Alfred Carlton Gilbert soared to his gold medal at the 1908 London Olympics in dramatic fashion.
The 22-year-old pole vaulting phenom beat the previous world record to qualify for the games. The prior record was also held by Gilbert, who had been heralded by the press as “the greatest all around athlete ever produced in the Pacific Northwest.”
Born in Salem in 1884, Gilbert always had a competitive streak. He won his first competition — a tricycle race — when he was 7. He trained for two weeks in preparation.
By the time he enrolled at what is now Pacific University, his athletic prowess was undeniable.
At 5 feet 7 inches and 130 pounds, Gilbert broke the Northwest pole vaulting record. He unofficially beat the world chin-up record. He was declared the best quarterback in Oregon. He was captain of a state champion track team. And he was an incredible wrestler.
In 1904, Gilbert transferred to Yale, where he reached new heights as an athlete and an innovator.
At the time, the equipment in pole vaulting was nothing more than a stick, usually hickory or spruce, with a spike at the end. Gilbert found a competitive edge by re-imagining the pole.
He introduced a bamboo pole with a flat bottom and a primitive pole vaulting box (a hole in the ground). Using this long, flexible pole, Gilbert beat world records, propelling himself and the sport into a new era.
While the bamboo pole was a game changer, it wasn’t necessary for Gilbert to win. At the Olympics in London, officials wouldn’t allow him to use the spikeless pole. Using the traditional method, Gilbert still tied for gold.
Life After Winning Gold
Gilbert graduated from Yale the following year with a degree in medicine. He eventually ditched the medical field for another longtime passion — magic.
A practitioner since he was a child, Gilbert manufactured and sold his own magic kits. Magic also led him to one of his greatest inventions. While on the train from Connecticut to his magic shop in New York, Gilbert noticed a network of girders being erected to support power lines.
Three years later, he was mass-marketing his newest toy, the Erector Set.
His company, A.C. Gilbert, grew into a juggernaut. It would later sell chemistry sets, toy trains and even an atomic energy set equipped with uranium bearing ore.
In 1918, in the throes of World War I, Gilbert successfully argued for the continuation of toy production during Christmas. His efforts earned him the nickname (and made-for-TV movie) “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”
By 1953, the company employed thousands of workers in New Haven and had yearly sales of $20 million — over $180 million today.
Gilbert always prided himself on remaining a boy at heart. It’s what he believed helped him thrive in the toy manufacturing business.
A few years before his retirement, Gilbert looked back over his long career, telling The New Yorker, “I guess my life hasn’t been anything to set the world on fire, but it’s been interesting, and I know this: I’ve had more fun than the average boy.”