Erector

The Museum of Interesting Things is crammed into every inch of the ninth-floor New York City apartment of Denny Daniel, the sprite-like curator of an eclectic collection of inventions, toys, and gadgets.

Daniel had a magician-like patter for each item he showed me: the cylindrical Edison phonograph, the mutoscope, and the hidden camera inside a silver pocketwatch that was used by boxing reporters to take forbidden ringside photos. These inventions were the predecessors of devices and toys we use today, and Daniel wants the current generation to see that inventions don’t come out of the blue.

On a table in his living room sat open a large red Erector Set, a construction toy I remember getting in the 1960s. Daniel’s set was older and well worn. The manual said the Erector Set was “Developed at the Gilbert Hall of Science.” I realized how little I knew about this toy from my childhood.

Located in midtown Manhattan, the Gilbert Hall of Science was a multi-story museum created in 1941 by the Erector Set’s inventor, A.C. Gilbert, to showcase educational toys. Gilbert was born in Salem, Ore., and went East to get a Yale medical degree that he never used. He said he was interested in three things: “athletics, sleight-of-hand, and scientific experiments” and those interests would define him. He won the pole vault in the 1908 Olympics, having invented the box that catches the pole on the ground (before then, it had a spike at the end).

Gilbert’s first business was making Mysto Magic kits. It was barely profitable, but while making train trips from New Haven, Conn., to New York, he was inspired by the steel-girder construction of bridges and skyscrapers to create a new kind of educational toy. He produced the first Erector Set in 1913, the year the classic The Boy Mechanic books debuted from Popular Mechanics. It was an immediate success, the right product at the right time.

Each Erector Set box was filled with steel girders, wheels, pulleys, and in larger sets, a battery-powered motor that brought the models to life. Different sets, numbered from 0 to 8, provided the parts for making specific models such as a train bridge or Ferris wheel. In the 1920s, the #8 Erector Set cost $70 and weighed a staggering 150 pounds; it included all the parts for building a 5-foot zeppelin.

Gilbert saw the Erector Set as an ideal toy for the ideal boy, which he defined as competitive, clever, and curious, like himself. His biographer Bruce Watson argues that Gilbert didn’t just invent educational toys, he transformed the popular image of the American boy from problem child to problem solver, from delinquent to constructive contributor.

Perhaps the first to create advertising that spoke directly to young people, Gilbert’s ads opened with his characteristic “Hello Boys.” His slogans for the Erector Set included “Young Boy’s Paradise,” “1000 Toys in 1,” and “The World’s Greatest Toy.”

Gilbert believed children will educate themselves if you give them the right tools — an idea shared more recently by technologists like Seymour Papert of MIT. In an age when most learning was rote memorization, Gilbert saw the importance of creative play and exploration. He made learning fun.

From 1913 to 1966, 30 million Erector Sets were sold. The toy’s popularity spanned the technological era from the Model T and electrification to the age of aerospace, and it evolved to keep pace with these developments. It reflected the can-do spirit of the American Century, a society that was rapidly gaining new abilities to solve problems and do ambitious projects thanks to science and technology. The Erector Set was an invitation for any boy to participate in that future.

Erector’s decline followed Gilbert’s death in 1961, and the A.C. Gilbert company went bankrupt in 1967. The brand was bought by Meccano, an English company whose comparable construction kits grew in parallel to Erector. Lego became the educational construction toy for the video game generation, and today, Gilbert’s image of the American boy seems almost corny, like a Normal Rockwell painting. Still, we recognize him in ourselves and in our kids.

What will be the Erector Set of the 21st century? What construction systems will reflect the methods and personalities of a more diverse group of builders that includes girls and a more global perspective?

Maybe we’re already seeing key components in Arduino, MakerBot, and Kinect, all of which represent new ideas about how to build things and interact with them. Perhaps a new generation will build custom construction sets, as does architect Marc Fornes (see above), designing and cutting pieces to order. I see Maker Faire and MAKE as successors to the Gilbert Hall of Science, inviting kids to build a future for themselves.

Erecting the Future: Marc Fornes and TheVeryMany

In an old bank building in Brooklyn, irregular strips of brushed aluminum about a yard long are spread on the floor. Two people bend them to fit a tubular structure and pop-rivet them in place. Each piece is numbered; the builders consult a computer to learn how they fit together. It looks like a giant coral made from metal.

This is the sculpture Fibulae by architect/computer scientist Marc Fornes and his team TheVeryMany (theverymany.com). He designed it using Rhino3D, and wrote scripts to create 2D patterns for the strips, so each one could be custom-cut on a CNC machine. Perhaps, instead of starting with standardized components, the Erector Set of the future will begin with design tools for creating the parts.