The Erector Set

This is my maiden post as a new Chicago Boy so I thought I would recycle a post from my own blog that might be of interest.

My grandson’s birthday was two weeks ago, and his father’s is next weekend. I thought I would give him (the grandson) a toy that I was sure he had never heard of, an Erector Set. I have a medical connection, as well as a childhood connection, with this toy, now largely forgotten. I had Lionel trains when I was a child in Chicago and eventually had HO gauge trains, as well. When I had sons old enough to play with trains, I built an elaborate train set in my garage. Then I learned that southern California is not the place for toy trains. The boys were outdoors all the time and the train set gathered dust.

Few kids today will have the chance to enjoy the Erector Set. Like so many cold climate toys, it is never seen in southern California. I wonder how many sets are sold in Chicago ? There  is still a small source for this toy; but the glory days of the Erector Set were long ago. The toy was invented by A.C. Gilbert; in 1913. The story is interesting. Gilbert was a Yale Medical School graduate and had also won a gold medal, for the pole vault, in the 1908 Olympic Games. He built a new design bamboo pole that he used in his winning vault and he sold these, as well as other toys.

Like many residents of New Haven, Connecticut, he often took the train to New York City; and on one trip in 1911 he was inspired with what would be the most popular of his dozens of inventions.

Watching out the train window as some workmen positioned and riveted the steel beams of an electrical power-line tower, Gilbert decided to create a children’s construction kit: not just a toy, but an assemblage of metal beams with evenly spaced holes for bolts to pass through, screws, bolts, pulleys, gears and eventually even engines. A British toy company called Meccano Company was then selling a similar kit, but Gilbert’s Erector set was more realistic and had a number of technical advantages — most notably, steel beams that were not flat but bent lengthwise at a 90-degree angle, so that four of them nested side-to-side formed a very sturdy, square, hollow support beam.

Gilbert began selling the “Mysto Erector Structural Steel Builder” in 1913, backed by the first major American ad campaign for a toy. The Erector set quickly became one of the most popular toys of all time: living rooms across the country were transformed into miniature metropoles, filled with skyscrapers, bridges and railways. Those kids who already owned a set would beg Santa annually for an upgrade, aiming for the elusive “No. 12 1/2” deluxe kit that came with blueprints for the “Mysterious Walking Giant” robot. It is difficult for anyone under the age of 35 today to appreciate just how popular the Erector set was for over half a century.

Now, it happens that I have a personal connection to the Erector Set. In the early 1970s, a patient was referred to me with an esophageal stricture. He was in his 90s and had been told he was too old for a major operation like that. He and his wife had emigrated from England in 1913 and he was looking for a job as an engineer, when he met A.C. Gilbert, who was having trouble selling his new toy. Gilbert had invented the Erector Set and had built a few samples of what could be constructed using the new kit of materials but the set consisted of lots of perforated metal pieces and machine screws and nuts. The challenge was to design structures that children, with some parental help perhaps, could build. I had a set at the age of six and spent hours with it.

Gilbert needed someone to build sample structures using the set and write instructions on how to build them. He took the job and spent years working on new designs and instruction books. The first Christmas after he began work for Gilbert, the giant New York City department stores, Macy’s and Gimbel’s, wanted sample structures to help sell the toys. My patient built a huge suspension bridge for one store, that crossed over the cash registers, which in those days were arranged like the check-out lines in today’s supermarkets. The bridge was over 20 feet long. As soon as the other store saw his bridge, they wanted one just like it. He built another and the toy’s popularity took off. For years, he worked for Gilbert although, when I knew him, he had been retired to San Clemente for years.

He and his wife were in good health with the exception of this stricture that was so tight that he could only swallow liquids. It was a consequence of esophageal reflux and the scarring that chronic reflux produces.  He was very lucky that it had not developed a cancer.  He subsisted on apple sauce and other pureed food that would not pass through the stricture until he jumped up and down while standing against the wall. Every few mouthfuls, he had to stand up and jump until the food went down. He had been told he was too old to have it fixed, or even dilated, and his only option was some sort of feeding tube. Needless to say, he was skinny and the operation seemed to be feasible to me. Larry Mathis, a long time GP surgeon in San Clemente was his GP and Larry and I decided to try to fix his stricture. At surgery, his esophagus, just above the stomach where most benign strictures occur, was so tight that it split when I tried to dilate it from below with my finger. There is a procedure called a Thal Patch(pdf). It is used to close esophageal perforations such as traumatic tears and ruptures, like the Boerhaave’s Syndrome. In this case, I had created the hole in the esophagus by tearing open the stricture. I made a Thal patch from his stomach and closed the hole without recreating the narrow section. The surgery worked and he recovered very well. He hadn’t been able to eat solids in over five years. As a reward, he told me his story.

A few years later, he presented with symptoms of acute cholecystitis but at surgery I found a cancer of the colon next to the gallbladder. About  a year later he died of the cancer, having nearly reached the age of 100.

A.C. Gilbert also invented a number of other toys that were Christmas traditions for half a century. They included chemistry sets, physics sets and even a nuclear radioactivity set that included a Geiger counter. I had several of these, including the radioactive set. Those were the days before TV when children played with educational toys and were not so self-conscious about it. Today, the ATF would probably raid the basement of a child who had one of those sets.

17 thoughts on “The Erector Set”

  1. Welcome Michael Kennedy! I have enjoyed your comments for a while now. You need to work on your html a bit, but great first post. I too had an erector set, loved that toy.

  2. Welcome, Michael. Thanks for this great post.

    I had an Erector Set when I was a kid. I don’t remember any beams, only perforated sheet metal and machine screws/nuts. My most ambitious project was an unsuccessful attempt to make a wheeled vehicle powered by a toy steam engine. I didn’t have the skill or patience to pull it off, but I enjoyed my Erector Set and probably learned much from using it.

