Alfred Carlton Gilbert - A Truly Talented Man Even Without the Electric Trains!

Just finished reading The Man Who Lives in Paradise, the autobiography of Alfred Carlton Gilbert. Even if he had not ventured into his famous 3/16" scale electric trains, first running on O gauge track, and later on the more correct S gauge track, he would have been one of the most famous inventors and entrepreneurs of the 20th Century. He was an outstanding athlete first as a wrestler, and later as an Olympic Champion pole vaulter. He was a self-taught magician and started the enormously successful Mysto Manufacturing Co. which produced both amateur and professional magical equipment. He later took toy construction sets to the next level with his square girder concept Erector sets, which alone would have guaranteed his inclusion into the pantheon of the great toy makers of all time. He was a graduate of Yale Medical School and held an MD degree. His early manufacturing efforts with the Polar Cub electric fans led to his company engineer developing an enamel coating on electrical wire for windings on all small motors. Some of his later toys such as the Kaster Kits, Chemistry Sets, Microscope Sets, and the amazing Atomic Energy Lab of 1950 were examples of products to promote the sciences among the young folks of the period. His Gilbert Hall of Science in NYC had a number of push-button scientific demonstrations such as the famous climbing arc "Jacob's Ladder". 

Oh, and then there were those model trains, especially those wonderful 3/16" scale S gauge trains which ran on two-rails, and the rail had a realistic "T" cross section. There was also a rubber roadbed available. The steam locomotives had a synchronized puffing action producing ample quantities of wonderful cedar-scented smoke, along with a "choo-choo" exhaust sound. The engines and cars were carefully proportioned and more scale-like than their Lionel counterparts. There was also a famous mail car that would simultaneously eject and pick up a plastic mail bag on the fly, and an oil drum loader that featured a miniature fork lift driver who tirelessly loaded metal oil drums into a waiting gondola car.

A.C Gilbert: A man of many talents who helped make my childhood happy and productive! 

 

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

Original Post

A.C. Gilbert had 150 patents in his name over his lifetime. He was also a nature photographer and produced some of the finest movies of that genre. As a designer and builder, he was responsible for two fine residential developments near New Haven, CT. He was the founder of the Toy Manufacturers of the USA, and was one of the first employers to extend so called fringe benefits to his employees. A.C. Gilbert was also the builder of the sixth licensed radio station in the country. He possessed a seemingly boundless energy and curiousity, and achieved more in his seventy-seven years (1884-1961) than most individuals in their lifetime! Moreover, through his educational toys, he undoubtedly inspired many young folks to pursue a career in science or engineering.

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

Very interesting. He definitely had major successes in the toy business. I never knew he was an MD as well. 

In his autobiography, did he speak of any of his ‘failures’ along the way? The path to success is typically paved with a few “tries” and “try agains.” 

Thanks for sharing.

JD

 

His impediments along the way were overcome by sheer renewed dedication and readjustment of goals. In a well known account, he convinced a WW I advisory board to allow the production and distribution of toys during the war so that Christmas would not be a disappointment to families, thus boosting morale on the home front. He had a scientific mind coupled with an accurate assessment of the need for educational and entertaining toys and devices in the marketplace and that insured his success in his various enterprises.  

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

As a young lad in the early 1950's, I visited the Gilbert Hall of Science in Manhattan on more than a few occasions, and I always liked to activate the climbing arc "Jacob's Ladder" demonstration. I recently ordered such an apparatus from a scientific supply house to once again see that display of electrical power safely in my own home! 

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

I received my Jacob's Ladder climbing arc apparatus a few minutes ago and fired it up! What a hoot! Mine has a 24 volt DC power supply and the unit has a multi-megavolt output for the two electrodes which creates the climbing arc - mine is purplish in color. It is not recommended that the device run more than five-minutes at a time as it produces both ozone and nitric oxide as by products of the ionization of the air. There is a safety cap on top of the acrylic tube enclosure with a sealing gasket and a valve to release the gases. Nitric oxide is the anhydride of nitric acid, which is obviously not good for the lungs!

Ah, deja vu!

