Early Childhood (Pre-Lego) Formative Toys

Which of your early childhood toys had an impact on your adult life? Do you think the toys were wonderful because of your innate personality or skills, or do you think the toys helped get those skills going?

Recently, I finished reading The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made: The Life and Times of A. C. Gilbert, the Man Who Saved Christmas, the biography of A.C. Gilbert, best known as the inventor of the iconic Erector Set.

That got me thinking about the toys of my youth, and it probably comes as no surprise that most of the ones I most treasured involved building in some way or another. Of course, now I do more “building” with software than anything else, as programming applications is in many ways very much like building things out of Lego, but programming hasn’t eclipsed my lifelong devotion to Lego.

The toolbox my dad gave me at age 2.

One of the first toys I was given wasn’t really a toy at all, but rather a toolbox full of real tools (some of which I still have, just as I still have the toolbox). “How it happened was like this …” When I was born, I was diagnosed as being mentally retarded. My early foster care seemed to confirm this (due to lack of stimulation). My adoptive father declared, “Well, if he’s not going to be able to work with his brain, we’ll teach him to work with his hands.” So, for Christmas, five months after turning two, I was given a set of real tools. Screwdrivers, a folding rule, a hammer (the one thing that wouldn’t fit in the toolbox), and a pair of pliers. I have very early memories of getting in trouble for taking the screws out of the bottoms of the kitchen chair cushions and losing them. I was allowed to take the handles off the kitchen cabinets. When I first started, I wasn’t strong enough to get the screws tightened well, and the handles would often come off in my mother’s hand.

Good, old fashioned, gravity-fed Hot Wheels® track.

Hot Wheels® track was another great building toy. Although I often drooled over pictures of the Hot Wheels® super charger, I had untold hours of fun constructing dual gravity-fed tracks and racing my favorite cars, all the while developing a better understanding of rudimentary physics. Even more longed-for than the turbocharger was a loop; I even tried building one myself when I was a little older, but couldn’t get it to work right.

The Playskool Take-Apart Car
The Playskool Take Apart Car

The Playskool Take-Apart Car provided many hours of screwdriver-and-wrench assembly experience. The axles were large screws. The headlights and taillights used smaller screws and nuts, as did the wooden sides of the car. One of the trickier parts was getting the tabs for the hood and trunk in the holes when assembling the sides. The one drawback to this was the lack of interchangeability of the screws, although the headlight, taillight, and side screws were all the same size, and the bolt holding the removable engine block in matched the screws that held the wheels and spare tire on, although the bolt head itself wouldn’t fit in the same places. The jack provided (the middle tool visible in the photo) was completely useless. As I was writing this, my wife Nichelle told me that she had one of these, too. These days, I’d recommend Lego Toolo as the nearest equivalent experience.

I had a 100-piece bag of colored wooden blocks.

Wooden blocks are an essential childhood building toy. Generally, my goal was to build the largest tower I could, often getting it to my own height, or nearly so.

Tinkertoys have now made a bit of a comeback.

The only real problem with Tinkertoys was that I didn’t have enough of them. The small set I had just wasn’t enough to build the dreamworthy models pictured on the can. Part of this was supply. I know it’s impossible to believe, but stores in the 1970s were typically horribly supplied. (Computerized supply chains, a need to compete with online retailers, and cheap manufacture and import have radically changed this.) My father and I went out to a number of stores one day to find more Tinkertoys, to no avail. (He bought me a Tonka excavator instead, a conciliatory splurge I’m sure my mother would have never tried.)

This isn’t quite the same, but is not entirely dissimilar to the giant Erector set I loved.

One favorite building toy I haven’t been able to find a picture of was a giant, plastic Erector set, which came with a large, cloth storage bag. My favorite thing to build was a large robot, using gears as eyes and a short beam for a mouth. The large, red gears supplied also served as hubs for the wheels, and they didn’t fit together very well, either seeming hard to fit or too loose. The e-rings provided to put over axles were brittle, and easily broken. To be honest, I was never the best builder with this; I remember working with my dad one some of the pictured models, but really did enjoy it.

The voltmeter my Dad built to test mats for automatic doors.
The voltmeter my Dad built to test mats for automatic doors.

During my childhood, and until his retirement my father worked as a maintenance man (later exclusively in refrigeration) for Fernandez Supermarkets. One of the things he built out of an old cheese box was the voltmeter pictured above, which was used to test the circuits on the mats that used to trigger the automatic doors. Another non-toy, this was essentially “mine,” and had an internal 9-volt battery, which allowed me to experiment with simple circuits, conductivity, and voltage. (My kids currently play with this on occasion.)

Then, when I was 5, my world changed.

My first Lego set, the #480 rescue helicopter
My first Lego set, the #480 rescue helicopter

My neighbor-and-friend Chuck Altwein gave me my first Lego set just before Christmas, the #480, Rescue Helicopter pictured above. This was followed by the general building set #125 from my parents. Another Christmas brought #190, the largest Lego set at the time, which I only decades later realized was actually a farm (it was all about parts, really). Another Christmas or two produced some of my other favorites, Universal Building Set #404, the Space Cruiser (my first “classic space” Lego set), the Galaxy Explorer a year later, and later still Lego’s first castle.

Although I got away from Lego in very late high school and through college, I would jump back into them in 1998. While I was well-and-truly-grown, Lego and MIT developed the most accessible consumer robotics platform made up to that time, the Lego MindStorms Robotic Invention System 1.0. I was blessed to have the now-defunct Construction Site store in Waltham accept a phone order and deliver one of the first 50,000 nearly-impossible-to-get units released in the United States at rollout. Now I’ve actively continued my Lego collecting for years, and am a proud owner of the MindStorms NXT, and use it in coaching First LEGO League and teaching robotics with other self-created programs (such as Robot Sumo) at the Academy for Science and Design, a public charter school in Merrimack, New Hampshire, where my son Isaac attends.

If you’ll pardon the indulgence, I’ll return to my original questions:

Which of your early childhood toys had an impact on your adult life? Do you think the toys were wonderful because of your innate personality or skills, or do you think the toys helped get those skills going?

Comment away!

Body … Built!

Nichelle with her trophy at the 2009 Granite State Open Bodybuilding Championship
Nichelle with her trophy at the 2009 Granite State Open Bodybuilding Championship

Amidst a very busy Saturday, Nichelle competed in the 2009 Granite State Bodybuilding Championship in Dover, N.H. We were amazed by how much she’s improved since her last competition. I was particularly impressed with her onstage presence … she didn’t appear nervous at all, and performed her solo routine perfectly, despite having her toes cramp up.

Nichelle rocks! (And even though she can kill me with her pinkie, I’m saying it because it’s true.)

Charlie Dunn took far better pictures than I could have. We’ll post more when we get those.

This is why we never argue at home.