Gilbert and Lionel on Radio
by Jack French © 2009
A couple of American toy makers, A.C. Gilbert and Joshua Cowen, both of whom had risen to the top of their industry, took to the airwaves in 1933 to promote their wares in juvenile adventure radio shows. While these two broadcast series have largely been forgotten, and even the founders of both toy companies are fading in our memory, their principle products are still well recalled by most. Gilbert’s firm produced the Erector Sets and Cowen’s company made Lionel Electric Trains.
Alfred Carlton Gilbert (1884 -1961) in adult life was always called A. C. Gilbert. He was born in Salem, OR, but grew up in Idaho, where by the age of 9, he was obsessed with magic; it would eventually lead him to found a manufacturing company. After a few years at West Coast colleges, he transferred to Yale University where he financed his education working as a magician.
Gilbert was also a superb athlete, breaking world records in the running long dive, consecutive chin-ups, and pole vaulting. In the latter, he tied for the gold medal in the 1908 Olympics in London. Although Gilbert earned a degree in sports medicine, he did not pursue a career in that field, preferring to return to magic full time. However this time he would not be a
stage magician, but a manufacturer of magic sets and individual tricks. In 1909, he and a New Haven partner, John Petrie, started their small company, the Mysto Manufacturing Company. While business was good (they sold $ 60,000 worth of magic items in 1911) Gilbert knew it was always be a marginal company, appealing to a select few. He wanted to market one product that would enable any youngster to make several toys and Gilbert found it when he invented the Erector Set. It came in a sturdy box which was filled with miniature steel girders, crossbeams, wheels, all assembled with nuts and bolts and even containing a tiny engine motor.
The set was an instant success and within two years of its debut, Mysto’s profits soared by 1800 per cent. By 1913 the firm changed its name to A. C. Gilbert Company and the vast bulk of its sales were the highly sought after Erector Sets. Later sets devoted to radio, chemistry, engineering, etc. would come out of the Gilbert factory, and while popular, none ever approached the Erector Set in sales volume.
Some of the success of Gilbert’s company (as well as that of Lionel Trains) was due to the emergence of the American toy business in World War I. Prior to that international conflict, the U.S. imported most of its toys from Germany and England. The war disrupted the European toy industry, enabling Gilbert and Cowen to greatly increase their market share while the war efforts shackled their foreign competitors across the Atlantic.
Joshua Lionel Cohen (1877 -1965), a son of Jewish immigrants, grew up in Manhattan and was a tinker and inventor before his teens. He made toys of his own, improved on ones he found, and nearly blew up his mother’s kitchen while trying to ignite a tiny steam engine motor for a wooden train he had put together. A bright lad, he entered Columbia University at age 16 to study engineering, but dropped out to work on small appliances at the Acme Electric Lamp Company. There a fuse he invented for flash photography impressed the U.S. Navy who had him produce similar fuses to ignite mines. Cohen made $12,000 on that Navy contract, a very sizable sum in those days, and shortly thereafter changed his Jewish surname from “Cohen” to a neutral “Cowen.” He invented the first practical flashlight, but grew impatient over patent suits so he gave the rights to his partner, Conrad Hubert, who used it to found the EverReady Flashlight Company (and make millions.)
Cowen’s subsequent inventions included a small fan, powered by a battery. The device had little commercial appeal until he hit upon the idea of using its battery-motor to propel a toy electric train. His small firm, which bore his middle name, greatly improved the toy train. Instead of wires connected to a battery, Lionel electrified the tiny railroad tracks with a transformer that started and stopped the train. Cowen insisted on complete authenticity in all his engines and cars, including the correct color of paint and the number of rivets in the siding. Cowen sold his first toy train in 1901 and within a year, his line was the most popular toy train sold in the U.S. By the 1920s, no department store could fail to have a gigantic Christmas display involving an elaborate toy train setup, with several Lionel trains chugging around it.
In late 1933, NBC began airing two juvenile adventure programs, each 15 minutes long and sponsored by these two prominent toy companies. Both of these series were produced in Manhattan at Station WJZ. The A.C. Gilbert Company sponsored Engineering Thrills which aired exciting stories involving all sorts of engineering projects. One of the first programs told the
tale of two men rescued from a caisson below the surface of the Susquehanna River while working on the supports of the Camden Bridge. John Holbrook and Kelvin Keach were on this show, but it is not known which one "impersonated" A.C. Gilbert in the commercials. A youthful Walter Tetley apparently had occasional roles in this drama.
The second series was True Railroad Adventures and the Lionel Corporation paid the bills on this one. Lionel electric trains were very popular with kids in that era and the company encouraged sales and loyalty by giving a subscription to Lionel Magazine to every one who had a train set (or who wanted one.) The radio series was built around "Little Jimmy" a kid who'd climb into the train cab at the beginning of each episode where the engineer, "Mike Bolan," would begin telling a thrilling story, which would then be dramatized. Jimmy and Mike would return at the end of the story in time for the last Lionel commercial. Ben Grauer was the announcer on the show; Wilmer Walter played Mike while James McCallion was Jimmy.
We know very little more about these two programs. No audio copies have surfaced yet, nor have any scripts been found. Karl Schadow and I have recently taken an interest in attempting to uncover more data about these two series and researchers who can provide more data may reach me at <OTRpiano@verizon.net>