The A. C. Gilbert Company was an American toy company, once one of the largest toy companies in the world. It is best known for introducing the Erector Set (a construction toy similar to Meccano in the rest of the world) to the marketplace.
First known as the Mysto Manufacturing Company, the company was founded in 1909 in Westville, Connecticut, by Alfred Carlton Gilbert, a magician, and his friend John Petrie. The company was originally established to provide supplies for magic shows. Their magician's sets, known as "Mysto Magic", were marketed from the teens until the fifties. They contained a variety of objects including interlocking rings, playing cards, and a magic wand.
In 1911, Gilbert invented the Erector concept, inspired by railroad girders used by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad in its mainline electrification project. Gilbert and his wife Mary developed cardboard prototypes to get the right sizes, openings, and angles to create a robust buildable girder pattern. The construction toy was introduced in 1911, as the Mysto Erector Structural Steel Builder, at the New York City Toy Fair.
In 1916, the name of the company was changed from the Mysto Manufacturing Company to the A. C. Gilbert Company.
In 1920 the company began selling regenerative vacuum tube radio receivers designed by the C. D. Tuska Company, and the following year, in order to increase interest in radio, began operating station WCJ, which was the first broadcasting station licensed in the state of Connecticut. However, the receiver sales were ended after the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company threatened legal action, on the grounds that Tuska's patent rights didn't extend to other companies, and WCJ was shut down in late 1922.
Beginning in 1922, A. C. Gilbert made chemistry sets in various sizes as well as similar sets for the budding scientist, adding investigations into radioactivity in the 1950s with a kit featuring a Geiger counter. In 1929, Gilbert bought the US company producing Meccano, which had been set up in 1913 by the British parent, and continued production as "American Meccano" until 1938. A. C. Gilbert began making microscope kits in 1934.
In 1938, Gilbert purchased American Flyer, a struggling manufacturer of toy trains. Gilbert re-designed the entire product line, producing 1:64 scale trains running on S gauge track. At the same time, Gilbert introduced a line of HO scale trains, which were primarily marketed under the brand name Gilbert HO. During the World War II period, virtually all American companies, no matter what they originally produced, converted to making some form or another of war material. A. C. Gilbert was no different, and by 1942 was producing equipment for military aircraft. After the war ended, Gilbert went back to producing toys, introducing S scale model railroad trains running on S gauge 2 rail track in 1946, mostly in response to the shortcomings of O scale utilized by Lionel and Marx. These newer American Flyer trains were smaller and proportioned more realistically than either the pre-war American Flyer trains or its post-war competition. Although these new trains were popular, Lionel outsold American Flyer nearly 2 to 1.
A line of inexpensive reflector telescopes followed the Sputnik-inspired science craze in the late 1950s. In 1958, the company promoted its science toys by commissioning a comic book, Adventures in Science, from Custom Comics. In the comic, a mysterious "Mr. Science" leaps through time and space with a bored teenage boy to interest him in science. In 1965, A. C. Gilbert produced James Bond movie tie-in figures and a slot car road race set featuring Bond's Aston Martin DB5.
Gilbert was the largest employer in New Haven from the early 1930s to the late 1950s, employing more than 5000 in three shifts at its Sound Street Manufacturing facility. In the late 1930s, the company expanded to produce home house products and small appliances including mixers, milk shake machines, toasters, stoves and ovens, and washers.
The Gilbert company struggled after the death of its founder in 1961. Gilbert's family sold its shares, and the company was never profitable under its new ownership. By 1967, Gilbert was out of business. Erector was sold to Gabriel Industries and moved production from Erector Square in New Haven, Connecticut, to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. American Flyer was sold to Lionel.
Although the A. C. Gilbert company no longer existed, the Gabriel company continued to use the brand name on its Erector Set and microscope products, a practice that subsequent owners of the Erector brand have continued. Current Erector toys have the words "The construction toy from A. C. Gilbert" on their packaging. Lionel also uses the brand name on its American Flyer products, along with the old Gilbert catchphrase, "Developed at the Gilbert Hall of Science", on its product packaging.
A collection of Gilbert trains, Erector sets and objects built from them, chemistry sets, etc. is displayed in the Eli Whitney Museum in Hamden, Connecticut. The factory building now provides space for artists and others in the Erector Square complex. Another display of vintage Gilbert toys is located at A. C. Gilbert's Discovery Village in Salem, Oregon.