I originally posted The Life & Times of A.C. Gilbert in the FEATURES section of my website on January 2, 2007.
(NOTE: This website is NOT affiliated with the Discovery Village; visit www.acgilbert.org for current info)
A. C. Gilbert is probably the most under-acknowledged American figure, and is certainly the most under-acknowledged Oregonian. Here was a man who won an Olympic gold medal, held 150 patents, created some of the most well-known American toys, and once even actually saved Christmas, and yet few people know who he was. The information is out there, and there are museum dedicated to him, but for some reason, the man faded into history. This page is dedicated to a man who lived an amazing life and changed the world.
(NOTE: All historical photos and artwork on this page are on display at A. C. Gilbert's Discovery Village in Salem, Oregon, and were photographed there on September 10, 2006. The same goes for all of the items shown, except the Oregon State Capitol Holiday Train Layout.)
Alfred Carlton (or A. C., as he would be known) Gilbert was born on February 15, 1884 in Salem, Oregon. A. C. Gilbert grew up at 700 Marion Street in Salem in a house build by his father Frank Gilbert. A. C. also spent many hours playing at his uncle Andrew T. Gilbert’s house, six blocks away on the Salem waterfront. That house is now a part of A. C. Gilbert's Discovery Village.
As a boy, A. C. Gilbert was fascinated by magic and his father helped him learn how to perform magic tricks. His father took him to see a performance of the famous magician, Herman the Great, at the Reed Opera House in Salem. During the performance, Herman the Great asked young A. C., “Don’t you wish you could do things like this?”
“I can,” A. C. replied, and he demonstrated his own magic tricks to the famous magician.
A. C. Gilbert also loved attending athletic events, especially track meets at Willamette University. This interest in athletics led him to organize a small athletic club for his friends. He later persuaded his school to hold a field day of athletic contests. He even made medals for the field day himself using the backs from his father’s old watches.
A. C. Gilbert and his family eventually moved to Moscow, Idaho, where he discovered bag punching, which he quickly became skilled at. A. C. was practicing one day, when the manager of a traveling show spotted him. The manager was impressed with A. C. skill, and offered him a job. A. C. took the job and left Moscow with the show, performing as the “Champion Boy Bag Puncher of the World”. When A. C.'s father discovered A. C. had left, he went after him, catching up with him in Lewiston, Idaho, and bringing him back to Moscow, ending his bag punching career.
In 1900, A. C. Gilbert returned to Oregon and attended the Tualatin Academy (essentially a private high school operated by Pacific University, where his uncle A. T. Gilbert was a trustee) His interest in athletics continued, and he set the world's record for pull-ups in 1901 and another world's record for the long-jump in 1902. Gilbert graduated from the Tualatin Academy in 1902 and began attending Pacific University, where his athletic success continued. Gilbert was described by the Oregonian as "the best quarterback to be found in Oregon." He was captain of the track team, set a Northwest Conference pole vaulting record of 11'-7", and won the 1904 Intercollegiate Wrestling Championship.
After two years at Pacific University, Gilbert transferred to Yale University to study medicine. To earn money for his tuition, he started performing as a magician, using the magic tricks his father had helped him learn as a child. The performances often earned Gilbert as much as $100 in a night. His friends became interested in Gilbert's magic tricks, but when he tried to teach them the tricks, he discovered that they weren't willing to spend the time practicing that was needed. At his friends' request, Gilbert began making boxed sets of magic tricks for them, with detailed instructions on how to perform the tricks. The magic sets proved popular enough for Gilbert to be able to sell them for $5 per set.
In addition to studying medicine, Gilbert continued competing in athletics, winning the Heaton Testimonial Award as all-around champion in 1905. Gilbert also continued pole-vaulting. As a child, Gilbert had invented a take-off hole that allowed him to vault higher than relying on the 6-inch spike typically used at the time. He continued to experiment and ended up replacing the older hickory pole with one made of bamboo, which was lighter and more flexible, and did splinter if it broke. Using these innovations, Gilbert set a world's record in pole vaulting of 12'-3" in 1906.
