The inspiring nerdy toys of A.C. Gilbert

Gilbert’s real innovation was to provide kids with a way to experiment with real-life tools and parts, says William Brown, director of the Eli Whitney Museum in Hamden, Conn., where a large collection of Gilbert toys is on display. “They had that feel of being not symbolic but part of the real world,” he says. “You were working with a motor for your Erector set that could actually move heavy things.”

And that real-life appeal did not just apply to kids. In 1949 doctors at the Yale School of Medicine used an Erector set to build a precursor to the modern artificial heart…

Today those toys remind us of the power of creativity and of how important it is to let kids play and learn. “The way to teach kids about tools is not to tell them what to be afraid of,” Brown says, “but how to use them, and that’s what Gilbert did.”