Erector Sets

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Erector Sets

Before LEGOS (see entry under 1950s—Sports and Games in volume 3), there were Erector Sets. The Erector Set is a popular construction toy that taught as well as amused youngsters for most of the twentieth century. The primary components of Erector Sets are nuts, bolts, and hole-filled metal girders of varying sizes. Other materials include wheels, pulleys, gears, and electric motors. Following instructions that come in each Erector Set box, children use the nuts and bolts to attach the girders, resulting in the construction of elaborate miniature buildings, airplanes, trucks, cars, bridges, ships, clocks, houses—and even robots.

The toy was first produced in 1913 by the Mysto Magic Company, which sold magic-trick components. It was the creation of A. C. Gilbert (1884–1961), the company founder. Gilbert was a man of varied interests and many talents. In 1908, he won a gold medal for pole-vaulting in the Summer Olympics (see entry under 1900s—Sports and Games in volume 1). The following year, he earned a medical degree from Yale University. While a passenger on a train bound from New Haven, Connecticut, to New York City, he observed workmen positioning steal beams. This event inspired him to create a child's construction kit that he called the "Mysto Erector Structural Steel Builder"; the product eventually became commonly known as the Erector Set. Gilbert was aware of similar construction toys already available in the marketplace, such as the English Meccano. However, his sets were an improvement over the competition, because he included square girders and pieces that could bend to a ninety-degree angle. Gilbert's goal was to create a toy that was fun to play with but also allowed the user to gain an increased understanding of science and technology. He believed that "playing is essential to learning."

The instructions that accompanied Erector Sets from decade to decade paralleled twentieth-century technological advances. As architects designed great urban skyscrapers (see entry under 1930s—The Way We Lived in volume 2) and expansive suspension bridges, Erector Set owners were encouraged to build their own tall buildings and elevated structures. Instructions for constructing trucks, Ferris wheels (see entry under 1900s—The Way We Lived in volume 1), and zeppelins were added to the sets during the 1920s. A parachute jump came in the 1940s, followed by an entire amusement park (see entry under 1950s—The Way We Lived in volume 3) in the 1950s.

Gilbert created and marketed additional toys, including Mysto Magic sets, American Flyer trains, a glass-blowing kit, and an Atomic Energy Lab, which included authentic radioactive particles and a real Geiger counter. In his lifetime, Gilbert was credited with over 150 patents and inventions. After his death, the Meccano Company—now Meccano Toys Ltd. and one of Gilbert's chief early competitors—purchased the rights to Erector Sets. The Brio Corporation, known for its wooden trains, began distributing a new line of Erector Sets in the summer of 2001.

—Rob Edelman

For More Information

Bean, William M. and Al M. Sternagle. Greenberg's Guide to Gilbert Erector Sets, 1913–1932. Waukesha, WI: Kalmbach Publishing Company, 1993.

Bean, William M. Greenberg's Guide to Gilbert Erector Sets, Volume Two, 1933–1962. Waukesha, WI: Kalmbach Publishing Company, 1998.

Dr. Prune's Erector World. (accessed October, 2001).

"Kids' Trains: BRIO Brings Back the Erector Set." (accessed on January 17, 2002).