Confident in his pole vaulting skills, Gilbert set his eyes on competing in the upcoming Olympics. In the Olympic tryouts in 1908, Gilbert set a new record of 12'-7" using his inventions, earning him a spot in the 1908 London Olympic Games. In London, Gilbert won the pole vault using his innovations, but Olympic officials ruled them illegal, despite no actual rules against them. Gilbert vaulted again using the traditional equipment, and still won. The judges, however, apparently viewing Gilbert's innovations as attempts to cheat, ruled that Gilbert would share the gold medal with his American teammate, E. T. Cooke, who had matched Gilbert's height in the preliminaries, but fell short in the official vaults. Cooke realized that Gilbert had earned the medal and allowed him to keep it, but the overall experience led Gilbert to stop competing in athletics. The bamboo pole and a box similar to Gilbert's soon became standards in pole vaulting, however.
In 1908, A. C. Gilbert also married Mary Thompson, whom he had met while attending Pacific University.
Before graduating from Yale in 1909, Gilbert established his first company, Mysto Manufacturing Company, with his friend John Petrie. The new company, based in Westville, Connecticut, began manufacturing and marketing of the magic sets Gilbert had created. After graduating from Yale with a medical degree, Gilbert chose to focus on his new company rather than pursue his medical career.
Early in 1911, while riding the train from New Haven, Connecticut to New York City, Gilbert saw the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad erecting towers for new power lines to allow the railroad to switch from steam to electric locomotives. Every day, Gilbert noticed the progress the workers made on the towers, and he found himself fascinated with the architecture of them.
“I saw steel girder after steel girder being erected…I found it interesting to watch their progress from week to week, and most other travelers did too. It seems to be the most natural thing in the world that I should think about how fascinated boys might be in building things out of girders.”
Inspired, Gilbert and his wife spent a night making cardboard girders and working with them until they fit together like the girders he had seen on the railroad towers. As they worked with the girders, they found they could make many things with them. These cardboard girders evolved into the Erector Set, which Gilbert introduced at the New York City Toy Fair in 1913.
The Erector Set would prove to be quite popular. A number of different sets would become available, each one allowing young children to create items like bridges and Ferris wheels.
Gilbert's toys changes the toy industry. Gilbert was one of the first makers of educational toys with the belief that playing was an essential part of learning.
Gilbert continued to innovate with new technology as well. A major breakthrough came in 1916, when Gilbert successfully used enameled wire to create small, fractional horsepower electric motors, something that had eluded even the engineers at industrial giant General Electric. Gilbert planned to add the motors to Erector sets, but they would prove useful in another way as well.
By this time, Gilbert's company had a large number of employees, and Gilbert believed in paying them well in order to maintain a loyal, skilled workforce. The toy industry was seasonal, though, with a buildup to the Christmas season, and there was always a decline in production during part of the year. Gilbert hated to have to lay off his workers during this time and was searching for a product that was not toy related that could be produced when toys weren't being made.
“Ninety per cent of our toys were sold at Christmas time. Then there was a period of at least a few weeks before we could start production of the next year’s merchandise. I had several hundred workers by this time, and I hated terribly to have to lay them off for this period. I hated to see a factory standing idle, machines quiet and unproductive. I wanted to build up a working force that would be loyal, happy, and interested in the business. Men and women could not feel that way unless they had the security of steady employment, as well as good wages and pleasant working conditions.
I had to find some product that would fill in the gap in the working year, when we were not making toys. Naturally, something involving small electric motors came to mind first. That’s when I had the idea for the Polar Cub fan.”
The Polar Cub fan used Gilbert's new electric motor and small circuitry, another Gilbert innovation. From the Polar Cub fan came many of the small appliances we take for granted today. Many appliances, such as the electric hair dryer, were made possible through patents held by A. C. Gilbert.
