BUILDER OF MEN: A TRIBUTE TO THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF ALAN CALVERT

By Raymond Van Cleef
(Circa 1944)

Reprinted with permission of The Association of Oldetime Barbell & Strongmen



The history of bar bells dates to antiquity. There is much evidence to prove that bar bells were used in ancient times. (Editors Note: The term barbell here is used loosely and symbolizes any mode of resistance, not the adjustable graduated barbell.) Archaeologists discovered that bar bells were used by Egyptians thousands of years ago. It is known that the Chinese also used this form of weight lifting apparatus centuries ago. In Europe the use of bar bells, while of more recent origin, dates back several hundred years. As to be expected, these bar bells of other periods were quite crude in their construction, especially when compared with present day equipment. Yet despite the many improvements the basic design has not been radically altered.

Though the history of bar bells dates to ancient times, the utilization of this appliance in weight lifting tests has only been accorded general recognition as an established athletic sport in modern times. Previously, its employment had been too limited to attract attention as a competitive sport. In fact, hundreds of years elapsed before bar bells were widely employed as a means of determining the strength of athletes. When the adoption of bar bells became prevalent among strongmen, particularly professional performers, as a means of demonstrating strength, the general public became acquainted with this weight lifting apparatus. Still, it was not until more than a century later that the merits of bar bells as an exercise medium began to be properly appreciated.

During the past century many of the larger gymnasiums and athletic clubs began to add iron dumbbells and bar bells to their equipment. These weights were generally cumbersome and most always unadjustable. Despite these obstacles, these weights were generally used quite frequently by strongmen athletes, especially by those with professional aspirations. In England as well as throughout the European continent, weight lifting clubs were quite numerous even prior to the beginning of the twentieth century.

Despite the fact that the use of bar ells dates to antiquity and their employment by athletes during the past century had been quite extensive, still, the weight lifting movement remained in the embryo stage up until the beginning of the twentieth century. That is, the utilization of weight lifting as an exercise medium and as a competitive sport did not progress beyond a rather infantile state of development as late as 1902. This year is a memorable one in the annals of weight lifting history, for it was then that one of the foremost benefactors of this form of physical training commenced his contributions to further the advancement of weight lifting.

It was in 1902 that the long dormant potentialities of weight lifting as an exercise medium began to be awakened and spurred into action. In less than two generations, weight lifting has developed into a veritable giant in the field of physical culture. This sudden metamorphosis was started into operation chiefly through the influence exerted by one man--Alan Calvert.

This man who fostered the development of weight lifting as a body building medium was physical culture minded even as a boy. The reading of William Blaikie's "How To Get Strong and How To Stay So" exerted an inspiring influence upon his youthful mind. His active participation in physical training when in his teens was not prompted by any physical deficiency, for his physical status was above average. When a youth, he was able to press a 65-pound solid iron dumbbell overhead with his right arm. At that time he weighed 135 pounds.

Alan Calvert began during his youth to experiment with various systems of physical training. None of those that he tested in his preliminary investigations of this field satisfied his expectations of what gains could be attained through the application of the proper type of exercise. So he continued to scrutinize the field of physical training searching for an exercise medium that would make possible the attainment of far more than the mediocre physical improvement that most systems were limited to. Believing in the veracity of the old proverb "Man is to a considerable extent the architect of his own frame," Alan Calvert found the so-called orthodox methods very inadequate in making possible the acquirement of an optimal physical development.

In 1893, when 18 years of age, Alan Calvert visited Chicago to attend the Columbian Exposition. This was the World's Fair of the period. Of the many interesting sights he witnessed, there was one event in particular that exerted a very profound influence on the course of his life. The event that actually altered the course of his life was Eugene Sandow's act. Sandow's impressive physique held him spellbound and stimulated his physical culture ambitions. The weight lifting feats that Sandow performed fascinated him. The bar bells Sandow used in performing some of the lifting feats made a pronounced impression upon Calvert's receptive mind. He associated their usage with Sandow's remarkable musculature. Calvert witnessed Sandow's outstanding act not only at Chicago but again and again later on at his native city, Philadelphia. It offered magnetic appeal to him.

