Before there were Transformer action figures, digital cameras, or Playstations, there were Tinkertoys. These and a host of other construction toys in the early 20th century, including Lincoln Logs and Erector Sets, helped kids throughout Appalachia learn by exercising what we now think of as “spatial intelligence.”
Charles Pajeau, a stonemason from Evanston, Illinois invented Tinkertoy Construction Sets. He proposed the idea in 1913 on a commuter train to Chicago Board of Trade trader Robert Pettit, and together they started The Toy Tinkers Company. Pajeau designed his first set in his garage. Inspired by watching children play with pencils, sticks and empty spools of thread, Pajeau developed several basic wooden parts which children could assemble in a variety of three dimensional abstract ways. They consisted of spools with eight holes around the edge and one through the center to fit quarter-inch diameter rods of different lengths.
With high hopes, the duo displayed the toy at the 1914 American Toy Fair in New York City. But nobody was interested. On his way back to his hotel, Pajeau convinced two drugstores in Grand Central Terminal to carry his toy, in exchange for a hefty commission. Next came window displays that involved complex creations made of these spools and rods. He even placed fans nearby to move framework windmills with bladed tops.
Pajeau and Pettit tried their marketing skills again at Christmas time. They hired several midgets, dressed them in elf costumes, and had them play with tinker toys in a display window at a Chicago department store. This publicity stunt made all the difference in the world. A year later, over a million sets had been sold. The toys even came with instructions for creating elaborate mechanical tools, such as printing presses, lathes, airplanes, and power saws. The company added an electric motor to the set in 1919 and Pajeau and Pettit continued their partnership until Pettit’s death in 1943.