Learning Power

Eli Whitney Museum

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In 1913, hand cranks powered gramophones, ice blocks preserved food, few carriages were horseless, wind mills pumped water for farms. However, electric trolleys had begun to stretch out cities. Electric elevators had begun to lift sky lines. It was the threshold of the electric age.

A.C. Gilbert, age 29, had just conceived a steel construction set. His Erector Set's girders modeled the new trestles and skyscrapers. Almost as an afterthought, Gilbert added the parts to construct a small battery-powered motor. That began a line of experimental motors that would become the heart of the Erector Set.

The A.C. Gilbert Company would become a Leading producer of fractional horsepowered motors. Cilbert would patent motor designs, gear boxes and improvements to manufacturing technique. He would lead in the introduction of electric appliances. But his important invention was an idea.

How do we prepare for technology revolutions? Trust the hands of children. This story of a generation Learning power is also a narrative of the power of children's Learning. Recognize that you must play with the future to invent it.

With a touch, today's six year-old can synchronize the motors of a VCR. He knows the mechanical waddle of R2D2. He can automatically point a pencil. He can trigger the turntable of a microwave. But will he be as competent as his great-grandparent was 80 years ago? Will he learn to saddle a horse? To salt and crank an ice cream maker?. To write fluidly with a fountain pen? To toast bread over an open flame?

Ours is a world of black boxes which deliver miracles but not their mechanics or meaning. Power in that great grandparent's world was open and direct. A youngster learned to harness it or light it or connect it, to clutch it, reverse it, and to govern it. Ours is an information world - learning is knowing. Theirs was a world of doing -- learning was practice.

H.T. Brown compiled 19th century know-how in his Five Hundred and One Mechanical Movements. Learning Power tests the first dozen of those changes in speed, direction, torque and motion. We assume even adults will find challenging and unfamiliar mechanics that Gilbert took for granted as everyday knowledge.

Batteries drove the first of Gilbert's motors. The batteries were expensive and quickly exhausted. In 1913, not one American home in three had full electric wiring. Electrical energy was precious and perishable.

But electricity sparked the growth of factories. The growing factories offered new opportunities to the people who had worked as household help. Housework changed. The refrigerator was the first major electrical appliance. Then partially motorized machines reduced the heavy labor of washday. Gilbert saw an opportunity. His toy business prospered only in the half year that preceded the Holidays. He would adapt his toy motors to produce small household servants: fans, mixers, and vacuums the other half of the year. Applications that at first seemed lavish -- electric hair drying -- redefined the idea of personal power.

Gilbert equipped this Erector Sets with motors capable of real-world applications. His motors could pinch hard or shock. But for a world of axes, open gas flames, and uninsulated electrical wires, the Gilbert Motor offered essential preparation. Those motors were uncompromising teachers of respect for power. No hazard warnings were printed... those were the common sense of a world rich in raw powers.

Learning Ideas

The Erector Set invented an art of Learning motors.

Between 1850 and 1900, the small experimental motors of Davenport and Henry had grown to hefty power sources for trolleys, drawbridges, cranes, elevators and Ferris Wheels. Large electric motors rivaled the inflexible steam engine and the seasonally distracted water turbine.

Gilbert's models brought these massive technologies to parlor scale. Erector rehearsals of electricity's first contributions anticipated electricity's future. Electricity was different from the energy it replaced. Unlike wind or eater or steam, electricity could power small, flexible and portable motors. Electric motors. The very motor which drove Erector models exemplified those virtues. Ingenuity had a pleasure of its own. Why not give a phonograph, a door, a typewriter, or a pencil sharpener an electric heart!

Why not build an electric heart? In 1949 when Dr. William Sewell set out to build a by-pass device that would allow him to open a heart for surgery, he turned to the one motor he knew and could afford. The first artificial heart constructed at Yale was powered by an Erector Set motor that had been manufactured a few blocks away. Gilbert's motors ran from the heart of invention to the invention of a heart.

Established in 1991, the Gilbert Project studies and preserves the Legacy of A.C. Gilbert, his company, his co-workers, his impact on Learning in America. That Legacy defines the best of childhood Learning in pre-television America and powerful Lessons for the future of education.

Curator Erica Udoff

Learning Power is the fifth in an ongoing series of study exhibitions that explore the history of Learning experience and Learning environment. Past studies include: Gilbert the Radio, The Kastor Kit, American Flyer Trains at 50, Classical Blocks. Up-coming projects: Learning Chemistry, Gilbert and Girls, The Friendly Atom, Magic in New Haven, Gilbert's Best Friends.

Research for Learning Power was underwritten by the Dibner Fund whose founder shared in the invention of and documented the American electric revolution.

Patent research Julian Spector
Contributors Duracell, Anthem - Blue Cross, Blue Shield, Precision Products, Quality Tool.

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