Meet the man behind the bubbles going in at the Gilbert House museum

Bill Charnholm talks about bubbles outside Gilbert House Children’s Museum on Feb. 17, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Bill Charnholm grew up building small towns with his Erector Set, then flying toy fighter jets over them.

The 75-year-old giggles while recounting playing in his bedroom in Corvallis with one of the most iconic toys of the 1950s.

“As a kid, that was a pretty vivid memory,” he said.

Charnholm carried that love for tinkering into a career in electrical engineering, and a lifelong interest in A.C. Gilbert, the Salem native who created the Erector Set and helped convince a nation that children could learn by playing.

Now, he’s one of the main donors bringing a new outdoor bubbles exhibit to the Gilbert House Children’s Museum in central Salem.

At a groundbreaking Monday, Charnholm grinned in the sunlight as he spoke at length about the physics of bubbles and how Gilbert shaped his childhood. The exhibit, scheduled to open in May, will bear his name: Bill’s Bubble Factory.

“There’s no such thing as a bad bubble,” he said.

The museum, named for toy inventor A.C. Gilbert, opened in 1989 in a historic home near Riverfront Park.

Most of the exhibits are for interactive play, places where children can work in a vet’s office, drive a train or milk a cow.

But a building toward the back of the museum’s campus houses a small exhibit on Gilbert’s life and legacy.

The inventor was born in Salem in 1884 and was interested in magic from a young age. Charnholm said he’s found records indicating Gilbert first performed in public at the Reed Opera House, showing off coin tricks.

An A.C. Gilbert Company magic set, on display at the Gilbert House Children’s Museum (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

In 1903, he left Oregon to study medicine at Yale University. To pay for school, he performed magic shows, sometimes making as much as $100 a night (nearly $3,000 adjusted for inflation), according to a biography on the museum’s website.

Shortly after, Gilbert and a friend began manufacturing and selling magic sets and then founded a toy company.

At the time, “it was a very novel idea to put toys in front of kids,” museum executive director Alicia Bay said.

Charnholm said he appreciated the egalitarian spirit of Gilbert’s early toys. While most magicians were loath to share professional secrets, Gilbert wanted other kids to get in on the fun.

Though best known for the Erector Set, Gilbert’s company also manufactured other items for children, including microscope kits and chemistry sets.

In 1950, the company released its “Atomic Energy Lab,” complete with a Geiger counter, ionization chamber and four jars of radioactive ore so kids could watch small atomic reactions.

The A. C. Gilbert Company sold many chemistry sets for young children to experiment with. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Gilbert died in 1961 with 150 patents and an Olympic gold medal in pole vaulting to his credit.

Charnholm never got to meet his idol, but traveled to Connecticut in the mid-1980s to talk with former employees and see the Gilbert factory.

“I couldn’t find anybody with anything bad to say about him,” Charnholm said. “He influenced the whole United States of America in a very good way.”

Charnholm has never held a staff or board position with the Salem museum, but has been a fan since its formation, and has his own fond memories of an earlier bubbles exhibit, which shut down in 2012 after it flooded the historic home.

He loves bubbles for the joy they bring and the chance to teach kids about physics.

Bubbles will shrink to the smallest possible surface area for the air they contain, which is why they form spheres. When two bubbles join, they’ll merge to share a common wall because the change minimizes surface area.

The same physics concepts that explain why bubbles behave the way they do come up frequently in electronics and other areas of study, he said.

But mostly, Charnholm wants to share with a new generation of kids the joy he felt building 25-foot tall bubbles in the old exhibit.

Bay said his excitement for the project inspired others to donate. The museum has raised about 80% of its $800,000 goal for the new exhibit and other outdoor modifications.

“Every child that makes a bubble here, it’s going to be unique to them. It’ll be a memory,” Charnholm said.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.