The May 1923 issue of Strength magazine contained an article by Alan Calvert which was titled "The Great and Only Eugene Sandow." The profound influence that Sandow exerted upon him was frankly admitted in this biographical article. Calvert revealed that witnessing Sandow was responsible for his original interest in bar bells. This served to encourage him to manufacture this type of exercising equipment and publish a magazine, Strength, to promote the employment of weight lifting.

It was in 1902 that Calvert began to personally experiment with bar bells. In that year the Outing magazine published an article by George Elliot Flint extolling the merits of progressive weight lifting. Incidentally, this same author wrote one of the first and best books pertaining to weight lifting as an exercise medium. This book, Power and Health Through Progressive Exercise, was published in 1905. Flint's inspiring article made Calvert determined to train with bar bells.

Without delay he decided to purchase a bar bell but was disappointed to discover that there were but few sources of obtaining this apparatus. Upon investigating the types of bar bells that were available, he found that not only were the prices expensive, chiefly because of the very limited production, but they were also crudely constructed. Being so dissatisfied, he decided to apply his mechanical talents to designing an improved bar bell. This is did, and a number of his friends were so favorably impressed with the initial product that they urged him to make them a duplicate of it. Inspired by this favorable reaction to his first bar bell, the desire to manufacture them on a large scale was promoted. He felt confident from his own experience that there must be many physical culture enthusiasts desirous of using bar bells if a satisfactory model was available at a moderate cost.

The desire to make it possible for others to employ this apparatus impelled him to begin to manufacture bar bells. This he began in a modest way after obtaining a patent on his first model. He founded the Milo Bar Bell Company to manufacture and promote the sale of this progressive weight lifting apparatus. The name Milo commemorated the lifting fame of celebrated ancient hero Milo of Croton.

The ever-popular saying, "There is nothing new under the sun," can be applied to the Milo Bar Bell system arranged by Alan Calvert. The exercises included in this course of instructions were not originated by Calvert but compiled by him. This system contains the basic body building exercises as well as instructions pertaining to the execution of standard lifts. Though others have devised lifting exercises not included in Calvert's Milo system, this course of his will ever remain the backbone of the progressive weight lifting method of exercise for it contains the essential fundamental movements.

In his first attempts to promote the sale of his bar bells he soon realized that the general public, including even the vast majority of physical culturists, were not only sadly lacking an intelligent understanding of this exercise medium but possessed distorted and false ideas in opposition to weight lifting both as a sport and a method of exercise. The need for educational missionary work to circulate an intelligent understanding of the merits of this form of exercise and at the same time expose the fallacies associated with weight lifting aroused Calvert's crusading spirit. In endeavoring to fulfill these urgent needs he found that there were only a few magazines, at that time, that would consider publishing articles pertaining to weight lifting. His ardent enthusiasm was undaunted by these obstacles.

He decided that he could accomplish to best advantage the imparting of knowledge pertaining to the merits of weight lifting by operating on an independent basis. Thus he began to publish his own pamphlets in an effort to spread the gospel of progressive weight lifting as the best means of developing the physique and potential strength to the maximum degree. These brochures were published spasmodically at first. But the interest and demand for them was so great that Calvert decided to publish educational writings of this nature in magazine form at regular intervals. Strength magazine was created to serve in guiding and inspiring outsiders as well as physical culturists in applying the doctrines of physical culture. Being the pioneer weight lifting publication, Strength featured instructive articles pertaining to the manifold merits of this form of body building exercise. Writings of an inspirational nature dealing with the careers of noted strongmen athletes occupied a prominent position in Strength. The then-seldom published photos of weight lifters consumed considerable space in every issue. During the years that Calvert published and edited Strength the majority of the educational and inspiring articles were prepared by him. His interesting writings converted innumerable persons and spurred the enthusiasm of many physical culturists because not only were his articles well written in an intelligent manner, but they registered the author's sincerity.

