World’s Most Dangerous Toys: Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab
If you thought choking hazards in toys were bad then spare a thought for American kids in the early 50′s.
Introducing the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory. This toy lab set was produced by Alfred Carlton Gilbert between 1950 and 1951 and sold for $49.50US (which is equivalent to about $380 – $400US dollars today). So if you were lucky enough to have well off parents back in the day you may well have been ‘lucky’ enough to get your hands on this radioactive fun set.
There was some incentive to fork out the $50 as the set also came with a book that explained to kids how to prospect for uranium with a $10,000 prize offered by the US Government to anyone who proved successful.
The kit contained a U-239 Geiger counter, electroscope, spinthariscope (a device for observing individual nuclear disintegrations), a Wilson cloud chamber, nuclear spheres, three batteries, a “Learn How Dagwood Split the Atom” comic book. It also contained three low-level radiation sources: Alpha particles (Pb-210 and Po-210), Beta particles (Ru-106), Gamma particles (possibly Zn-65) and four Uranium-bearing ore samples.
Due to its rarity the Atomic Energy Lab is now a highly sought after collector’s item and can fetch a price of up to 100 times it’s modern day equivalent retail price.The atomic theme and box art really reminds me of Fallout 3 but that’s just me, I think I play too many computer games!
The following is an excerpt from A.C Gilbert’s autobiography titled “The Man Who Lives in Paradise”:
“The most spectacular of our new educational toys was the Gilbert Atomic Energy Laboratory. This was a top job, the result of much experimentation and hard work. We were unofficially encouraged by the government, who thought that our set would aid in public understanding of atomic energy and stress its constructive side. We had the great help of some of the country’s best nuclear physicists and worked closely with M.I.T. in it’s development.
There was nothing phony about our Atomic Energy laboratory. It was genuine, and it was also safe. We used radioactive materials in the set, but none that might conceivably prove dangerous. There was a Geiger-Mueller Counter. It was accurate; a carefully designed and manufactured instrument that could actually be used in prospecting for radioactive materials. The Atomic Energy lab also contained a cloud chamber in which the paths of alpha particles traveling at 12,000 miles a second could be seen; a spinthariscope showing the results of radioactive disintegration on a fluorescent screen; an electroscope that measured the radioactivity of different substances.
It caused quite a sensation at the Toy Fair and received a great deal of publicity. But there were difficulties. It had to be priced very high–$50.00–and even at that price we managed to lose a little money on every one sold. The Atomic Energy Lab was also the most thoroughly scientific toy we had ever produced, and only boys with a great deal of education could understand it. It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance, and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab. So we had to drop this wonderful new addition to our line of educational toys–and toy has never seemed to me to be the right word to apply to such things. We adapted some of its features so that they could be added to our largest chemistry set–using the spinthariscope, some radioactive ore, and the atomic energy manual.”
The comic book that was included in the kit I have managed to source and convert into a PDF which you can download here. It is quite interesting!
I read a comment made by ‘Coyote’ on the blog.makezine.com website which I thought was appropriate.
Tags: 1950, Alfred Carlton Gilbert, alpha, Atomic Energy, beta, clia lab, electricity energy, electroscope, gamma, geiger counter, gilbert, nuclear, particles, Pb-210, Po-210, radiation, radioactive, Ru-106, spinthariscope, u-238, uranium, US Government, Zn-65The gift that keeps on giving…
…year after year!