The Erector Set

Here is an old post from my own blog. I thought it deserved another go.

Glenn Reynolds today has a link to Lionel Trains in the anticipation of Christmas. I had Lionel trains 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.

Another toy that kids today will never have the chance to enjoy is the Erector Set. 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 had 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. 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.


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 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 first store saw his bridge, they wanted one just like it. For years, he worked for Gilbert and, 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. 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. He had been told he was too old 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 was his GP and Larry and I decided to try to fix his stricture. At surgery, his esophagus was so tight that it split when I tried to dilate it from below. There is a procedure called a Thal Patch. 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. The surgery worked and he recovered very well.

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 that were not so self-conscious about it.

32 thoughts on “The Erector Set”

  1. I wonder if it is the advertising? Erector sets taught the use of tools and seemed more complex to me.

  2. The Erector Set was still going strong when I was a kid (b.1953) but the plastic stuff was taking over. I can’t recall any brand names in particular but there were some sets for building skyscrapers and even a set of interchangeable aircraft parts — different wing, fuselage, and other pieces that could be put together to look something like a MiG or Sabre, F-100 or Draken according to whim. (Not to mention all the kits from Airfix, Revell, and Monogram hanging from the ceiling.)

    Then I discovered Avalon Hill.

    But Legos swept the field–my son (b.1986) had a roomful that has been pooled into a big plastic bin out in the storage room somewhere.

    Cousin Eddie

  3. My grandparents had an erector set which had been my father’s as a kid. We loved it, as it was one of the ones with an electric motor, which still worked. I think my grandmother or great-aunt must have bought it at a nice department store on their employee discount. A great toy … alas, it was one of those heirloom things lost in the fire in 2003 which burned my parent’s retirement home to the ground.

  4. I think a lot of it was the advertising – or lack of it. If legos are strong, no reason for the erector set’s demise. You don’t see Chemistry sets either although I wonder if that is because of the OSHA bureaucrats.

  5. I sure loved my Meccano sets. I had a pretty big pile of stuff to make things with. My machine guns, with the clockwork motor making the firing noise were … not works of art. ;)

  6. I’m sure Chemistry sets died at the hands of safetyism. I had two and the nuclear set with the Geiger Counter. I also made my own toy soldiers using molds I had been given as a gift along with a supply of lead. When I ran out of lead, I had a supply of Aluminum pellets I had been given. Aluminum melts at 660 degrees C or about 1220 degree F. Charcoal will get hot enough and I had a whole collection of Aluminum toy soldiers. Can you imagine a 21st century parent allowing this ? I also dismantled some of my father’s shotgun shells to make toy rockets with the gunpowder. Never had an accident although I did break my arm twice and a leg once.

  7. Your link seems dead but a quick search shows they’re available on Amazon as well as Chinese knock offs, lots and lots of Chinese knock offs. Just glancing at them they seem pretty similar to the ones I spent a good many hours with, mostly metal with real screws and nuts. The genuine ones are branded “by Mechano”.

    They are just a corner of a much bigger space that includes the computer controllable Lego kits and, now especially, 3D printers. If you look around YouTube there are more home machine shops than you can imagine, surely many more than when I was the only person I knew with a lathe and drill press in the basement. Then there is the whole “Maker” scene with certain elements of second childhood apparent.

    One good thing that may come out of the whole student debt fiasco is more people, especially parents, will be open to careers that don’t include college. I doubt you’d have to look very far to find someone that discovered it was easier to pay off their student loans as a plumber or electrician than as an adjunct teaching English 101 and probably a lot less BS. If they’ll just look away from their phone for a few minutes.

    It’s a great story and a reminder that in a country this big, there’s room to make a living doing almost anything if you do it well, even playing with toys.

  8. I took a look at the Amazon site and saw one set that looks to be metal parts. The rest, I think, are plastic. I tried back ten years ago, when that post was written, and found only plastic parts. If that metal one is complete, that is progress. I might get one for a niece’s son.