Alan Calvert was ideally qualified to serve as a mentor and sponsor of the weight lifting movement. His ardent interest in this form of physical culture was born of sincere enthusiasm. In promoting the employment of weight lifting equipment, his objectives were governed by humanitarian motives and not on the basis of financial gains. He sacrificed a bright future, in a material sense, when he gave up his membership in his father's firm, Calvert and Holloway, dealers in tin-plate and roofers' supplies. This association he terminated so as to concentrate his time and efforts in promoting body building, chiefly through the medium of progressive weight lifting. He was not interested in self-glorification. So persistent were his efforts to restrict personal publicity to a minimum that, to my knowledge, a photograph of him was never published during the course of his life. I believe that the portrait photo of him appearing in conjunction with this article is the first one to be published. Thus the innumerable readers of Calvert's writings are now provided with a visual impression of how he looked in recent years. The weight lifting movement was most fortunate to have a man of Alan Calvert's caliber to serve in its promotion and establishment.

Regarding the trickery so often employed by professional strongmen in their exhibitions as a menace to the welfare of the weight lifting movement, Calvert decided to write a book exposing fraudulent feats of strength. Chiefly to achieve this objective he issued in 1911 his first book, "Truth About Weight Lifting". Not only did this book expose fakes of the nature but it also discussed the merits of genuine lifts and provided instructions as to the proper and most successful manner of executing these various lifts.

Alan Calvert owned and operated the Milo Bar Bell Company and Strength magazine until 1919 when he sold his interest in these enterprises. During the First World War he devoted much time to the development of two mechanical devices. One was a weapon. In 1921 he again resumed his association with the operation of his former projects. This association was of a comparatively brief period for several years later he permanently severed his connections with this organization. His greatest contribution during this period was the writing of Super-Strength. This inspiring and instructive book was published in 1924. It served to develop a fuller appreciation of the potentialities of progressive weight lifting as a body building and strength developing medium.

During the years that Alan Calvert was actively engaged in promoting progressive weight lifting he devoted considerable effort to promoting genuine strongmen possessing outstanding ability. Under his sponsorship a number of remarkable strongmen athletes were brought into the foreground as a result of the publicity he granted them in Strength. Most of this favorable publicity was provided by Calvert in his writings. Some of the heroes of the strength world whose fame as strongmen can to a considerable degree be attributed to the publicity Calvert accorded them are Anton Matysek, Adolph and Joe Nordquest, Henry Steinborn, Otto Arco, Siegmund Klein, and Clevio Massimo.

Not only did Calvert provide such strongmen with extensive publicity but he sponsored a number of weight lifting exhibitions. His prime objective in promoting these weight lifting demonstrations was to encourage the establishment of new records and to stimulate amateur lifters in this part of the world to endeavor to surpass the records held at that time chiefly by European lifters. From the beginning of his association with weight lifting Calvert was firmly convinced that our native strongmen could compete on an equal basis with those from other sections of the world if they had correct training and sufficient specialization to utilize their lifting power to proper advantage. Through the encouragement he provided in Strength numerous outstanding lifters on this continent came into the foreground on the merits of their lifts. New records were created by some of these athletes.

It is paradoxical that Alan Calvert, who was responsible for the establishment of the weight lifting movement on a secure foundation, upon severing his association with the activities he sponsored, began to issue criticism of these very same activities. Such criticism was quite a shock and rather puzzling. Yet it can be explained and understood by those that appreciate Calvert's sincerity. During the years that he served in promoting the weight lifting movement, the very fact that he began to sponsor its growth from an infantile stage meant that the majority of the lifters at this time were new-comers. Like those attracted to other movements during the formative period many of these newcomers had such unbounded enthusiasm that it was difficult to restrain them to adhering to a rational application of weight lifting. In fact some could not be controlled and became extremists.

