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History Corner: It’s Their Biography...

March 9, 2023
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History Corner: It’s Their Biography...

Founded in 1908, the A.C. Gilbert Company manufactured the very successful Erector Sets, as well as a variety of educational toys and the ever-popular American Flyer train sets.  To those of us that grew up with a train set in the basement can only imagine the delight in 1908 when children could find a set under their Christmas tree.  After-all, photos with a Christmas tree always seems to have a train under it.  When I was a kid I had a borrowed Lionel Set in my basement that belonged to my uncle George, so with fond memories of it, I purchased a 1934 set, just like it, a few years ago...yes, I did and it is set up on the living room floor!  Yipes, will I ever grow up?

Getting back to Mr. Gilbert.  Growing up in New Haven, he loved magic and he became so proficient that he could match a professional magician, trick for trick...not only did he show promise in the world of magic, but he broke the world record for chin-upa (39) at the age of 16.  He completed medical school at Yale University paying part of his expenses by performing his magic tricks and manufacturing kits for children under the name Mysto Manufacturing.

A.C. Gilbert

Deciding not to pursue his medical career, Alfred chose to develop his toy business.  While observing construction workers assembling a metal frame for a power-line tower, he conceived the idea of creating a construction toy for children...the Mysto Erector Structural Steel Builder was born.  A design competition for boys to build their own creations saw 60,000 entries in 1913 increasing his profits for that year of 1800%.

Now this history is all well and good, but where are the toys for girls?  Me?  I was a tomboy but my girlfriends?  Well, they weren’t too interested in my train set, but Gilbert saw a need to include them and he did just that with a chemistry set designed specifically for girls.  Can you imagine buying radioactive particles today?  Well, Gilbert designed an Atomic Energy Lab complete with particles and a Geiger counter.

During WWI, Alfred spoke at local theaters to encourage citizens to buy Liberty Bonds and his factories added military items to the manufacturing.  The impact of A.C. Gilbert goes beyond the image of a train set under the tree with the knowledge that the first artificial heart made in 1949, had parts from Erector sets as did a portable bridge design used in WWII.  General Motors used Erector parts in it prototype for piston-casting and they were used in creating soft contact lenses in 1961.

And for those of you who might visit Disney Theme parks, pay homage to your home-grown kid, A.C. Gilbert for helping to build the prototype for the Soarin’ ride in the 1990s.  Using the 8½ All Electric Erector Set, pictured, Mark Sumner, of the California Disney Park design team, created what was to eventually become the ride seen in the YouTube Video, The Making of Soarin’.  Using his ingenuity and his childhood “toy” Sumner was able to see a way to make the simulation of hang gliding a reality.  Not only are the visitors 3 stories in the air, but with a personal fan and scent box behind each rider to experience the actual scene on the screen in front of them...feet hanging over the edge and Star Wars style music as well, makes this ride one of the most popular and now world-wide views are included.  I regret not taking an opportunity to go to Disney as this ride intrigues me.  The brilliance of A.C. Gilbert and his creations of more than 100 years ago still illuminates the world of science and industry.

The Otis Elevator Company can trace its origins to 1853 when it introduced the first safety passenger elevator in New York City’s Crystal Palace Convention.  Elisha Otis invented the elevator safety braking mechanism making the life of the elevator a reality.  Before Otis’ invention, buildings seldomly reached 7 stories with elevators considered too dangerous to use higher than that.  Before his dramatic death-defying demonstration, the elevator platform was hoisted up and down using a rope.  You can see one in a Little House on the Prairie episode in the “big city.”  Otis demonstrated his invention by cutting the rope as the elevator descended.  Otis was a young man, with vision and with his two sons, Charles and Norton they made history.

Elisha Otis

The stunt worked and in 1857, the first Otis passenger elevator was installed.  This invention, by a local Connecticut citizen, paved the way for skyscrapers and today’s modern buildings.  His invention for the elevator didn’t stop here, or should I say there.  Moving forward to the 1990s with another connection to Disney, Otis elevator designed The Tower of Terror.  Yup and they had to come up with a motor that would cause the elevator to pull down, passing the law of gravity.  Riders appear to be in an ordinary hotel elevator and mysteriously disappear and since it was originally based on the Twilight Zone the elevator is under the influence of the supernatural.  The Tower of Terror buildings are among the tallest structures at the Disney Resorts.

One Otis Company, located in Farmington, Connecticut boasts a large, cement-looking tower, somewhat like a tower in England with no visible windows.  Well, it’s reason for being is to test elevators...going down?  In his spare time, as it is told, Otis dabbled in this and that..,oh let’s see, a bread making oven, train brakes, a steam plow, a rotary oven and with his son Charles, the oscillating steam engine in 1860.  Alas, the plow did not sell well but let’s be joyous for the elevator brake!

If the name Charles Otis sounds vaguely familiar it’s because I wrote about him in previous stories...Charles Hazard Otis, not Elisha’s son, owned the house we call the Stone-Otis house and he, in his own hand tells of his inventions and that his family were mechanics...mechanics as in working with mechanical things, a car alarm, moveable type for a typewriter, a machine for making the top of women’s stockings...all in his notes.  If you can find my story, you will read his life’s work, if not, wait until my book comes out...all of my stories for Orange will be reprinted, together.

My thanks to my son-in-law Peter for his Disney knowledge...what that guy knows astounds me.

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