Also in 1916, the Mysto Manufacturing Company was renamed the A. C. Gilbert Company. A. C. Gilbert also founded the Toy Manufacturers of the U.S.A. and was the organization's first president.
In 1917, the A. C. Gilbert Company opened the world's largest toy factory at Erector Square in New Haven, Connecticut. Gilbert also marketed a chemistry set for the first time in 1917. The chemistry set resembled the magic sets, and would become one of the company's major products.
In 1917, the United States officially entered World War I, and the U.S. Council of National Defense began considering a ban on Christmas toys so that people would be able to buy more war bonds. A. C. Gilbert believed toys were too important to give up, both for educating children and for overall morale. The Toy Manufacturers of the U.S.A. appointed Gilbert to convince the council, made up of the Secretary of the Navy, the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Interior. Knowing he would only have a few minutes at the end of the day to convince the council, Gilbert brought some of his company's toys along to help make his point. Shortly after passing around the toys in the meeting, the men were on the floor playing with them. The meeting ran past the scheduled time... to three hours. In the end, the council decided against banning Christmas toys, and Gilbert let the men keep the toys he brought to the meeting. A. C. Gilbert was praised by the press as "The Man Who Saved Christmas."
Another product made by Gilbert was radio kits. In 1920, the A. C. Gilbert Co. was issued a radio broadcasting license. Gilbert's radio station, WCJ in New Haven, Connecticut, was the 6th licensed radio station in the United States. Gilbert Radio Press broadcasts included a sports review program hosted by Gilbert himself, as well as interviews with famous athletes of the time. A. C. Gilbert's sports program was the first radio sports program.
The A. C. Gilbert Company introduced a microscope set in 1935. The Gilbert microscope set was the most realistic microscope set available at the time and remained an important product in Gilbert's toy line.
In 1938, Gilbert purchased American Flyer Trains from W. O. Coleman, Jr. and moved all American Flyer production and staff to the Gilbert factory. Under Coleman, American Flyer had suffered with tinplate trains that were not to scale and were no different from any of its competitors. Gilbert began to replace the original American Flyer tinplate trains with new, more realistic, stamped metal and die cast bodies designed to 1/64th (3/16") scale, though they still ran on O-scale (1/48th or 1/4") track. A. C. Gilbert believed that the trains should be as realistic as possible, and the new American Flyer trains were modeled from actual railroad blueprints, an innovation at the time. Gilbert wanted Gilbert was also a pioneer of 1/87th scale trains, with its "Gilbert HO" line introduced at this time.
The Gilbert Hall of Science opened in New York City in 1941, with 1500 children as guests. Toys made by Gilbert would be advertised as being "Developed at the Gilbert Hall of Science."
Also in 1941, A. C. Gilbert's childhood home in Salem, Oregon was demolished to make way for the Salem First Congregational Church. His uncle's house, though, remained on the Salem waterfront.
World War II interfered with Gilbert's toy production, and in 1942, the A.C. Gilbert Company switched from toy production to military production. War products made by Gilbert included flares, mines, range indicators for anti-aircraft guns, and electric motors for the trim tabs of fighter planes. The company received an Army-Navy "E" award in 1943 for its contributions to the war effort. It was the first of four of the awards the company would receive during the course of the war.
Gilbert's toys would also contribute to the war in another way. As the popularity of the Erector Set had grown over the years, it was used by architects and engineers to build test models of structures and machines. During the war, the Erector Set was used to design and test a portable bridge, which would go on to be used by Allied soldiers in Europe. The bridge could be carried by soldiers in 10-foot sections, and used to replace bridges destroyed by the Germans army as they retreated across Europe.
When the war ended, A. C. Gilbert was able to return to toy production and finish remaking the American Flyer Trains. In 1946, American Flyer introduced S gauge trains on S-gauge 2-rail track. This made American Flyer distinct from its competitors. Other toy trains had to be compressed in length to be able to go around the sharp corners, but the slightly smaller American Flyer trains could be made full-length, and the two-rail track was far more realistic that the three-rail track used by the competition. Other Gilbert innovations in model trains included the talking station, trains sound systems, and smoke from the smokestack. With these innovations, American Flyer Trains would solidly become the #2 toy trains in America, under the famous Lionel Trains, with about a third of all toy trains sold made by American Flyer. American Flyer Trains eventually accounted for about three-quarters of Gilbert's production.