Such individuals greatly concerned and discouraged Calvert for he felt that he was responsible for the origin of their active participation in this then relatively new form of training. In the last years of Calvert's association with the weight lifting movement he became less and less interested in heavy weight lifting. When his enthusiasm continued to wane he decided that it was not fair to the interests of the movement to remain as an active leader when his views on physical training had become altered to a considerable degree.

So he resigned and divorced himself from the movement he had promoted. Alan Calvert's deviation from the weight lifting movement was chiefly influenced by Edwin Checkley's teachings. Checkley advocated what he regarded as a natural method of physical training and wrote a book bearing this same title. This book was widely circulated and received favorable comments from various orthodox sources. The demonstrators Calvert witnessed while attending Checkley's lectures exerted a transforming influence. Checkley possessed a very impressive physique and was unusually strong. The exercise system he taught employed no apparatus. Consisted of freehand movement of a calisthenic nature. He stressed the importance of proper posture and costal breathing.

It is not uncommon that physical culturists become more health conscious and less interested in physical development and strength during middle age. It was during this period in life that the teachings of Checkley aroused such enthusiasm in Calvert that his once ardent interest in weight lifting was gradually eliminated. Upon terminating his active association with weight lifting Calvert began to sponsor the teachings of Checkley. He prepared a number of pamphlets advocating the Checkley method and also explaining some of the reasons responsible for transferring his interest to this different type of physiucal training. In promoting the Checkley method Calvert issued a series of booklets, Body-Molding, which were chiefly devoted to encouraging the application of this system, especially by those seeking strength and muscular development of an extra-ordinary degree. Besides the booklets and pamphlets Calvert had the Checkley book, A Natural Method of Physical Training re-published. This edition was enlarged.

It is the privilege of anyone acquainted with the Checkley method to evaluate its merits less highly than Calvert did. Anyone is also free to disagree with the statements of criticsim pertaining to the weight lifting movement which Calvert issued in later years. But despite any such disagreements the fact must not be over-looked that Calvert's views at all times were sincerely expressed and governed by what he had regarded as serving the best interests of mankind.

Aside from Calvert's active association with weight lifting and the Checkley method, his hobby was tennis. He started to indulge in this sport at the age of 45. He became so ardently interested in this game that he built a tennis court near his residence. There he played regularly for a number of years.

He encouraged his neighbors to participate by making his court available to them. He derived immense enjoyment watching expert players in action. He attended a great many tennis tournaments.

My first direct contact with Alan Calvert took place more than ten years ago through the medium of correspondence. Years before, when I first took an active interest in physical culture while in my early teens, I was influenced and inspired by his writings in some back issues of Strength that I obtained at that time. I continued to correspond with Mr. Calvert at spasmodic intervals up until shortly before he died. In fact the last letter I received was written just ten days before he died. His letters were interesting and written in a frank manner.

Several years ago I had my first meeting with Alan Calvert. It was n the nature of a surprise visit for he paid me an unexpected call at my former health studio in the Hotel New Yorker in New York City. In appearance he looked like a college professor. Although dignified I found him affable. He still retained an active interest in many of his former associates in the weight lifting field, such as Henry Steinborn and Siegmund Klein. In fact whenever he made one of his infrequent visits to New York City he always made a call at Klein's gym to have a chat with Klein. My second and last meeting with Alan Calvert took place at Klein's gym. The conversation that afternoon was devoted almost exclusively to a discussion of old time strongmen athletes.

Alan Calvert's death, following a brief illness, occurred on June 24th of this year. He was in his sixty-ninth year at the time of his passing. He is survived by his wife, one son, Alan Brack Calvert, and two daughters, Miss Marion Calvert and Mrs. Howard E. Wiig.

Every field of human endeavor has its pioneers and leaders. Two of the most honored figures in the history of physical education are Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, founder of the Turnvereins, and Peter Henry Ling, founder of the Swedish system of gymnastics. Alan Calvert, on the basis of his contributions to the advancement of physical education, will also be accorded enduring fame as a pioneer and leader.

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