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

FINAL ANALYSIS: On the upside, Mr. AC Gilbert was a great inventor and magician, an excellent athlete, and of course the inventor of our beloved postwar AF trains. He was also a relatively benevolent employer that listened to his workers' suggestions. What especially disturbed me was his trophy head hunting which was very ego driven and his need to have the biggest and best "prize"! Those chapters were not pleasant reading! That kind of hunting is more frowned upon today than back in his day. He was also quite an egotist, and he viewed most of his accomplishments as his personal achievements without crediting others in many instances. I still admire the man albeit with some reservations.

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

Tinplate Art posted:

<snip> What especially disturbed me was his trophy head hunting which was very ego driven and his need to have the biggest and best "prize"! Those chapters were not pleasant reading! That kind of hunting is more frowned upon today than back in his day. <snip>

Ah, here lies the pitfall of applying one's personal "current morality" to historic figures.  Many men of influence from Teddy Roosevelt on down big game hunted. Complementary to their hunting and fishing interests, both TR and ACG were naturalists interested in the preservation of the wilderness ... a predictiction that led directly to the formation of the national park system.  Before WWII, the A. C. Gilbert Co. was larger than Lionel Corp. and AC was personally much richer than Cowen. It takes someone with a healthy ego to start, successfully run, and grow a large commercial firm. True then. True today.

Respectfully,

Bob

Tinplate Art posted:

I understand your viewpoint, but we will have to agree to disagree. Comparing AC to Teddy Roosevelt is a bit of a stretch.

Oh? Both were men of power, influence, and drive with similar interests (remote natural locales, hunting, the outdoors, physical fitness and athlectic prowess, and new technologies).  For the times ACG was an enlightened progressive employer and TR was a Progressive. They were both Republicans. Both were in the public eye. Other than one was educated at Harvard and the other at Yale, they would both have had a heck of alot to talk about. 

Bob 

C W Burfle posted:

Before WWII, the A. C. Gilbert Co. was larger than Lionel Corp. and AC was personally much richer than Cowen.

How about after WWII?
Regardless, both are gone now.

Lionel Corp. passed the A. C. Gilbert Co. after WW II due to better marketing and the decline in, primarily, Gilbert's electrical appliance business vis-a-vis GE. As a successor, A. C. Gilbert, Jr. wasn't A. C. Sr. and did not pretend to be. ACG Sr. most likely still had a greater personal fortune than JLC at the time of ACG's passing.

Respectfully,

Bob

As a successor, A. C. Gilbert, Jr. wasn't A. C. Sr. and did not pretend to be.

The materials I've read indicated that A.C. Gilbert Sr. ran the company until his death in 1961. Then Jr. took over the business. He was ill-prepared, but maybe the days of electric trains and erector sets were over anyway.  According to Wikipedia, Jr. died in 1962, so he was at the helm less than two years.


I had a 1960's Gilbert Chemistry set, which I absolutely loved. But it was a strange arrangement with open backed plastic frames holding everything in slots. Four chemicals to an inseparable unit. So, while chemistry sets were popular at the time, a Gilbert one probably wasn't the best choice. My older brother had a Porter set that was of traditional construction. Don't know whether Lionel had purchased Porter by then.


Slot cars certainly were popular, Gilbert had some on the market, including a horse racing set. They also had a clever line of three rail track (one conductor in the slot), so two cars could operate independently in the same lane. But the sets were kind of crude, and didn't work as well as the Aurora HO sets. I think Strombecker had some good stuff too.

 Lionel's HO slots appeared to be a knockoff of Atlas product. Their Standard line was originally Scaletrix imports. When they severed the relationship with Scaletrix, their own product was not very good. 

C.W. Burfle

The Gilbert chemistry and Erector sets of the early 1950's were still great products, and I had both in addition to my AF S gauge trains. I often ordered extra supplies and chemicals direct from the Gilbert factory, and they were always delivered by mail in a timely fashion. Any train repairs were expertly done at the Savoy Merchandise Company on West 23rd St., two blocks from the GHOS. I finally gave up the trains, chemistry sets and Erector in 1958 at age 16. AC Jr. passed in 1964 of a brain tumor. His famous father died in 1961.

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

Tinplate Art posted:

My point is TR did so much more for conservation than AC with the framework for the National Parks. TR was also a combat veteran of a famous campaign!