  9. I always wanted an Effector Set, but was never in a monetary situation to afford one as a kid.

  10. Great post Mike and brings back memories of my childhood in the 50s I got a pretty massive erector set in 2nd or 3rd grade and spent many a happy hour with it. Also many cuts from sharp edge stamping and getting my fingers pinched in the motor gears.

    I also had a Meccano set that had been my dads in the early-mud 20s. Not certain it was Meccano but it was not an erector set so I am assuming.

    Also had the chemistry set and the microscope set.

    In 2nd grade an aunt gave me a steam engine from fao Schwartz. It burned wood alcohol, generated 5-10 psi steam to run a generator and light a tiny bulb. Naturally, I would tie the safety valve down and unhook the genny to see how fast I could get the flywheel to spin. I am damned lucky it didn’t blow up in my face.

  11. Mike, my cousin and I once found a couple of forgotten boxes of shotgun shells in the attic. We tried but failed to make rockets. We did mak some pretty bug firecrackers, though. I also, about that time built a couple if kit rockets from Estes.

    That was before I found that the solid fuel cartridges were more fun than the rockets.Tape one to a plastic bottle of gasoline, stand well back and let ‘er rip. Pretty spectacular.

  12. I recently read an article about Lego art sts similar to your patient.

    Some work for the company, some freelance. They design and build lego structures from scratch. Get paid pretty well for doing.

    I lost my love for lego last week when I found out how transphobic they are. I started researching a scholarly article working title “Pronged: The Hermeneutics of transphobic in Electrical Connectors”

    Lego refersto the top of the brick with the prongs (slang for penis) as male.. The bottom, inferior, side which is penetrated by the prong is female.

    Shame on them for thinking that the presence or absence of a prong determines male or female.

    They need to start being more sensitive to the needs of the community of person kind.

  13. “My patient built a huge suspension bridge 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”…very cool!

    There is a definite shortage of marketing creativity and sizzle of this kind among today’s retailers.

  14. Anonymous: “Lego refers to the top of the brick with the prongs (slang for penis) as male.. The bottom, inferior, side which is penetrated by the prong is female.”

    For as long as there have been fire-fighters and fire hoses, hose couplings have been female & male. Now they are officially referred to as “box” & “pin”. And we used to laugh about stories that Victorians would use tablecloths to provide discrete cover for suggestive table legs.

    Sometimes in the confusion of a fire ground, hoses would get laid out in the wrong direction and there would be an immediate need for a double female adaptor — or a double male. Yet no firefighter ever burst into tears and had to retreat to a “safe space” because of such salty language.

    Our society is melting around us. There will be consequences.

  15. I should note that”Box” was slang for a female anatomical part. There was, long ago, a joke about the Marlboro girl (a girls’ school in LA) with the “flip top box.” The Marlboro cigarette ad referred to it.

  16. Had many, many happy hours playing with the Erector Set my Dad bought me for Christmas one year, probably around 1960. I used to save my allowance so Mom could write a check for additional parts I ordered directly from A.C. Gilbert.

  17. Interesting about box and pin, I’d not heard that before and can use it in my article.


    I don’t know about civilians but in the Navy firehouse was doubled then rolled with both fittings on the outside, the female fitting overlapping the male to protect the exposed threads. This prevented getting the ends backwards.

    Hmmm… Probably some sexual implications there. Female on top? Female covering and protecting the male? All grist for my article.

    And don’t get me started on nuts and bolts. Why is protection available for the male (washer/condom) but nothing for the female?

    That can’t be allowed to stand in the 21st century.

  18. Funny how the impotent so often try to sexualize every single discussion. Is it because of an inability to add anything of any substance otherwise?

  19. Too bad Biden didn’t get that train set as a kid. It might have saved us billions of dollars.

  20. Richard,

    If that was directed at me, I am not really trying to sexualize Legos, my comment was meant tongue in cheek. It may have been offtopic and for that I apologize.

