100th Birthday For Toy That Inspired A Million Tinkerers

The Hartford Courant

Many a mechanically minded child growing up in the 20th century honed his or her construction skills with a toy Erector set — a collection of small metal beams, nuts and bolts, gears, wheels and other parts that could be assembled in countless ways.

Erector celebrates its 100th birthday this year, and we in Connecticut should take special note, because it was born in New Haven.

The man behind the toy was Alfred C. Gilbert, a Yale graduate and magician, who constructed props for magic tricks in his Elm City workshop. Mr. Gilbert, who died in 1961, was said to have been inspired in 1913 by the metal framework built to support the electrification of railroad lines between New Haven and New York.

His inspiration, in turn, has fueled the imaginations of young people for a century. Although each Erector set came with plans for suggested cranes, pulleys, trestles, towers, elevators and other structures, those were only the starting point for many a budding engineer.

Mr. Gilbert marketed his sets, which for decades were sold in colorful steel boxes, as "the most wonderful construction toy in the world." (He also built science kits and other educational toys.)

But for some, the so-called toy led to much more than fun.

At the Eli Whitney Museum in Hamden, which houses a large collection of Erector sets and devices made from them, officials say Yale professors frequently confess that it was an Erector set that started them toward engineering careers.

Perhaps most notably, in 1949 two Yale School of Medicine professors used an actual Erector set framework and motor to build what has been called the precursor to the first artificial heart; it kept a dog alive for more than an hour.

Erector sets are still made today by the British company Meccano Ltd., which in turn is owned by a Japanese firm.

Happy birthday, Erector! Whether as a toy or the springboard to an engineering career, you may take your place among the cotton gin, vulcanized rubber, the Colt .45 and the Frisbee as one of the signature inventions of the Constitution State.

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