The AC Gilbert company was a very brief but significant contributor to action figure history but the story of its founder, Alfred Carlton Gilbert is even more remarkable and fascinating.
Born in 1884 Alfred took a particular interest in both science and sport, financing his degree in sports medicine at Yale by working as a magician. He set the world record for chin-ups and running long dive and invented the pole vault.
In 1907 AC Gilbert founded Mysto Manufacturing which would later become the A. C. Gilbert Company. They started off primarily making magic sets but branched out into chemistry, microscopes, astronomy playsets and other educational toys.
In 1913 Gilbert invented a toy named Erector, which was and remains to this day a Meccano-style construction set inspired by New York’s railroad.
In 1918, with America heavily embroiled in World War One, the Council of National Defence were considering a ban on toy production, most likely to redirect manufacture to military ordinance which was an immensely costly process.
Gilbert successfully lobbied to have this repealed earning him the nickname “The Man who Saved Christmas”. 84 years later a movie by this name was made about him, starring Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander.
It’s interesting to imagine how the toy industry would have developed, had Gilbert not been around, but his company still had some significant impact to make.
In 1938 Gilbert acquired the rights to the American Flyer model railway and adopted the 3/16 scale. Gilbert’s focus was on detail, and making the trains seem more like miniature models than toys. Alfred’s interest remained clearly in the real and the scientific.
Alfred co-founded and became the first president of the Toy Manufacturers of America and introduced benefits for his employees. He also opened the Gilbert Hall of Science in New York City, which not only promoted invention and the discipline of science to children, but also sold his products.
Possibly, most bizarrely of all, in 1950 Gilbert released the U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory. This retailed at the modern day equivalent of $460 and contained an electroscope, a Wilson-cloud chamber, a Geiger counter and uranium.
In 1954 at the age of 70, Alfred turned the company over to his son. He died seven years later and the family sold their shares to Jack Wrather. The next six years, from 1961 until 1967 was the key development period in the Gilbert Company’s impact on action figures.
In an unusual move for the day they acquired the license to produce toys based on the James Bond films.
There was a James Bond slot racing set, a gadget-filled Aston Martin toy very similar to the well-known Corgi classic, a line of three-inch non-poseable figurines followed by two 12-inch G.I. Joe sized figures, billed as action figures, rather than dolls.
One of the figures was Bond himself, who came with a Thunderball style diver’s outfit. The other was Oddjob, who came in a karate “gi”.
The more obvious smart suits that the characters wore in their cinematic appearances were most likely too complicated and expensive to manufacture or possibly considered not conducive to action. Bond could fight Oddjob in his flippers, possibly underwater where the henchman’s deadly hat attacks would be ineffective.
Continuing the espionage theme, two more licenses were also garnered as a result of the Bond success, namely The Man From U.N.C.L.E, released in 1965 based on the popular TV show starring Robert Vaughn, David Callum and Leo G Caroll, and the largely forgotten Honey West, (“The TV private eye-full)”.
Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin were fortunately kitted out in more appropriate attire and the clothes and accessories on these figures were interchangeable.
It is in fact possible that had the popularity of these maintained, that Gilbert would have ended up closer to Mego or with the introduction of Moon McDare: Action Man from Space (complete with his space-suited dog) they may possibly have had the market clout of G.I. Joe, which was produced by Hasbro around the same time.
Sadly it was not to be and by 1967 the company had folded, and its assets divided up among other manufacturers. Looking at their output, either the market wasn’t ready for them or there was some mismanagement going on in the background, because the concepts these figures were released under were very much the recipe for success that various other companies experienced in the following decades.
AC Gilbert stands as an important, if mostly forgotten early step in the action figure timeline. Also as a testament to the creative drive that can be generated by one ambitious, and inventive figurehead, and what happens when that determination is not carried forward to next generation.
Erector is still sold in the United States by Meccano.