Well, yes, TR was president of the US while ACG was president of a significant industrial concern. Of course. However, the facts emphasized in my original posts concerned the social, economic, political, and avocational similarities between the two men. Both big game hunted and loved the outdoors. Both in their own ways and capacities promoted the preservation of the wilderness. Anyone who has visited the Oyster Bay home of TR has readily observed the truly numerous hunting trophies on its ground floor, as one would have at AC’s Maraldene. It is a paradox that a great good (the national park system) emerged in part from the circumstances surrounding a rather bloody activity pursued in their time by men of means and power.

Also,

Although the Gilbert/McClintock (please note the dual authorship) autobiography is a good place to start with one’s reading about ACG, the book is something of a piece of industrial vanity that contains its share of myth making. There are other sources that are in some ways more illuminating about both the man and the company. One is Bruce Watson’s “The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made” (Viking, 2002). Another is the read-only disk “A. C. Gilbert Digital Archive 1938-1945” (HSL, Hybrid Systems, Ltd. 2013) which contains Gilbert company/corporate papers from the Jugle Archives. The train-related stuff on the disk is heaps of fun, but the company-related materials should prove revealing for many, particularly to those steeped in Lionelism all these years. Both are highly recommended.

Enjoy reading, all!

Respectfully,

Bob

BOB: THANK YOU for the additional Gilbert biographical references! The Gilbert toys of my childhood, which included chemistry sets, Erector sets, and my American Flyer S gauge trains (5 engines, 28 cars, and accessories) were my favorites! My only regret was my parent's not being able to afford the Atomic Energy Lab and their belief that it was probably too dangerous if it involved atomic energy like the bomb of the same name! My visits to the GHOS in New York City were many and on one occasion included a tour of the upper floors usually reserved for buyers and VIP's. The telephone operator at the GHOS was a neighbor of ours, and once got us her 40% discount on the 5 car A-B-A North Coast Limited, which my parents otherwise could not have afforded in the mid-fifties! As I stated above, I still admire Mr. Gilbert for his many achievements and skills, although I have never been a fan of trophy hunting of animals.

A final note about my parents: neither my mom nor dad finished grade school, yet I went on complete three years of chemistry in an advanced high school (Brooklyn Tech), two years of which were college level courses. I later took two additional years of college chemistry until stymied by calculus! My physics courses both in high school and college gave me much information about atomic energy, including fission and fusion and the basic mechanics of both types of nuclear weapons. My parents had no science background or understanding of atoms and molecules, but did encourage me to pursue a career in chemistry. As it turned out, I became an English professor with a science minor, which has come in handy in managing my renal hemodialysis these past 13 1/2 years! A knowledge of ions and the periodic table is very useful in managing end stage renal disease. And it all started with a couple of Gilbert chemistry sets!

 

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

There is no telling how many young men and maybe some women who went into careers in science and technology due to their interaction with those great Gilbert toys like Erector, chemistry and microscope sets, to name just a few. I personally learned much about electric motors, solenoids and transformers from my experience with my Gilbert Flyer trains!

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

There is no telling how many young men and maybe some women who went into careers in science and technology due to their interaction with those great Gilbert toys like Erector, chemistry and microscope sets, to name just a few. I personally learned much about electric motors, solenoids and transformers from my experience with my Gilbert Flyer trains!

Yup, many of these toys were marketed as being educational. I remember my friends mother tell me he was going to be an engineer because of his erector set.
And maybe this is part of the reason that trains and other similar toys are not as popular today. While they still can teach kids an awful lot, they are not the types of skills we value highly as a society.

C.W. Burfle

If personal computers had been around in his time, Gilbert would certainly have been into them in a big way! His was a different level of genius than Joshua Cowen, who was more of an entrepreneur who surrounded himself with engineers and inventors. Both men created some marvelous toys, but Gilbert was the true inventor with some 150 patents!

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

When I was a young lad, my next door neighbors would leave various Erector set components under our back porch. Their son was grown and a West Point graduate. I had so many girders and other parts, since he must have had one large set or a couple of smaller sets? I even had two motors, and was able to build an operating elevator with all square girder construction! I also built a working drawbridge with square girders! I was very grateful to this nice Dutch couple for the extra Erector parts! The husband was a retired tug boat captain, who had worked in New York Harbor. My association with Gilbert products ran pretty deep with my AF trains, chemistry sets and Erector in my youth, and I am grateful to Mr. Gilbert for the great FUN I had with them!

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

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