Playing with Electricity: Erector Sets and Visions of Mastery



October 4, 2018

As any glance at the criss-crossing wires and mysterious metal globules of an electric substation will tell you, the electrical grid has reached a level of complexity that far exceeds the conceptual abilities of a single individual. But in the early days of the twentieth century, when its steel structures and braids of wires had yet to extend in all directions, it was still possible to believe that the grid could be understood and mastered by a single mind. That such a task was undertaken by a magician, a profession that requires the belief that the intransigent material world can be bent to one’s will, perhaps then should not be a surprise.

The magician in question was one A.C. Gilbert, a New Haven resident and Yale graduate whose efforts to master electricity began when, on the way to New York City to sell a line of magic-trick kits he’d designed, he noticed a series of steel structures being erected around his train. The New Haven-New York line was transitioning from steam to electric power, and these steel girders held the wires through which the current was to reach the train. Inspiration struck: rather than designing kits for the mastery of illusions, Gilbert would instead create toys for the precocious mastery of the emerging infrastructure around him. Specifically, he designed the Erector Set, a construction toy that contained all the components of the catenary lines in miniature: miniature steel girders, miniature nuts, miniature bolts, and, most importantly, a miniature electric motor. In playing with the Erector Set’s model trusses and motors, Gilbert believed a young boy would come to learn the principles of his new electromechanical world and consequently grow up to be a productive contributor to his society.[1]

Gilbert didn’t limit his mastery of electricity to the educational realm. Shortly after the invention of the Erector Set, he adapted its electric motor for use in household gadgets. What was once accomplished by manual labor or steam power – everything from the heating of a room to the mixing of a cocktail – could now be achieved with the aid of a Gilbert electric motor. In effect, he reconfigured the house as one giant, highly efficient electrical device – up to and including its most intimate sphere, the bedroom. Gilbert patented the very first electric vibrator, a device, he wrote, that would “provide a means by which married people can enhance sexual excitement with each other so as to enjoy completion of normal sexual intercourse with the least expenditure of time and energy.” With vibrator in hand, he asserted, “the Husband is proud of his new prowess.”[2]

The pursuit of prowess, of complete control: for Gilbert the erection of a vast electrical grid provoked no anxiety because, according to his worldview, the well-educated, technologically equipped, can-do (male) individual was still in total control. For Gilbert, the entities around us – be they an electrical grid, a house, or a sexual partner – were just innate matter, waiting for us to put them in order. That his empire was founded by a construction toy is no accident.

Gilbert’s total-control ethos was not an anomaly: he was operating amidst the last gasp of the era of the total systems designer – that is, a figure who sought to design “the multifarious apparatus, methods and devices, each adapted for use with every other” that would together form the infrastructural system at large.[3] Gilbert shared these completist tendencies, only unlike other total systems designers of his time, Gilbert designed the comprehensive system for relating to infrastructure: the A.C. Gilbert Company was a one-stop shop for adapting the American populace to the rapidly changing technologies of the early 20th century, transforming domestic habits and bodies to new forms of energy.
History has provided endless correctives to Gilbert’s dreams of self-willed mastery but, ironically, the greatest corrective is provided by the electrical grid itself: unlike other railroad electrifications at the time, the New Haven-New York line used Alternating Current generators, constituting a major step towards the instantiation of this form of electric power. AC, in contrast to the then popular Direct Current mode, allowed electricity to be transported across great distances without major losses, and so significantly reduced the importance of on-site power generation, effectively halting the centralized development of rising industrial towns like New Haven.[4]

Gilbert, of course, foresaw none of this: looking up at the electric wires, he did not see a form of energy with its own agentic powers, but something to be managed and controlled. Heeding the lessons of the grid, we might correct Gilbert’s misplaced faith in human mastery with Jane Bennett’s notion of infrastructural agency as “distributed along a continuum, [extruding] from multiple sites or many loci.” Unlike the child who has total dominion over his inert Erector parts, we are only one component of a vast assemblage, comprised of electric, animal, or administrative actors, each with a vitality all its own.[5] Our dumbfounded incomprehension of the electric substation is recast as humble wisdom. Now, who is going to design the toy to teach us that?

[1] Gilbert’s educational project was highly gendered: the typical Erector ad featured a picture of two young men tinkering with an electronically-animated steel contraption, below which was emblazoned the future-oriented caption “Boys Today — Men Tomorrow!”

[2] As quoted in Bruce Watson, The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made (NewYork: Penguin, 2003): 80-81.

[3] Thomas Edison quoted in Thomas P. Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983): 22.

[4] Douglas W. Rae, City: Urbanism and Its End (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003): 21.

[5] Bennett develops this definition of “distributed agency” iin her account of the 2003 North American blackout. See Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010): 28.