Between 1949 and 1951, the company Ac Gilbert produced and sold the “Atomic Energy Lab,” a kit of nuclear and radiation-related experiments intended for use by children in the same way that chemistry sets are used. The kit included a sample of uranium-238, a Geiger counter, cloud chamber, spinthariscope and some other items used for educational experiments with radiation. It also included at least three small radioactive sources. It was modestly successful, likely due to the rather steep price of the set – $50, which would be equivalent to about $460 today. (about 325 EUR, 285 GBP, 430 AUD)
The AC Gilbert set was certainly the most elaborate and complete atomic energy set sold, but it was not the only one. The American Basic Science Club produced a similar lab set around 1960, and Chemcraft produced a lab set in the late 1940′s to early 1950′s. In the 1950′s, some Chemcraft chemistry sets also included radioactive materials and experiments that could be done with radiation.
I have always thought that these sets were an incredibly good idea and a really excellent way to acquaint young people with the basics of radioactivity and, importantly, demonstrate that radiation is common and not something to be feared. These lab sets were extremely safe. The amount of radioactive materials present in the experimental sources was microscopic and not at all dangerous. The uranium ore or uranium compounds included are not a radiological hazard and are only a toxicity hazard if they are ground up and snorted or otherwise inhaled, and even then, are less toxic than an equivalent quantity of something like lead.
There’s really no better way to get a kid acquainted with science than to actually do some hands-on activities. They improve understanding and retention and allow them to participate directly in making exciting observations. Anyone lucky enough to have had one of these labs as a child probably grew up with a healthy understanding (and not fear) of radioactivity.
Sadly, the world has changed since the early 1950′s, and today most people seem to run around with rampant radiophobia. If something is “radioactive” (which nearly everything is) then it’s seen as being of the highest danger. Nothing is believed to be more environmentally destructive, more dangerous to health, more disastrous, more hazardous and more terrifying than radiation. The idea that at one time children were allowed to learn with materials that produce radiation significantly above background levels fills some with horror and others laugh at just how stupid everyone must have been fifty years ago.
Here’s some of the things that have been said about the AC Gilbert Atomic Lab:
From the Daily Grind:
Worldâ€™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 â€“ $400US dollars today). So if you were lucky enough to have well off parents back in the day you may well have been â€˜luckyâ€™ enough to get your hands on this radioactive fun set.
Very bad toys: Atomic Energy Lab usa ca. 1960
t’s unclear what effects the Uranium-bearing ores might have had on those few lucky children who received the set, but exposure to the same isotope
U-238 has been linked to Gulf War syndrome, cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma, among other serious ailments. Even more uncertain is the longterm impact of being raised by the kind of nerds who would give their kid an Atomic Energy Lab.
The 8 Most Wildly Irresponsible Vintage Toys
#1. Atomic Energy Lab
As a kid, did you ever swallow or at least put in your mouth a small piece of a toy or play set? Did you grow an extra arm because of it? No? Then you probably didn’t have the Atomic Energy Lab.
You see, there was a different approach to nuclear power in the ’50s and early ’60s — atomic energy was our friend and the way of the future, and it would never do anything to hurt us. However, it’s still hard to believe that anyone would entrust kids with radioactive material (even in small doses).
Yet, the Atomic Energy Lab kit produced by the American Basic Science Club came with real samples of uranium (which is radioactive) and radium (which is a million times more radioactive than uranium). Since the mere presence of radioactive material in a children’s product clearly wasn’t insane enough, some of the experiments detailed in the manual also required kids to handle blocks of dry ice. Dry ice, by the way, has a temperature of minus 109.3 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s recommended that it only be handled while wearing gloves (none were included).
Okay, they’ve got a point about the dry ice, although it’s reasonably safe to handle with basic precautions. Still, I’m downright offended by the way that people completely ignorant of what radiation is or the dangers can sit there and smugly dismiss the idea of a radiation experiment set as being insane. It’s often ranked the most dangerous toy of all time, but in fact, it’s not dangerous at all for any normal 12 year old to learn from a microscopic amount of a radioisotope or a little bit of uranium ore, which they may well have sitting in their backyard anyway.
I’ll go one further: Not only do I think this was a great idea and a very positive learning experience, I also think that there has never been a better time for something like a radiation and nuclear energy lab set! Having a set that had a good variety of experiments would be fairly expensive but not unaffordable. It would be targeted at ages 12 to adult and could also be something science departments at schools might be interested in.
I’m seriously considering doing it! I’ll take the flack for selling kids a horrible cancer-causing evil material if I have to, because somebody has got to do it, and if I get enough interest I may very well start putting some kits together.