Alfred Carlton Gilbert

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Alfred Carlton Gilbert
Proof of AC Gilbert.jpg
AC Gilbert as a young fraternity man at Pacific University in 1902
Personal information
Born(1884-02-15)February 15, 1884
Salem, Oregon
DiedJanuary 24, 1961(1961-01-24) (aged 76)
Boston, Massachusetts
Medal record
Men's athletics
Representing the United States
Gold medal icon (G initial).svg 1908 London Pole vault

Alfred Carlton Gilbert (February 15, [1] 1884 – January 24, 1961) was an American inventor, athlete, magician, toy maker and businessman. As the founder of A. C. Gilbert Company, Gilbert was known for inventing the Erector Set and American Flyer Trains. [2]


Early life and education

Gilbert was educated at the Tualatin Academy and attended Pacific University in nearby Forest Grove, Oregon, where he was a member of the Gamma Sigma Fraternity. [3] He left Pacific after 1902 and transferred to Yale University, financing his education by working as a magician, [4] and earning a degree in medicine. [5] :36–39 His thesis had the title The Genito-Urinary Phenomena of Athletes. [5] :49

An accomplished athlete, he broke the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) in 1900 and distance record for running long dive in 1902. He invented the pole vault box and set two world records in the pole vault including a record for 12′ 3″ (3.66 meters) at the Spring meet of the Irish American Athletic Club, held at Celtic Park, New York, in 1906. [6] [7] He tied for gold with fellow American Edward Cook at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London for pole vaulting. [5] :48


Choosing not to pursue a medical career, Gilbert founded Mysto Manufacturing, a manufacturer of magic sets, with his friend John Petrie, in 1907. [8] This company later became the A. C. Gilbert Company. Gilbert developed the Erector Set, a construction toy, in 1913 (preceded by the similar Meccano set conceived by Frank Hornby in 1898 which he developed and patented as "Mechanics Made Easy" in 1901 [9] ). [5] :37–39 His inspiration was steel construction girders used on the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. [4] In 1918, with the United States embroiled in World War I and the Council of National Defense considering a ban on toy production, Gilbert argued successfully against it. The press gave him the nickname "The man who saved Christmas." Gilbert had by then contributed to the war effort by becoming one of the Four Minute Men who gave short lectures to movie audiences, thus encouraging citizens to purchase war bonds. [5] :85–104

By 1935, his company had sold more than 30 million of the Erector sets.[ citation needed ] He also added chemistry sets, microscope sets, and other educational toys to his product line, accumulating more than 150 patents during his 50-year career. In 1938, he acquired the rights to the American Flyer toy train line from W. O. Coleman and moved their production from Chicago to New Haven. [5] :160 At the same time, he adopted a 3/16 scale for this train line while keeping the three-rail O-gauge track then associated with Lionel, a competitor. Following World War II, O-gauge track was abandoned in favor of two-rail S-gauge track. Gilbert was lauded for his adherence to scale realism, making American Flyer trains look more real and less toylike.[ citation needed ]

Gilbert is credited with originating the concept of providing benefits for his employees, including free medical and legal advice and maternity leave. [5] :165–166 In 1915 he founded the Toy Manufacturers of America trade association and was its first president. [5] :56

Frustrated that invention was an important part of American society not taught in schools, in 1941 Gilbert opened the Gilbert Hall of Science in New York City, a science and technology museum. It served the dual purpose of promoting interest in science and selling Gilbert's products. [5] :160–161

In 1950–1951 he marketed the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory, which contained radioactive ore samples of autunite, carnotite, torbernite and uraninite. [5] :179

Personal life

In 1908, he married Mary Thompson, whom he had met at Pacific University. They had three children: two girls and a boy. [5] :110 In the 1930s they lived in a property in Hamden, Connecticut called Maraldene which included kennels where Gilbert bred German Shepherds including one which won the Max von Stephanitz award. He also owned a nearby 600-acre estate that he called Paradise. He used it for hunting and it housed his big-game trophies. It was a venue for him to entertain clients, and guests attending the Yale Bowl. [5] :149–159

Later years

Upon his retirement in 1954, Gilbert turned his company over to his son. [5] :163–164 The same year, he published his autobiography, titled The Man Who Lives in Paradise. After his death in 1961, the family sold its remaining shares in the A. C. Gilbert Company to Jack Wrather. It went out of business in 1967, although the Erector trademark continued to be used. [5] :189–192


A museum in Gilbert's birthplace of Salem, Oregon, A. C. Gilbert's Discovery Village, is named in his honor. The museum comprises several historic structures, including the house of Gilbert's uncle Andrew T. Gilbert. It opened in 1989. [5] :207

The television movie The Man Who Saved Christmas is a dramatization of Christmas during the years 1917 and 1918 when America was involved in World War I. He was portrayed by Jason Alexander. The film takes several historical liberties. It debuted December 15, 2002.

Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, has a residential hall named after him that was opened in 2009.


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  1. Gilbert, Alfred Carlton. (1954). The Man who Lives in Paradise: The Autobiography of A. C. Gilbert. Rhinehart. p. 6
  2. "Alfred Carlton Gilbert". Olympedia. Retrieved March 13, 2021.
  3. Pacific University Heart of the Oak, 1902, page 85.
  4. 1 2 "Toys: Just a Boy". Time . New York City. February 3, 1961. Retrieved November 8, 2022.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 Watson, Bruce (2002). The Man who Changed how Boys and Toys Were Made. Viking Press. pp. 1–216. ISBN   978-0670031344.
  6. "World's Record Vault by Gilbert of Yale; Collegian Clears Bar at Celtic Park at 12 Feet 3 Inches." New York Times, May 31, 1906.
  7. Yale Alumni Magazine, July/August 2008
  8. Walsh, Tim (2005). Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers who Created Them. Andrews McMeel Publishing. pp. 23–24. ISBN   9780740755712 . Retrieved November 12, 2012.
  9. GBpatent 190100587,Frank Hornby,"Improvements in Toy or Educational Devices for Children and Young People",published 1901-11-30,issued 1901-11-30