Encouraging STEM through toys in the 20th century

Toy company produced Erector Sets and more

October 2, 2023

A.c. Gilbert Toys
"Ring a Tail" and "Radio Tube Trick" toys by the A.C. Gilbert Co. Bradbury Science Museum

The Bradbury’s collections manager, Wendy Strohmeyer, recently obtained two handheld toys from the 1920s: “Ring a Tail” and “Radio Tube Trick.” Made by the A.C. Gilbert Company, these modest games are a part of the legacy of informal science education. If you were a kid in the first half of the 20th century with a yen for science, chances are good you were familiar with the educational toys produced by the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Learning should be fun

Founded in 1909 by Alfred Carlton (A.C.) Gilbert, the company created numerous toys over several decades — some successes, some flops — that encouraged science and engineering exploration through play. Gilbert was a restless and vibrant individual. He was an Olympic pole vaulter, magician, holder of over 100 patents, a Yale School of Medicine graduate and an award-winning German shepherd breeder. He was also a successful businessman and science enthusiast.

Gilbert’s belief that learning should be fun fueled the creation of his toys, the most notable being the Erector Set, the beloved engineering kit for children. The A.C. Gilbert Company also produced chemistry sets, reflector telescopes, microscopes and physics kits. During the late 1950s, the company commissioned a comic called “Adventures in Science” to feature advertisements of its scientific toys alongside its stories. The adventures featured a time-hopping character named Mr. Science and his boy sidekick. Around the same time, the company also produced its Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab kit, which boasted a Geiger counter and samples of uranium-bearing ores. It was not a big seller.

Beyond toys

During his company’s heyday A.C. Gilbert also established the Gilbert Hall of Science in New York City, a showroom for its toys and a precursor to today’s science museums and centers. For a brief period during World War II, the company participated in military production, creating items like flares and electric motors. The company received an Army-Navy “E” Award for its contributions, just like participants of the Manhattan Project.

The A.C. Gilbert Company folded in the late 1960s, a few years after the demise of its founder. The Gilbert Hall of Science shuttered, and the Erector Set continued to be produced by another toy manufacturer until 1988.

Visit the website of the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop to read more about the colorful history of A.C. Gilbert Company, its founder and its scientific toys. Feeling playful? Get your own hands-on STEM experience at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Bradbury Science Museum.