'Solves the boy problem!'

Erector sets constructed a new industry – and new marketing

You won't know the name A.C. Gilbert, unless you were a boy growing up in the first half of the 20th century. Olympic athlete, Yale-educated doctor, magician, toy magnate, radio pioneer, and perpetual boy, Mr. Gilbert channeled his irrepressible energy into the invention of a new toy he called the Erector set. The kits – sturdy wooden boxes filled with model-size girders, nuts, bolts, motors, and other construction pieces – instantly took American boys by storm.

For boys (and some girls) growing up between 1913 and the 1950s, toys made by the A.C. Gilbert Co. were an integral part of childhood. Generations of scientists, engineers, and architects traced their careers back to their first Erector sets.

"The Man Who Changed How Toys and Boys Were Made," by Bruce Watson, is a thoroughly delightful portrait of Alfred Carleton Gilbert (1884-1962), a fascinating and largely forgotten figure. The book is an equally engrossing snapshot of the times in which Gilbert lived and made his mark. It was an age, the author notes, that was "almost devoid of irony or cynicism. Concepts such as honor, duty, and success were touted in public on a daily basis, and ... few dared snigger or scoff."

It was also a time when heavy industry was changing the face of America. While riding on a train from New Haven to Manhattan in 1911, Gilbert watched workmen erecting enormous steel lattices, topped by braces strung with high-tension wires. Fascinated by the efficiency, handiwork, and sheer muscular heft of the girders, Gilbert saw the potential for boys to be able to build skyscrapers, derricks, cranes, and bridges in miniature right in their own living rooms.

Over the next 50 years, the A.C. Gilbert Co. sold more than 30 million Erector sets, available in a variety of sizes, as well as kits that allowed kids to dabble in every facet of science and industry from plumbing to atomic energy. In the process, Gilbert revolutionized the toy industry. While Erector was not the first construction toy on the market, Gilbert was the first to take toys seriously, the first to understand the mentality of boys, and the first to market his wares directly to them.

Most important, Gilbert made himself part of the advertising package, speaking directly to his audience ("Hello, Boys! Now for fun!") in newspaper advertisements, a promotional magazine, and a number of other innovative marketing vehicles. Boys developed ties to Erector and its inventor that bordered on the filial. At one point, Gilbert was receiving nearly 1,000 letters a day from boys across the country, some of whom signed their missives, "Your Loving Son."

As the decades passed, the world, including boyhood, changed dramatically. Edison, the self-made, practical inventor, gave way to Einstein, the genius who created theories, not things. The movie "Frankenstein" strengthened the image of the scientist as an obsessive oddball whose work can wreck havoc. "The Bomb" obliterated whatever remained of the public's love affair with science. By the 1950s, the "wide-awake" Gilbert Boy became the archetypal nerd.

As Watson puts it, "Older boys no longer dreamed of becoming men; they dreamed of becoming cool." Hopelessly out of step with the times, Erector sets declined until the Gilbert Co. finally closed down in 1967. The company's assets were sold off, including the familiar trademark, which is now owned by the Nikko Corp., a Japanese manufacturer of remote-control cars and airplanes.

Watson, primarily a writer for popular magazines, has honed a lively style and an amusing way with words. He brings Gilbert's story and the history of the toy business in America to life in this slim, entertaining book. He also shares some worthwhile thoughts on the current state of toys in America, now that information rather than industry is the trademark of the age and the most popular toys traffic, not in a mock-up of the grownup world, but in pure fantasy.

• David Conrads is a writer based in Kansas City, Mo.

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