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Happy Birthday, Erector Set!

December 19, 2013
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Without much fanfare, an old faithful friend of many aspiring young engineers recently turned 100—the humble Erector Set. In today’s Lego-centric world, the metal construction set (and all its tiny nuts and screws) still exists, in an updated design, but it’s not prominently displayed in many stores. I was reminded of this recently while Christmas shopping for my seven-year-old twin nephews.

The variety of Lego-themed products is mind boggling. I couldn’t get over how many options there are these days. At the end of my shopping journey, I ended up buying a 334-piece Lego set and a 230-piece Erector Set. I’m curious to see which one gets a better reaction when unwrapped … and which one gets played with more often.

Lego made its U.S. debut in 1961 (ironically, that’s the same year that A.C. Gilbert passed away). But, at the time, the Erector Set was in its heyday; it was the must-have toy for boys.

A century ago, Alfred Carlton Gilbert, an amateur magician and gold-medal winning Olympic athlete (he won the pole vault in London in 1908), improved on the tin and brass Meccano sets patented by Britain’s Frank Hornby in 1901. Gilbert received a U.S. Patent in 1916 for “interlocking grooved girders” that provided considerably more structural support.

With a $5,000 loan from his father, Gilbert produced his first Mysto Erector Structural Steel Builder in 1913. He advertised the product as “the toy whose girders resemble structural steel.”

Two of my other favorite childhood toys are also nearing the century milestone. Tinker Toys will be 100 in 1914, while Lincoln Logs celebrates its centennial in 2016. If you want to learn more about the history of these classic construction toys (in addition to Lego, Meccano and others), I recommend a new book entitled Architecture on the Carpet (Thames & Hudson).

I have a feeling that many Christmas trees this year will have lots of Lego boxes under them. The plastic block’s snap-fit simplicity sure is appealing. And, the Danish company keeps satisfying the appetite of its huge fan base with tons of cool products.

Unfortunately, assembling stuff with an Erector Set requires a fair amount of patience, which is something that too many kids these days have a short supply of. But, it’s nice to see that playing with metal parts is still an option. Thanks A.C. for a century of fun!

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