Erector Sets and American Flyers: Exhibits honor legacy of alumnus toymaker

The Eli Whitney Museum will pay tribute to the ingenuity of Yale alumnus and toymaker A.C. Gilbert with two events opening on Friday, Nov. 29: “The Erector Set at 100” and “Mr. Gilbert’s Railroad.”

A 1913 advertisement for the Erector Set.

Erector Set centennial

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was drawn to New Haven by Yale, especially its sports program, and by the city’s lively vaudeville scene. (Gilbert won a Gold Medal for pole-vaulting in the 1908 Olympics and earned living expenses performing magic on New Haven stages.) He studied medicine at Yale, graduating in 1909. His gift for magic led to a partnership with John Petrie producing stage tricks for magicians in New Haven and New York.

While riding a train from New Haven to New York, Gilbert was inspired by the new bridges and towers. He sketched the nuts, bolts, and girders of a model steel construction system he would call the Erector Set. The kit became the first and most popular of the playthings created by the New Haven-based A.C. Gilbert Company, once one of the largest toy companies in the world.

“The Erector Set at 100: What to Make of It” features a timeline of the Erector Set’s evolution, and how it connects with the major events of the 20th century. There are Erector Sets with familiar and unfamiliar pieces, as well as motors, pulleys and gears. Also on view are samples of the advertising showing Gilbert as one of the early practitioners of brand management.

The exhibition subtitle — “What to Make of It?” — connects the project to the MAKE Movement, a collection of modern-day tinkerers, hackers, and inventors who take pleasure in finding new ways to make things work.

In keeping with the theme of experimentation, visitors can explore structure and movement using Erector Set pieces. They can also construct a Gilbert box girder that will become part of a skyscraper that will climb 25 feet over the course of the exhibition.

While admission is free, the exhibit organizers invite members of the public to contribute old Erector Set parts for use at the museum.

“The Erector Set at 100” will be on display through Jan. 26. The exhibit was made possible by a grant from the Connecticut Humanities as part of its year-long Connecticut at Work initiative

Gilbert’s trains
Youngsters can run the locomotives and rolling cars in the exhibit “Mr. Gilbert’s Railroad.” (Photo by Robert Lisak)

Youngsters have the chance to run American Flyer Trains, just as their grandparents might have done, in the Eli Whitney Museum’s annual exhibition “Mr. Gilbert’s Railroad.”

Gilbert purchased, redesigned, and produced American Flyer trains relatively late in his career — a time that was also relatively late in the history of American railroads. Today, note the exhibit organizers, Gilbert trains are remembered “for their lively movements, their carefully crafted sound, their bright lights, and the cedar scent of their smoke.”

Although they are 50 years old, the trains still run smoothly — thanks in part to the efforts of Yale scientist Walter Zawalickm, who restores and maintains the trains and who has trained museum apprentices to assist in their care. Another Yale affiliate, Hunter Nesbitt Spence of the School of Drama, led the creation of a 200-square-foot layout that recreates the era of the locomotive.

 “Mr. Gilbert’s Railroad” is also free. The display will remain on view through Jan. 26.

Eli Whitney Museum

The Eli Whitney Museum is located at 915 Whitney Ave. in Hamden, Connecticut (just over the New Haven line). Except for Nov. 29, when the museum will be open noon-5 p.m. to mark the opening of the two exhibitions, the museum is open Saturdays 10 a.m.­3 p.m. and Sundays noon-5 p.m. Admission is free.

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