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.

toolbox
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.

MATTELhwset
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.

blocks
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.

tinkertoy_smaller
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.)

giant_erector
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!

10 Replies to “Early Childhood (Pre-Lego) Formative Toys”

  1. Well, during the blizzard of 78 I spent the entire three weeks of no school in my own little salon. The salon was complete with an appt. book and a Candy Doll head! I'm a stylist now. I don't really think the doll influenced me to be a stylist. I just Love doing hair, always have. At least now my clients can talk, another skill I have been given that helps with my profession!! 8 )

  2. Well, during the blizzard of 78 I spent the entire three weeks of no school in my own little salon. The salon was complete with an appt. book and a Candy Doll head! I'm a stylist now. I don't really think the doll influenced me to be a stylist. I just Love doing hair, always have. At least now my clients can talk, another skill I have been given that helps with my profession!! 8 )

  3. Wow, Doug! Your post brought back memories. I think that the erector set and the Tinker Toys were that only ones that you enjoyed that I remember. Of course they were presents for my brothers. I did get to use them though. I also remember spending hours with the Lincoln logs. I still have some in the attic that my grandkids use. Maybe that is where I first developed a love of architecture. Remember me to your wonderful family.

  4. Hmmm, that’s a toughie. I remember playing with G.I. Joe and Transformers and enjoying them. If either of the toys had an effect on me as an adult it was the G.I. Joe. Because back in the day you could dissasemble them and reassemble them with different parts. Later on I became interested in fashion and I still know how to match properly. For those who know me now they may think it unlikely that I was so into fashion but even though my outfits may not be Gucci they never have clashing colors. Other than that I feel like the toys that really had the most effect on me were my voice and my journal. Years later I still love music and words. It was sort of a mixed blessing that video games became so popular while I was child but scientists have proven that they improve hand-eye coordination and reflexes. And now that video games have come so far you can work your frontal lobes too on some neat puzzles.

  5. I too possessed the Tinker Toy set that was too small to construct much of anything. I had a large, almost complete collection of He-Man and GI Joe action figures.

    But I think my favorite toy of all was a mini-bike that my father and I built using a Montgomery Ward frame we bought at a yard sale, a 3 horsepower Tecumseh horizontal shaft engine, a centrifugal clutch purchased from a local small engines shop, and some odds and ends. I rode that bike for probably two years. It was the ultimate in mechanical simplicity. I wish I had pictures.

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