Thursday, December 6, 2007

Gilbert Science Toys!

After the USSR launched Sputnik I back in October, 1957, America was in a state of panic. The Russians were in space! And something had to be done to equip young America with the scientific tools they would need to battle the godless Communists!

Okay, so it was all nothing more than one of those goofy manias-----like the current hysteria over global warming-----that periodically seizes the imagination of the American public. But this one had one great benefit for kids like me in the late 1950s and 1960s: there were all sorts of neat science toys available, like those from the A. C. Gilbert Company. I had a lot of Gilbert toys as a kid, and have amassed a respectable collection of them as an adult.

The king of Gilbert science toys was Erector, a series of metal construction toys. I found the beauty below---the Rocket Launcher set----waiting for me under the tree in Christmas, 1959. How could I not be thrilled by all those glistening parts?

A big part of the appeal of Gilbert science toys was their packaging. Look at the exterior of the Rocket Launcher set; see that happy boy launching a missile attack against the Communist menace? That happy boy could be me!

Of course, I had Gilbert chemistry sets. These sets were packed in folding metal packages that displayed impressively on store shelves, as you can see below:

I also had a Gilbert telescope, although my memories of it are not fond; the optics were execrable and almost single-handedly killed my interest in astronomy. I'll never forget my first view of the planet Venus through that telescope; Venus was oval-shaped and had a rainbow pattern on its right side. Bleh. . . . . . . .

I had better results with Gilbert microscopes. To actually see microbes swimming around on a slide was a thrill, and ordinary stuff like table salt and sand grains looked otherworldly under magnification. Microscopes also brought out the latent cruelty in me; many flies and ants lost their lives so I could examine their body parts in detail.

The Gilbert physics set was my least favorite science toy, mainly because the experiments you could do with it just weren't that spectacular. After turning a clear liquid red with another clear liquid with a chemistry set, doing something with a balloon to demonstrate atmospheric pressure seemed really lame. At least the packaging on this set was cool, and featured a rarity for Gilbert: a girl. Oh Billy, you know science! You're so wonderful!!

The set that really got its hooks into me was the Erec-tronic radio and electronics construction set; I can still remember the thrill I got when I built a crystal set radio with it and heard voices and music through the earphone. . . . . . or my first transmitter, and the dots and dashes I was sending being received on the AM radios throughout the house. The set included a punched perfboard with holes for mounting electronic components and wiring; I kept and continued to use that perfboard when I tried to build circuits appearing in Lou Garner's Popular Electronics columns. (And that's why it was very satisfying for me when my first articles started appearing in Popular Electronics back in 1976.)

The A. C. Gilbert Company took its "responsibility" to produce scientifically literate youth very seriously. Most of their toys included a comic titled Science Leads The Way, in which a downtrodden high school keeps losing football games to its arch-rival but manages to mop up the floor with them at a science fair------with the help of Gilbert science toys, of course!

There are still science toys available today, and they make terrific gifts for intellectually curious kids. More important than specific facts about science, they teach kids how to think logically and figure things out for themselves, two skills that will serve them well throughout their lives. I'm lucky my parents gave me science toys at Christmas!