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100 Years Later, Seeing the Influence of the Erector Set

TOPICS | Parenting | Education Posted Wednesday, April 24, 2013 (1,008 views)

Still to this day, the Erector Set is one of Fat Brain Toys favorite items. We believe it has all the components that make up a great toy; requires thought, open-ended play, develops problem solving skills, and delivers a great sense of accomplishment upon completion of the project.  This weekend James Barron of the New York Times did an admirable job of telling the 100 year story of this great product by digging into the life of one of the great collectors of Erector Sets, Dave Frieder. Two of Mr. Frieder's comments made us really appreciate his thoughts (you will see them bolded later) but he discusses the effect of television on toys and how the Erector Set compare to Lego. The evolution of toys is a tricky and complicated process, but next time you purchase a toy, ask yourself, is this toy as good as the Erector Set?


Dave Frieder, who lives in Closter, N.J., is an avid collector of Erector Sets. This year is the 100th anniversary of when the popular toys went on the market. Part of Part of Mr. Frieder’s collection of Erector Sets includes models of the George Washington Bridge. Dave Frieder sees a connection between two of his passions: The bridges that tie the city to the rest of the world, and Erector Sets.

The connection is Othmar H. Ammann. He designed some of the bridges and, according to Mr. Frieder, also loved Erector Sets, with their prefabricated parts — which, to a Jersey-bound commuter at the end of a difficult day, look like careful little copies of the box beams on the George Washington Bridge that cannot go by soon enough.

“Is it coincidence or deliberate?” asked Mr. Frieder, a photographer who is assembling a coffee-table book about the bridges in and around New York and who also collects Erector Sets. Just as he knows exactly when Ammann’s bridges opened — the Bayonne Bridge and the George Washington Bridge in 1931, the Triborough Bridge (now the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge) in 1936, the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge in 1939, the Throgs Neck Bridge in 1961, and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in 1964 — he knows that 2013 is the 100th anniversary of when Erector Sets went on sale.

Erector Sets were the invention of a commuter, Alfred Carlton Gilbert, who had started a company that manufactured props for magicians. The non-hocus-pocus inspiration struck in 1912. “Gilbert was traveling into New York when they were electrifying” the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, said William Brown, an expert on Gilbert in Hamden, Conn.

Gilbert looked out the window and saw workers riveting the steel beams of a power-line tower. “He saw the girders in the tower,” Mr. Brown said, “and that was that.”

Gilbert switched from making magic to making metal parts — little girders, little wheels for pulleys, little gears, little engines — and big money. By the early 1950s, his company had sales of $20 million a year. But it went out of business within five years of Gilbert’s death in 1961.

Gilbert’s family sold 51 percent of their stock to the company behind the television series “Lassie,” among other programs. Some Erector Set fans see irony in that transaction, because it was television that undercut Gilbert.

“He’s a perfect documentation of pre-television America,” Mr. Brown said. “There are only two epochs in American toys. His goes from 1913 to 1954, when you see declines. And the face of that decline is Walt Disney. In 1954, he starts to put documentaries on TV. The Erector Set is a toy you can’t play with while watching TV. With Disney in 1954, people’s attention span was divided by television time, and the place where you put the Erector Sets became a television room. And there just wasn’t space for both.”

Mr. Frieder, 59, had an Erector Set when he was a boy, much the way later generations have had Legos. He said he never cared for Legos. “I have always preferred steel,” he said, echoing other Erector Set fans.

Veterans of the Erector generation find a vague incompleteness in the ease and precision of Lego construction,” Mr. Brown wrote on Web site of the Eli Whitney Museum, of which he is the director. “Nothing in Lego matches the test of the Ferris wheel’s improbable rim, which was constructed of 13 rather than the logical 12 segments. Gilbert the magician seemed to want to be sure you were watching very closely. The bolder the challenge to be mastered, the sweeter the satisfaction.”

Mr. Frieder spent eight years, from 1993 to 2001, taking photos of the bridges around New York. He climbed and photographed all of Ammann’s bridges (except for the “truss bridge” over Randalls Island that is part of the Robert F. Kennedy span). And then he met Ammann’s daughter, Margaret Ammann Durrer.

“I started telling her I was collecting Erector Sets,” he recalled. “She said, ‘Oh, my father used an Erector Set in designing the G.W.B.’ I said: ‘You’re kidding me. Really?’ She said, ‘Yes, he used some Erector Sets as an aid in designing the G.W.B.’”

Mr. Frieder has amassed 15 Erector Sets, including one from 1915, when Gilbert had been in the Erector Set business for only two years. “Some of the girders look like some of the box beams used in the G.W.B., the angle pieces that are called lacing bars,” Mr. Frieder said. “They look like the ones in the older sets. They’re an inch wide. The ones in the newer sets look different, and they’re only half an inch.”

Since 2000, the Erector set brand has been controlled by Meccano, a European company that long manufactured a competing design. The Web has made it easier for collectors to buy and sell old Erector sets from the Gilbert days — Ebay had more than 2,500 listings on Monday — and Mr. Frieder said he has the largest Erector set that Gilbert’s company issued in the 1950s. . “It builds a robot, it builds a Ferris wheel, it builds the parachute jump,” he said. “In 2006 and 2007, I climbed and photographed the Coney Island parachute jump. Well, A.C. Gilbert made a model of that jump.”

Mr. Frieder also has an Erector Set from 1942 that was apparently never used. It will stay that way.

“I don’t build with the Erector Sets,” Mr. Frieder said. “I only collect.”

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Content courtesy of JAMES BARRON - NY Times

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