  3. I remember taking the nottle of murcury from my set and pouring the murcury on the breakfast table to form a small, shiny, silver pool. And then pushin the murcury around the table top – making different shape and finally putting it back in the bottle.

    I am still alive, sane, cancer free, with all my original fingers and no extra fingers or growths.

  4. I took the mercury from a couple of broken thermometers and other sources and used it for amusement. How did we survive ? I have a story about kindergarten that I think I will save for a post.

  5. Welcome. And what a wonderful story. This is more the world of my brothers – but I remember their creations with affection. And I’m looking forward to hearing more from you.

  6. It would be a Nuclear Emergency Search Team, not the ATF. The neighbors were mighty surprised to see those guys wandering through their back yards in moon suits like the ones in the ET movies just because David Hahn, the junior mad scientist next door, had built a home-made nuclear breeder reactor in a potting shed for a Boy Scout merit badge in Nuclear Energy. He hoped it would earn him Eagle Scout status.

    “I don’t believe I took more than five years off my life” – David Hahn.

    His scoutmaster from the Amazon Review of The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor:

    “I was David’s scoutmaster when he was preparing for his Eagle Scout Board of Review. I was to contact five registered adult Scout leaders, who would comprise the Board. One prospective adult told me he could not sit on the Board, because “something happened”.

    I learned that David and some friends were stopped by the cavaliering Clinton Township (Michigan) Police, who were randomly stopping teens and searching their cars for stolen tires.

    David was not allowed to keep his experiments in his stepmother’s home, so he kept everything in his car trunk. The cops found no tires, but saw his stuff and overreacted.

    Days later, David’s father phoned and said that David would no longer pursue the Eagle Scout rank.

    A month or so later, a man claiming to be a reporter phoned my home, wanting to do a telephone interview about David. After a few moments, I refused. There was something negative about the line of questioning.

    As a Scout, David was always clean-cut, polite, and well-liked by the other boys. My take is that David had the scientific curiosity of a Tesla or Edison; not of an evil prankster.

    David’s father, like so many divorced and re-married men, walked a tightrope between caring for his son and appeasing a new bride.”

    The EPA moved most the Hahns’ back yard, particularly the potting shed, from Michigan to Utah and buried it all very deep. They never found David’s neutron gun, though, because his stepmother threw that away before the search warrant could be served. And he did make Eagle Scout, largely because he had a lot of free time after his parents grounded him.

  7. In my post about Herman Wouk and Richard Feynman over at my blog I include one of Feynman’s stories about Los Alamos. He told Wouk that they were so messy and disorganized at the research lab that he was walking down a hallway and found stored there enough uranium (presumably 235) to come within a whisker of a chain reaction. I suspect that was one of Feynman’s stories to a neophyte.

  8. Welcome, I look forward to hearing more from you. I remember Erector Sets in store windows from the 1940s.Interesting how they just seem to have disappeared off the face of the earth.

  9. Hi, and welcome! I have an Erector Set story also – my father hand one, from the 1930s, which my brother and I used to play with,when we visited our grandparents. We always had a perfectly grand time, with all the little beams, and nuts and bolts. Dad’s set also had a little electric motor, which still worked very well, although the cords were covered with fabric …
    Alas, the set was one of the things lost when my parents’ house burned in in one of the So Cal wildfires in 2003.
    But we do remember that Erector Set very well!

  10. Welcome Michael Kennedy! What a great story. I’m 48, but remember my erector set–the only time in my life when I was any good with my hands! Your post brings back very warm memories—you know, I saw an erector set in a toy store recently and decided that when I have grandchildren…
    Thanks again, and welcome!

  11. During the 1930s, the British version of the Erector Set (Meccano) was used to build a couple of mechanical analog computers. One of these was reputedly used to do the calculations for the WWII skip-bombing attack on German hydroelectric dams.

  12. There was a made for TV movie about Gilbert a few years back. I forget the details but I believe he lost a son in WWI. Anyway he was quite a character. Until very recently the CT/Rhode Island area was a nexus for toy companys (Milton Bradley, Coleco, Hasbro and a few others). They’ve consolidated or gone broke with the general destruction of the local economies by the left.

  13. Great story. I got oak blocks for my third birthday. Then the handyman came to redo the bathroom and left me with many, many sheets of discontinued ceramic tiles. My birthday gift was Tinker Toys, followed by Lincoln Logs for Christmas, then Grids and Girders (?), then an Erector Set when I was six. By then my brothers were one and three, so I had to be a “good” sister and share.

    P.S. My father graduated with an engineering degree.

  14. Good to learn of Gilbert, inventor of the cherished Erector Set that my brother and I played with (along with Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys) in our late-1940’s boyhood days on Leavitt St. in Chicago.

    Had no TV set in our house, but radio serials were great for the imagination (Bobby Benton and the B-Bar-B Ranch, The Whistler, The Shadow and others). Had no air conditioning but we had a fan and we all survived the summer heat.

    My mother would let me walk by myself to my pre-school class around the corner at Audobon School. She’d also let me and my younger brother ride, by ourselves, the roller coaster at the then nearby, now long-gone Riverview Amusement Park. Can’t imagine parents allowing such a thing today, but we loved it.

    Ours was the only house on the block that was set back from the street and had a front yard. My dad would flood the yard and let it freeze over in the winter so neighborhood kids could play hockey there. In the spring their dads would help my dad turn the sod and replant the grass.

    Hope this comment is not too long. Amazing what memories can rise up at the mention of Erector Sets. Thank you Mr. Kennedy.

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