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Erector sets

December 25, 2001

A public radio commentary

What has been called a "disaster of modern life," and is claimed to have lead to the "demise of engineering?" Sir Harry Korto, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, claims it's this: The disappearance of Erector sets, and their replacement by Legos.

You may be too young to remember Erector sets. They are a toy made of perforated metal strips that can be held together with nuts and bolts to make nearly any shape.

Sir Harry, like most scientists and engineers over forty, played with the toy as a child. It helped him, he claims win his Noble Prize for figuring out the structure of a large molecule. He says that Legos would not have given him this skill.

I refuse to adjudicate this dispute, except to note that I had both an erector set and Legos, which shows that either may led to no good whatsoever.

2001 is the 100th anniversary of the Erector set. The first was built in Britain by Frank Hornby. He was inspired by the cranes in Liverpool's dockyards. But the real hero is a man named A.C. Gilbert. In 1909, Gilbert had just graduated from the Yale Medical School, but he didn't want to practice as a doctor. He wanted success in a field that had been a hobby since early childhood: magic. So, he created the Mysto Manufacturing Company to produce magic sets for kids. A few years later it became the A.C. Gilbert Company, and moved into manufacturing all sorts of scientific toys and kits for children.

He got the idea for the Erector set in 1913. He lived in Connecticut and often took the train to New York City. One day he passed workers positioning and riveted the steel beams of an electrical tower. This inspired him to design and market what he called the "Mysto Erector Structural Steel Build" - soon shortened to just "Erector set."

It was a huge hit: Kids would beg Santa for an upgrade, especially the No. 12 1/2" deluxe kit, which came with blueprints for the "Mysterious Walking Giant Robot."

He soon expanded into a glass blowing kit and a chemistry set. And, in 1950 he introduced the Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab. It came complete with radioactive material and an accurate Geiger Counter.

But soon after Gilbert debuted the Atomic lab, sales of all these sets slowly declined, including his best seller the Erector Set. After 50 million units were sold, plastic took over. In 1958, Lego started selling its colored blocks that, along with other plastic toys, began putting Erector sets out of business.

There is good news, though. Erector sets are poised for a comeback. The Brio Corporation has purchased the rights to the Erector set and is producing them again. So, perhaps this holiday season, some child will get a set and it will be the first of many startling engineering feats.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises