Tinker to Maker

We’ve long taken for granted the notion that children’s toys can, and perhaps should, be both educational and fun. But this was a relatively novel idea when Pacific University alumnus Alfred Carlton “A.C.” Gilbert (1884-1961) invented the Erector set in the early 1900s.

In a print ad (circa 1922) for the Erector set, Gilbert recalled how, as a child, he longed to “play with scientific things,” but couldn’t find such toys. He vowed to someday make “a new generation of toys,” a promise that years later gave rise to the now-iconic Erector set and many other toys rooted in science and engineering.

Sold in its trademark red-metal box, the Erector set was used by generations of children to assemble realistic carousels, aircraft, Ferris wheels, lift cranes and other toys. One of the reasons for its popularity was that the collection of bolts, metal beams, gears and other parts (including a small electric motor) could be used to build a model and then taken apart and assembled into something else.

Gilbert’s namesake firm sold an estimated 30 million Erector sets and grew to become one of the largest toy companies in the world.

He achieved fame as well as fortune. As a young man, he won a gold medal for pole vaulting at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London. About a decade later, the press nicknamed Gilbert “the Man Who Saved Christmas” after he persuaded U.S. defense officials to lift a ban on toy manufacturing imposed at the start of the first World War.

Gilbert Hall, a residential hall at Pacific that opened in 2009, is named in his honor, as is the Gilbert House Children’s Museum in Salem, Ore.

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