    On the other hand, I really am going to write a scholarly (koff, koff) article on the subject to see if I can get it published in some peer reviewed journal “Feminist Thinking Today” or something along those lines.

    Not because I think it is a problem but because I would like to see if I can get it accepted as Sokal did with his famous article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” published in Duke University’s “Social Text” journal.

    And to exercise Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals #5&6

    RULE 5: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”

    RULE 6: “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.”

    I figure if I can get the idiot fascists to seriously talk about the patriarchy of electrical connectors, it will be good for a laugh.

    I don’t know why I am showing up as anonymous here but I have been posting in the past as John Henry.

  21. Tim…”Too bad Biden didn’t get that train set as a kid. It might have saved us billions of dollars.”

    A (very brave) Chinese railway expert wrote about excessive government focus on glamorous high-speed passenger rail, as opposed to the workaday freight rail that he thought needed more attention. He actually used the term ‘playing with train sets’ in reference to certain government officials.

  22. Thanks to MCS for the link to Amazon. I ordered that metal parts crane set and sent it to my sister to give her grandchildren. The older is 6 and that is about the right age. It arrived this morning, less then 24 hours after ordered.

  23. I had an Erector Set back in the 1970’s. What I remember most was that I kept loosing the tiny nuts, bolts, and washers. I’d imagine now days those tiny hardware pieces that can be swallowed would run afoul of child safety regulations.

  24. I’d imagine now days those tiny hardware pieces that can be swallowed would run afoul of child safety regulations.

    Probably but Legos would be more risky to swallow as the tiny metallic parts would pass in the poop. Legos might hang up. Bigger than coins.

  25. Mike K.

    Hope they like it. Six is a good age, he or she will need a little help getting started. Watch out, once they know how to use a screw driver and wrench, other household items are liable to disassembly to satisfy curiosity. It’ll still be a few years until successful reassembly becomes likely.

    John Henry,

    Don’t forget bell and spigot. Also knock-out and connector.

  26. Naturally, I would tie the safety valve down and unhook the genny to see how fast I could get the flywheel to spin

    Seems like a no-brainer, right?

    I have to disagree about Biden and childhood toys, though. For far too many people, that sort of thing just whets their appetite to do the same in the real world. It’s my serious belief that the publishers of SimCity bear a yuuuuge part of the responsibility for the younger generations’ seeming love of top-down planning.

  27. John,

    The sexualization of the discussion seems to debase it. At least for me.

    At the point where the thread of any discussion wanders off into sly or even direct references to genetalia, I question myself, why am I reading this?

    The world is full of crude and evil stuff. And I don’t need more of it. It is a stain on an otherwise excellent blog.


  28. Well, I learned of male and female fittings in a tiny stripmall hobby shop, about 1963 or 64 or so, just by overhearing the owner and older customers trying to find the right ones for a project.

    It wasn’t that scarring, and made me feel quite grown-up for a while.

    Cousin Eddie

  29. Richard wrote: “The sexualization of the discussion seems to debase it.”

    Eh? I thought we were discussing language, including the debasement of the language by the odd prudery of the “Woke”. No sexualization there. This strange turn reminds me of an Oldie But Goodie:

    A psychologist goes in to assess a man in an institution. Psych decides to start with a Rorschach test. He pulls out his collection of ink blots and asks the patient what he sees on the first test frame.
    “Wow, a lady in a bikini”, the patient replies.
    Psychologist says nothing and goes on to the next ink blot.
    “Now she is taking off her bikini”, the patient observes.
    This continues for a few more test pictures, until the psychologist puts them aside and tells the patient: “We have identified the issue. You are obsessed with sex.”
    “What? Me? Obsessed with sex?”, the patient exploded. “No, Doctor. You are the one who is obsessed, carrying around all those dirty pictures!”

  30. “Eh? I thought we were discussing language, including the debasement of the language by the odd prudery of the “Woke”.

    I think we just saw an example.

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