We Need Another A.C. Gilbert

Toy maker knew how to interest children in science and engineering.

By Mark Rosenzweig, Editor in Chief

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Back in the day, I wrote an editorial noting that many engineers of my generation had played with Erector Sets when they were growing up. Should you be unfamiliar with them, such sets consist of metal girders and panels as well as other components along with screws and nuts to fasten them together. Each set contains the right parts to make a particular device — but much of the fun is that you can assemble the pieces in other ways to make all sorts of contraptions of your own design.

Alfred Carlton Gilbert invented the sets in 1911 and the A.C. Gilbert Co. made them at its Erector Square factory in New Haven, Conn., from 1913 until the firm went bankrupt in 1967, according to Wikipedia. Another U.S. company bought the Erector name and produced sets through the 1980s. Erector Sets still are available though, but now are made by France’s Meccano, which offered similar construction kits even before Gilbert.

Gilbert's toys reflect a more innocent or at least less regulated time.



Gilbert strove to provide educational toys related to science. For instance, several years after the launch of the Erector Set, he introduced Gilbert’s Chemical Magic. This kit's box proclaimed it contained "mystifying chemical tricks of famous magicians" — it certainly allowed young would-be chemists to conduct a variety of experiments at home. He also brought out the Kaster Kit, which enabled children to cast their own toy soldiers, etc., out of lead. Other toys included the Microscope and Lab Set. He even established the Gilbert Hall of Science in New York City in 1941 to promote science and his products.

Gilbert’s toys reflect a more innocent or at least less regulated time. For instance, notes Bill Brown, director of the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop in Hamden, Conn., which runs “The Gilbert Project,” the instructions for the chemistry sets don’t mention using safety goggles or gloves and some of the materials, like hydrochloric acid, undoubtedly wouldn’t be permitted today. The casting kit not only involves use of molten lead but the electrical contacts for the crucible to melt the lead are exposed, he adds.

The museum is helping to keep alive Gilbert’s legacy — and the hands-on involvement of children with science. It displays a variety of Erector Set constructions, including an elevator that moves up and down in its shaft, and a working Ferris wheel.

In addition, it runs a program to demonstrate the technology behind some of Gilbert's toys. For instance, on December 29, 2009, it held a two-hour session devoted to Chemical Magic, targeted at 11- to 14-year-olds. "You will be surprised and amused by basic reactions, the wonders of chemistry, and the miracle that any child survived that age of braver parents," notes the museum’s Web site in describing the event. Forrest Gittleson, a graduate student in chemical engineering at Yale University, conducted a variety of experiments from the kit — such as the "fire bowl" (ignition of KMnO4 with glycerin); “vision of Belzhazzar” (ignition by electrical spark of KNO3 applied on paper to reveal hidden text); "magically suspended ring" (a salt-saturated string holding up a metal ring is burned while the ring remains suspended); and flame testing of different ions — as well as others not in the kit like explosive CO2 sublimation in a bottle, notes Gittleson.

Starting in late November, the museum ran a hands-on exhibition of American Flyer model trains, which also were made by A.C. Gilbert Co.

Its mission extends far beyond Gilbert, though. To quote from its Web site: "The Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop is an experimental learning workshop for students, teachers, and families. We collect, interpret, and teach experiments that are the roots of design and invention." It runs lots of hands-on events. You can view videos of some recent ones at www.eliwhitney.org/new/workshop/summer-2009-videos. The museum even offers an apprenticeship program, in which typically a 13-year-old spends four years at the museum — working with designers and artisans, mastering hand and power tools, teaching children, etc., while earning a stipend.


The museum actually is located in the manufacturing village developed by Eli Whitney, who invented the cotton gin and also pioneered mass production of muskets.
I loudly applaud the museum's efforts, of course.

However, wouldn’t it be great if some inventor today came up with a new generation of entertaining and educational toys that engaged children with science and technology — not in a virtual world (although that couldn’t hurt) but in a real hands-on way.


Mark Rosenzweig is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief. You can e-mail him at MRosenzweig@putman.net.

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