A Brief History of A.C. Gilbert Erector
A.C. Gilbert markets his first construction set under the name "Erector" in 1913. Sets produced during this period were characterized by their wide, 1¼-inch girders and cardboard or unpainted wooden boxes.
Perhaps the greatest period of Erector glory. Sets produced during this period were characterized by their narrower (5/8-inch) redesigned girders, wooden cases (painted red beginning in 1928), and new parts and pieces. Most sets were designed to build specific models, such as the Steam Shovel, White Truck, Ferris Wheel, Zeppelin, and Hudson Locomotive and Tender.
This period was marked by a change from wooden cases to painted metal cases.
The post-war period during which I, as well as many of you, were first introduced to the Erector Set. The bright red cases typical of this period have become an icon to many of us Baby Boomers, and even to some of our younger "Generation Jones" siblings.
Let me tell you a little about the history of Erector. A.C Gilbert started the Mysto Magic Co. in 1909. In 1913 he developed the Erector set. At this time there were several construction toys out. The most prominent was the Meccano construction toy developed by Hornby in England. It was made up of pulleys, gears, and several 1/2" wide strips of varying length with holes evenly spaced on them. These sets were very popular. Gilbert needed something unique. What he created was the square girder. Gilbert's Erector sets had pulleys, gears, and several 1" wide strips with triangles cut in them and the edges bent over. This allowed for 4 strips to be put together with 2 screws to form a very sturdy square girder. The sets were numbered 1 to 8 according to size. The smaller set were in cardboard boxes with the larger sets in wooden boxes. The smallest of the largest sets had a DC motor included in them. The most you could build with these sets were structures: buildings, bridges, and etc.
The next change came in 1924. The Girders went from 1" to 1/2". This allowed for small curved girders to be used in more impressive models. Trucks, ferriswheels, zeppelins, and many other action models could be built. In 1931 he came out with the Erector Hudson and Tender. A very impressive model. In the mid 30's the wooden boxes were dropped for metal boxes. In 1940 he came out with the Parachute Jump. Another interesting thing happened in the 40's. A war was on and there was a lack of metal. Gilbert developed wooden girders. These are rare today.
In 1950 he came out with the Amusement Park set. This set had a great little model, the merry-go-round. By this time the largest set was the 12 1/2. Another big seller of Gilbert was American Flyer trains. They were really big in the 50's. About this time the Gilbert Co. got computerized, therefore you start seeing sets numbered like 10093 instead of 12 1/2. By the late 50's A.C. Gilbert Sr. had turned the company over to his son, A.C. Gilbert Jr.. In 1961 Gilbert Sr. died. In 1965 the company was bought by the Gabriel Co.
This was just a brief history of Erector. Every decade had something unique that happened to the Gilbert company. With the summer Olympics in Atlanta, GA in 1996 it is worthy to note that Gilbert won a gold medal for pole vaulting in the 1908 Olympics in England.
Being a short history of the intertwining of the two major metal construction toys sold in the US for many years.
Several people have asked me over the last few years if Erector sets are still made. My answer has always been: "Well, Yes and No." People much younger than myself (47 years) do not remember the bright red metal boxes of A. C. Gilbert's New Erector of the post WW II era. Even fewer people in the US remember Meccano sets.
Meccano was the first metal toy construction set of any note sold in the western hemisphere. It was first produced about 1900 in England by Frank Hornby. It consisted of (and still consists of) metal strips of various lengths with equally spaced holes in them so they can be connected by nuts and bolts.
Erector was first produced by A. C. Gilbert about 1913 and consisted of metal toy girders with a lip on the edge of the girder which gave it the capability of making a square girder. Gilbert also included an electric motor in many of his sets - He was apparently the first to do this.
Both toys competed for the American toy construction market from 1913 on, along with a few others most notably American Model Builder. (AMB went out of business about 1920 due to litigation with Meccano.) Erector held the majority of the American market in the 1920's. I have heard various figures anywhere from 60-80%.
In the 1920's Meccano was being produced under license in Elizabeth, NJ. Around 1930 Gilbert purchased the rights to produce Meccano in the US and moved the manufacturing of Meccano to New Haven, Connecticut alongside his Erector manufacturing plant. Meccano continued to be marketed and sold outside the US by Hornby's England manufacturing plant. The Meccano sets produced in the US from 1930 - 1938 are often called Gilbert - Meccano sets and featured many obsolete Erector parts. I do not know why, but after 1938 Gilbert seems to have stopped manufacturing Meccano. Soon WW II was going to stop all steel toy manufacturing.
After WW II Gilbert resumed manufacturing Erector sets (but not Meccano). Meccano seemed to be imported into the US in some very limited quantity and started showing up in Sears catalogs about 1960.
In 1961 A. C. Gilbert died. In order to settle estate taxes his majority holding in the company that bore his name was sold off. Although A. C.'s son remained as head of the company, the real power rested with the new majority owners who had big ideas about the direction that Erector and the A. C. Gilbert company's other toys should take. By 1966 the A. C. Gilbert toy company was bankrupt. The A. C. Gilbert and Erector names were acquired by Gabriel Toys, then Ideal Toys and went through several other hands before the Erector name was eventually purchased by Meccano in the late 1980's. I'm sure A. C. Gilbert is still spinning in his grave at about the speed of light.
The original Meccano plant in England closed its doors in the late 1970's but Meccano continued to be manufactured by a plant in Calais, France. Meccano SA France was purchase by Nikko Toys, Japan in May 2000.
In the early 1990's Meccano started selling its sets in the US as Erector sets. Those sets are just Meccano sets with the Erector name and have been imported by Irwin Toys. About 1999 Irwin decided to stop importing Meccano-Erector into the US except for the plastic Erector Junior. You can still find some of the metal Meccano-Erector sets at Toys R Us, most recently the Millennium Set, but basically no other new sets are due to be imported. What will Nikko do? They are not saying, so only time will tell.
This information has been gathered from a number of different sources most notably Bill Bean's two volumes on Erector Sets. Any mistakes are mine, and I welcome any constructive input.