The toymaker and the great pole controversy

It was during the 1908 Olympic games in London that Alfred Carlton Gilbert (1909 M.D.) introduced the innovation that would change the sport of pole-vaulting forever and, ironically, cost him sole title to a gold medal.

This showing Gilbert in mid-vault during the 1908 Olympics is from a postcard, and portrait of the alumnus athlete at right is from the National Police Gazette. Both are from the A.C. Gilbert papers at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The alumnus is known to posterity as A.C. Gilbert (1884-1961), maker of such popular toys as the Erector Set, American Flyer trains, and kits on everything from magic to carpentry to atomic energy (the latter, which included a Geiger counter and genuine sources of radioactivity, predated restrictions on how to handle such materials).

Gilbert came to Yale to study for his then-chosen vocation: becoming a physical education director. An avid athlete, he played on Yale’s track, gymnastics, and wrestling teams, earning a letter in each sport.

In those days, pole-vaulters used a hickory or spruce pole with a six-inch spike at one end, which they drove into the ground while beginning their leap. Gilbert introduced the lightweight spikeless bamboo pole (for many years standard equipment in the sport), which was thrust into a hole in the ground to begin the jump.

Using this new piece of equipment, Gilbert established a world’s record in 1906 with a jump of 12 feet, 3 inches. Two years later, he went to compete at the Olympic Games in London.

The officials there, however, refused to let him use the spikeless pole. After an aborted attempt to hack a hole in the ground with a hatchet so he could use the pole despite the prohibitions, Gilbert finally competed using the conventional spiked pole.

Although Gilbert’s highest jump — 12 feet, 2 inches — was the best in the finals, the officials declared that he had tied with E.T. Cooke, another member of the American team who had matched that height in the preliminary trials but done poorly in the finals.

It was a ruling that plagued the toymaker, who believed he should have won the competition, for the rest of his life.