Where have you gone, A.C. Gilbert?

I bought an Erector set today. I’m not talking the stuff in the stores now. I’m talking a real Erector set, an honest-to-goodness Erector #7 1/2 manufactured in New Haven, Connecticut by A.C. Gilbert. The booklet in the set was dated 1951.A.C. Gilbert was the closest thing the 20th century had to a Renaissance Man. Gilbert paid his way through medical school (at a school you might have heard of–Yale) by working as a magician. He was an accomplished enough athlete to win a gold medal in pole vaulting in the 1908 Olympics. And for whatever reason, he decided not to pursue a career in medicine, instead founding what was one of the largest toy companies in the United States during the early and middle 20th century.

I owned an Erector set growing up, but now that I’ve seen the sets my dad’s generation grew up with, I see they just weren’t the same. The instruction manual started out with a signed letter from Gilbert himself, encouraging kids to learn about how things work, be creative, and have fun doing it.

My Erector set came with a lot of pieces so you could make a lot with it, but this set came with more, and more complex pieces. You could make a car with both my set and this set, but the car with the set I had was driven by pulleys. This set came with enough to make a full-blown gearbox.

It’s frustrating to me that we don’t teach our kids how to make anything anymore. I’ll grant that there’s something to be said for transferring manufacturing and manufacturing know-how to the developing world, but we’re doing it at the expense of knowing how to make anything ourselves. And when we don’t know how to make anything, we can’t really imagine what’s possible either.

Gilbert enjoyed science, and he wanted kids to enjoy it as much as he did. So he invented a series of toys–of which the Erector set was just one–that taught kids that it was possible to make and do fun things with science.

Going to school in the 1980s and 1990s, pretty much all I ever learned math and science was good for was blowing stuff up. I had some teachers I admire to this day (though I had some who weren’t good for much), but somehow they never really got through to me.

I’m not saying that if there’d been a decent, real Erector set on the market when I was a kid that I would have wanted to take physics, and even if I had, I know I wouldn’t have learned much from the physics teacher at my high school, but I definitely would have turned out different. Probably a little bit better. At the very least, Dad and I would have had something to talk about, since he had a degree in physics and would have been able to explain what was going on inside that gearbox.

I have no idea what they teach kids about science in schools now. I know they don’t learn much at home.

Gilbert was a good man in other regards too. When his competitors started unionizing, he didn’t have anything to worry about. He went to his employees and told them he could give them a better deal. Gilbert gave his employees benefits and took care of them, and for the most part they loved him for it.

We don’t have a lot of athletes worth admiring anymore, and we don’t have a lot of businessmen worth admiring either. I can’t think of a single example of someone who was accomplished in both fields.

I think if we had an A.C. Gilbert alive today, we’d be in much better shape as a country.

I bought that Erector set with resale in mind. I got a good deal on it and was pretty confident I’d be able to flip it and make a quick 25 bucks from it. But now I wonder if I should keep it. If I have a son, I’ll want him to have it.

But even if I never have a son, maybe I should keep it purely on principle, to remind me of what we used to be, and the potential we threw away.

One thought on “Where have you gone, A.C. Gilbert?

  • March 26, 2007 at 1:04 pm
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    Unfortunately, too much of what passes for "science" today is about activism, not truth, and too many schools would rather not hurt Johnny’s feelings by actually grading or requiring correct answers. That’s not to say that there’s aren’t good school and excellent teachers out there. But observe the trends as we’ve pumped more and more money into our educational system over the past few decades.

    Science is just one victim of a broken system…

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