Alfred Carlton Gilbert
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Competitor for United States
Gold 1908 London Pole vault
Alfred Carlton Gilbert (born February 13, 1884 – died January 24, 1961) was an American inventor, athlete, toy-maker and businessman. Born in Salem, Oregon and died in Boston, Massachusetts, Gilbert is best known as the inventor of the Erector Set.
Gilbert was educated at the Tualatin Academy and attended Pacific University in nearby Forest Grove, Oregon. While attending Pacific University, Gilbert was a brother of the Gamma Sigma Fraternity. He left Pacific after 1902 and transferred to Yale University. Gilbert financed his education at Yale University by working as a magician, earning a degree in sports medicine. An accomplished athlete, he broke the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) in 1900, distance record for running long dive in 1902, and height in the pole vault. He won a gold medal in the 1908 Summer Olympics in London in pole vaulting. That same year he married Mary Thompson, whom he had met at Pacific University. They had three children: two girls and a boy.
Choosing not to pursue a medical career, Gilbert co-founded a company manufacturing magic sets in 1909. This company would later become the A. C. Gilbert Company. Gilbert invented the Erector Set, a popular construction toy, in 1913. His inspiration was steel construction girders being used on the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. In 1918, with the United States embroiled in World War I and the Council of National Defense considering a ban on toy production, Gilbert argued successfully against it. The press gave him the nickname "The man who saved Christmas."
By 1935, he had sold more than 30 million of the sets. He also added chemistry sets, microscope sets, and other educational toys to his product line, accumulating more than 150 patents during his 50-year career. In 1938, he acquired the rights to the American Flyer toy train line from W. O. Coleman and moved their production from Chicago to New Haven. At the same time, he adopted a 3/16 scale for this train line while keeping the three-rail O-gauge track now associated with Lionel. Following World War II, O-gauge track was abandoned in favor of two-rail S-gauge track. Gilbert was lauded for his strict adherence to scale realism, making American Flyer trains look more real and less toylike.
Gilbert is also credited with originating the concept of providing benefits for his employees, co-founded the Toy Manufacturers of America organization and was its first president.
Frustrated that invention was an important part of American society but not taught in schools, in 1941 Gilbert opened the Gilbert Hall of Science in New York City, an early science and technology museum. It served the dual purpose of promoting interest in science and selling Gilbert's products.
In 1950–1951 he sold the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory.
Upon his retirement in 1954, Gilbert turned his company over to his son. The same year, he published his autobiography, titled The Man Who Lives in Paradise. After his death in 1961, the family sold its remaining shares in the A. C. Gilbert Company to Jack Wrather. It went out of business six years later.
A museum in Gilbert's birthplace of Salem, Oregon, A. C. Gilbert's Discovery Village, is named in his honor. It opened in 1989. A biography titled The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made was published in 2002.
The CBS television movie The Man Who Saved Christmas is a dramatization of A.C. Gilbert’s campaign to save Christmas during the years 1917 and 1918 when America was involved in World War I. He was portrayed by Jason Alexander. The film takes several historical liberties. It debuted December 15, 2002.
Pacific University Heart of the Oak, 1902, page 85.