World’s Most Dangerous Toys: Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab

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.

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 website which I thought was appropriate.

The gift that keeps on giving…

…you tumors…

…year after year!

– Coyote

22 thoughts on “World’s Most Dangerous Toys: Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab”

  1. This is just fascinating!

    Oh the link to the comic isn’t working. I would really like to have a gander at it.

  2. I just heard about this one over the radio and had to look it up. I wonder how the kids who had one are doing now.

  3. Natural Uranium is not actually all that radioactive. It mainly emits low energy alpha particles, which are stopped by human skin so are only dangerous if you inhale / swallow the source (or use it as a mistaken suppository).
    I used to work in a chemistry lab which handled natural uranium on a regular basis. I had some on my desk. When I say uranium, I mean the PURE METAL which had been refined from the ore, so it was much more radioactive than any ore-bearing rock.
    We of course had a Geiger-Muller tube counter (radiation detector) in the lab, which we pointed at every batch of uranium metal which we had delivered. It registered less radioactivity than the breeze blocks (what Americans call cinder blocks) that the lab wall was made from. Even in places where the walls had never been anywhere near any uranium – we did check the University all over once with the detector to make sure.

    In fact, only once did we try ordering natural uranium through official channels at BNFL (British Nuclear Fuels). They wanted £50 for the uranium itself (all 10 grams of it), plus £4000 for delivery in a secure, radiation shielded armoured truck with security escort. No thanks, we told them.
    So the next day, our Ph.D supervisor got his friend who works at BNFL to send him some uranium shavings from a spare (un-used) magnox reactor fuel rod, which he sent us in a jiffy bag (padded envelope to Americans) through registered post, which cost us all of £5.

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  16. I bought a uranium scope when I was about 11 or 12 years old and still have it in mint condition. While I am a 2 time cancer survivor I don’t attribute it to this toy. I only used it about 10 times and it still works. I plan on selling it.

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