacturing Company to produce and sell magic sets. Then, inspired by the towers built to hold up the wires on the newly electrified railroads, Gilbert created his famous construction toy—a set of miniature steel girders, wheels, a real working motor, and accompanying parts—in time for the 1913 holiday season. He also renamed the enterprise, still headquartered in New Haven, after himself: the A.C. Gilbert Company.
What distinguished the Erector Set from similar products, as Gilbert’s biographer Bruce Watson wrote, was that Gilbert made himself a brand. He affixed his photo, signature, and message to Erector ads and publications. Boys wrote him letters. His message? “Win Fame While at Play,” as one ad said. “He uses his story,” said Bill Brown, director of the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop in Hamden, Conn., “to promise that if you play with [Erector Sets], you’ll grow up to become a tycoon like him.”
Gilbert also sold the idea that his products were educational—and they were, indeed, inspiring many scientists and engineers. Last fall, the Eli Whitney Museum featured an exhibit about Gilbert and the Erector Set, including the Erector memories of seven Nobel prizewinners. In a nearby notebook, museum visitors could record their reminiscences of Gilbert’s “toy.” “My first exposure to my friend’s Erector Set inspired me to become a mechanical engineer,” one visitor wrote. More directly, Erector Set parts were used in notable inventions—including the first heart pump, powered by an Erector Set motor and invented by the late William H. Sewell Jr., M.D. ’50, then a Yale medical student; and his professor, the late William W.L. Glenn, M.D.
Despite his charismatic public face, Gilbert was somewhat retiring in person. “A.C. was clearly the man in charge, but quiet,” said grandson Jeff Marsted, who remembers “sledding, baseball, golf, apple picking, etc.,” at his grandparents’ home in North Haven. “We all knew it, not by his personality but what he represented.”
Gilbert left a legacy both scientific and physical. At the Eli Whitney Museum exhibit, visitors worked together on a model of Manhattan’s Woolworth Building, a landmark skyscraper completed in 1913—the same year the first Erector Sets were marketed. The exhibit model was 22 feet tall and required 3,800 girders. The organizers had no trouble at all gathering donated pieces for the exhibit, Brown said. “I don’t think anyone throws away an Erector Set.”