The A. C. Gilbert company produced its other toys as well including the Erector set, magic sets, chemistry sets, microscopes, a telegraph set, an electricity set, and a weather station. Perhaps Gilbert’s most interesting toy was the Atomic Energy set introduced in 1951. The set was built with the aid of professors at MIT, and included a working Geiger counter and samples of radioactive material. Parents protested the conceived potential danger of the sets (though the radioactive material was at very low levels) and production stopped in 1952, making the Atomic Energy set one of the most collectible Gilbert toys.
A. C. Gilbert stepped down as president of A. C. Gilbert Company in 1954. His son, A. C. Gilbert, Jr. took over the company. A. C. Gilbert published his autobiography, "The Man Who Lives In Paradise," that same year.
A. C. Gilbert died in 1961. At his death, he held 150 patents for his inventions. Unfortunately, the company that bore his name would not survive without him.
In 1962, with sales declining, the Gilbert family sold the A. C. Gilbert Company to the Wrather Corporation and were no longer involved in the company. The quality of the products began to decline rapidly. Despite adding products like slot cars and model airplanes, poor sales led to the first financial loss since Great Depression. The A. C. Gilbert Company ended production in 1966 and declared bankruptcy in 1967. The company was liquidated.
The Erector set was sold to Gabriel Industries and are still made to this day by Meccano, a one-time competitor. Meccano was a British company that introduced a toy similar to the Erector set back in 1901. Though they initially competed with each other, in 1930 Gilbert purchased the rights to manufacture Meccano in the United States, an arrangement that lasted until World War II, when Meccano exited the U.S. market. Meccano acquired the rights to the Erector name in 1990.
American Flyer trains were sold to Lionel in June 1967. Lionel incorporated some Gilbert's innovations into its existing train line, but did not continue producing the S-gauge trains. It was 1979 before Lionel re-introduced limited production of the American Flyer line for the emerging collector's market. American Flyer trains have remained in production (to various degrees) under Lionel ever since. Some of the dies for the Gilbert HO line were acquired by other manufacturers of HO-scale trains, and a few items are still being produced under various names today.
In 1984, the "Holidays at the Capitol" decorating committee at the Oregon State Capitol commissioned the Vocational Training Section of the Oregon State Correctional Institution to build a winter-themed model railroad for use as part of the holiday decorations in the rotunda of the state capitol building. This layout uses American Flyer S-Gauge trains and features models of historic buildings from the Salem area, including A. C. Gilbert's childhood home and the home of his uncle, A. T. Gilbert. This layout appears annually in the rotunda of the Oregon State Capitol building during the month of December, and at other model train shows in the state throughout the year.
Here are pictures and a video of this layout at the Great American Train Show in Portland, Oregon on February 18, 2006.
Here are pictures and a video of the layout in the rotunda of the Oregon State Capitol building on December 22, 2006.
The City of Salem, Oregon purchased the A. T. Gilbert house in 1985. On December 15, 1989, A. C. Gilbert's Discovery Village opened in Salem, with the A. T. Gilbert house as part of it.
In 2002, "The Man Who Changed The Ways Boys and Toys Were Made," a biography of A. C. Gilbert was published. The same year, A. C. Gilbert was portrayed by Jason Alexander in the made-for-TV movie "The Man Who Saved Christmas."
A. C. Gilbert's Discovery Village
A. C. Gilbert Heritage Society
The Eli Whitney Museum's Gilbert Project
American Flyer History
A. C. Gilbert as MIT's Inventor of the Week
A. C. Gilbert at Wikipedia
Erector Sets by Meccano
The Man Who Saved Christmas on NPR