Alfred Carlton Gilbert was born on February 15, 1884 in Salem, Oregon. As a young boy, Gilbert developed an interest in magic and athletics. In 1892 he moved with his family to an area near Lewiston, Idaho where he soon set about organizing an athletic club for his friends. At one field event he fashioned winners' medals out of the backs of his father's old watches. Later, he ran away and joined a minstrel show until his father retrieved him 20 miles from home.
After his family returned to Salem in 1900, Gilbert attended Tualatin Academy in Forest Grove where he set world records for running long jump and pull-ups. He later attended Pacific University and went on to earn a medical degree from Yale University. Gilbert helped pay tuition by performing magic tricks--often making $100 per night. His athletic training and skill won him a gold medal in the 1908 Olympics in London where he set a world record in the pole vault using a pole he invented. After judges questioned the use of the pole, he repeated the vault with a standard pole and still won.
Despite his athletic successes and his medical degree, Gilbert focused on manufacturing magic sets after he and a partner formed the Mysto-Manufacturing Company based in New Haven, Connecticut in 1909. The inspiration for a new toy, the erector set, came to him after seeing steel girders used in construction. His partner chose not to pursue the opportunity so Gilbert marketed the toy himself in 1913. By 1915 the new A.C. Gilbert Company was producing the girder-based erector sets, which soon became very popular.
The genius of the invention was its versatility. Over the years, the engineering sets used various sizes and combinations of parts that appealed to the imaginations of boys everywhere. Buildings, trains, steam shovels, ferris wheels, and numerous other sets were produced over the decades. Many included small electric motors. By 1935 over 30 million sets had been sold. Gilbert also developed chemistry sets, microscope sets, and several other educational toys. During his years as a leader in the business, he founded the Toy Manufacturers Association of America and accumulated 150 patents for a wide range of inventions.
After a 50-year career, he retired in the late-1950s and died in 1961. Perhaps his greatest legacy is one of reinforcing the central role of play in the learning process.
(Sources: Gilbert House Children's Museum | A.C. Gilbert Heritage Society)