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Master Toy Teacher

On February 15, 1884, inventor and educator Alfred Carlton Gilbert was born. He paid for some of his university expenses by performing as a magician and launched a company to manufacture and sell magic kits. Upon graduating from Yale medical school, Gilbert chose to expand his business instead of practicing medicine.

Over the following years, Gilbert created, manufactured, and sold learning toys in various kits. Each kit provided unique hands-on education that exercised hand-eye coordination, encouraged experimentation, presented text and spatial reading materials, and allowed each child to engage and progress at an individual rate. Kits with real tools. Kits with real construction materials. No wood or plastic blocks and easy-fit parts. Kits to excite every adventurous cell in any child’s brain. Along with Gilbert’s original magic sets, he added microscope sets… glass blowing… machine shop tools… metal casting… detective kits… sets to make electric eye mechanisms and telephones.

His series of Gilbert Erector sets was capped with an “Engineer’s Set” weighing in at 26 kg (58 lb) of girders, plates, lights, wheels, and an electric motor. His motors came in wind-up, battery-operated, and miniature electric versions and each was capable of real-world applications.

The Gilbert Chemistry sets moved a child from the beginner’s set that included a wood test tube rack right on through its own series capper, “The Master Scientist’s Chemistry Laboratory” that contained 2.7 m (9 ft) of shelf space that held 7 kg (15 lb) of equipment and chemicals to perform over 800 experiments. There was even an “Atomic Energy Lab” complete with real radioactive particles and a working Geiger counter!

Gilbert also gave people, young and old, the opportunity to play together and share knowledge and know-how across generations with decades of his American Flyer trains. These were detailed working cars from locomotives to oil tankers to cabooses, scenic layout parts, and miles of track for models in three different scales.

For over half a century, from 1909 to 1964, Gilbert’s company was the leading producer of learning toys. It sold tens of millions of sets. He believed that invention was critical to the advancement of society. He also knew that schools could not teach invention but he wasn’t about to sit still and wait for them to catch up to him. Gilbert created set after set after set of quality learning materials, guidebooks, and diagrams.

Alfred Carlton Gilbert — Mastermind nurturing inventor
Alfred Carlton Gilbert — Mastermind nurturing inventor

Gilbert’s vision of engaging imagination through experimental play set the barre of excellence and changed forever the potential that construction toys could achieve.

His kits fired dreams. The dreams launched adult careers for women and men who went on to build real bridges, robots, spacecraft, to advance chemistry research, and more. Just like cardiologists Glenn and Sewell, the Erector set owners who built the first experimental heart bypass machine. Just like the astronaut-neurologist Chemistry set owner who grew up to do her Spacelab science on the First International Microgravity Laboratory.

B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage