Monday, February 02, 2009

Gilbert and Lionel on Radio, Pt. 1

Originally published in the January, 2009, Old Radio Times.(

Gilbert and Lionel on Radio
Jack French © 2009

A couple of American toy makers, A.C. Gilbert and Joshua Cowen, both of whom had risen to the top of their industry, took to the airwaves in 1933 to promote their wares in juvenile adventure radio shows. While these two broadcast series have largely been forgotten, and even the founders of both toy companies are fading in our memory, their principle products are still well recalled by most. Gilbert’s firm produced the Erector Sets and Cowen’s company made Lionel Electric Trains.

Alfred Carlton Gilbert (1884 -1961) in adult life was always called A. C. Gilbert. He was born in Salem, OR, but grew up in Idaho, where by the age of 9, he was obsessed with magic; it would eventually lead him to found a manufacturing company. After a few years at West Coast colleges, he transferred to Yale University where he financed his education working as a magician. Gilbert was also a superb athlete, breaking world records in the running long dive, consecutive chin-ups, and pole vaulting. In the latter, he tied for the gold medal in the 1908 Olympics in London.

Although Gilbert earned a degree in sports medicine, he did not pursue a career in that field, preferring to return to magic full time. However this time he would not be a stage magician, but a manufacturer of magic sets and individual tricks. In 1909, he and a New Haven partner, John Petrie, started their small company, the Mysto Manufacturing Company. While business was good (they sold $ 60,000 worth of magic items in 1911) Gilbert knew it was always be a marginal company, appealing to a select few. He wanted to market one product that would enable any youngster to make several toys and Gilbert found it when he invented the Erector Set. It came in a sturdy box which was filled with miniature steel girders, crossbeams, wheels, all assembled with nuts and bolts and even containing a tiny engine motor.

The set was an instant success and within two years of its debut, Mysto’s profits soared by 1800 per cent. By 1913 the firm changed its name to A. C. Gilbert Company and the vast bulk of its sales were the highly sought after Erector Sets. Later sets devoted to radio, chemistry, engineering, etc. would come out of the Gilbert factory, and while popular, none ever approached the Erector Set in sales volume.


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