Time to Revive the Nuclear Energy Experiment Set?

October 29th, 2011


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:

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.

From Liveleak:

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.

From Cracked

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.

Things to include:

  1. A Geiger counter - this is undoubtedly the most important part of the lab, but also one of the most problematic.  The cost could easily drive the price of the set way too high if a high quality Geiger counter is used. Detecting alpha particles would be great as a way of teaching of the different types of radiation but most inexpensive Geiger-Muller tubes can only detect gamma and high energy beta. Detecting alpha particles requires a very thin window, usually made of mica. That tends to drive the price up, so alpha detection may need to be omitted. Ideally the Geiger counter should connect to a computer to expand the types of experiments possible and allow data logging. This may drive the price up too high, however.
  2. A set of shielding materials – One of the most fundamental lessons is understanding the nature of shielding, so a series of materials would be provided.  These would include Mylar, thin plastic, thicker plastic, metal sheets and lead foil, possibly coated in plastic to relieve fears of lead poisoning.
  3. A spinthescope or scintillation screen material – This would provide one alternative for detecting alpha particles that the geiger counter can’t.  It also is a fun and interesting experiment to view the radiation-created flashes of light in a darkened room.
  4. A cloud chamber - An absolute must for any basic nuclear energy lab kit.   Simple cloud chamber kits are already available
  5. An electroscope – To demonstrate the ionizing effects of radiation and the earliest types of detectors
  6. High power rare earth magnets - to demonstrate that particle radiation can be effected by magnetic fields.
  7. A guide to identifying radioactive minerals – basically a book with types of uranium and thorium ore shown with their geographic distribution and general characteristics shown.
  8. An experiment guidebook – A list of the different experiments possible

Included radioactive sources:

  1. A sample or multiple samples of uranium ore
  2. Uranium marbles - They’re cheap and easy enough to obtain and provide a safe base level for some experiments
  3. License Exempt Sealed Sources – The company Spectrum Techniques manufactures samples of various radioactive substances, including thalium-204, strontium-90, cesium-137, lead-210 and polonium-210 that are available in either needle sources (used primarily for cloud chambers) or sealed in plastic discs.  The sources are approved for sale and possession without a license because the actual amount of material is tiny.  They run from about fifty to eighty US dollars each.  Since Po-210 has a very short half-life, including it with a cloud chamber or other product presents a problem, so Spectrum Techniques offers a coupon that can be included with such products and then mailed in to receive the sample once the consumer gets the product.

Possible Experiments:

  1. Measuring radiation – Basic measurements with the Geiger counter, measuring various sources.
  2. Measuring radiation in your environment – Use the Geiger counter to measure the baseline background in various areas and record how it changes by time of day.  Look for radioactive items.  What common items emit radiation and how much?  Go on a hunt in an antique store, your kitchen or somewhere else and see what you can find.
  3. Prospecting - Using the Geiger counter and the guide to minerals, what types of ore can you find?
  4. Shielding Experiment – Observe how various types of radiation can be shielded and attenuated.  Use the shielding to help determine the type of radiation being measured.
  5. Cloud Chamber Experiments – Observe particle paths in the cloud chamber using various sources.  Also see how magnets can alter the paths of particles.
  6. Spinthescope Experiments – Observe alpha radiation with the spinthescope and also use it to help determine what kind of radiation is being measured.
  7. Find a hidden source – Have a friend hide one of the radioactive sources in a room and use the Geiger counter to find it.

Of course these experiments would have more descriptions and some of them might even be designed to dispel myths, for example, those who live near a nuclear power plant would be encouraged to measure radiation at various distances and plot the levels.  Also, cell phones could be on the list of items to examine to show they do not give off ionizing radiation.


I’d like to keep the kit affordable, ideally, about 300 US dollars as the top end of what it should cost, but realistically, it may turn out to be more.  I’d consider 500 USD to be the absolute maximum that could be charged without making the set far too expensive for most people to afford.   I’m more than happy to put such a kit together at almost no profit.  To be perfectly fair, I think it’s reasonable that I would make a small amount of money (perhaps $25 or so) over the cost of the materials, because I’m going to incur other miscellaneous expenses like printer toner, paper, phone calls and my time spent putting such a kit together.  However, my primary goal is not to make money off of this so much as to produce an educational experiment kit. Most of the items included would not cost much.

The marbles, ore and shielding material could be acquired for under $50 and the cloud chamber for not much more.  United Nuclear sells a spinthariscope for $35.  It would probably be possible to get it a bit cheaper if such an item was purchased in bulk. Other expenses would include the packaging and instructions.  The cost before the sealed sources and Geiger counter is therefore going to be about $100.

The sealed sources are going to be the first big expense.  complete set that includes a beta emitter, a gamma emitter and an alpha emitter is going to cost about $150.  I’m a little split on whether to include Po-210.  On one hand it’s the only exclusive alpha emitter that could be included, but on the other, it’s rather short lived.  The alternative would be to include lead-210 in equilibrium with polonium-210, which would produce both beta and alpha particles.  Adding another gamma emitter to demonstrate the differences in energy levels would be great too, but for a real complete set of radioisotopes, it starts to look more like $175-$200.  It’s possible it could be less if they are bought in bulk. Therefore, the kit is already reaching the $300 mark before the most important component, the Geiger counter is added.

Choosing exactly what Geiger counter to include will be a challenge.  I can definitely acquire Geiger counters that fit all the necessary criteria and are inexpensive, but generally those are units I’d get surplus or second hand, and thus are each different.  That won’t work here.  What is needed is a standard Geiger counter that will be the same for each Set.

The Russian Company Quartex makes a series of Geiger-Muller detectors that are fairly cheap and very simple to use.  Unfortunately, these units have some major drawbacks.  For one thing, they only measure gamma radiation and hard beta radiation.  That might be acceptable if not for the fact that they also only give readings in dose equivalent, not in counts per minute.  Since the point of the set is understanding how radiation is detected and measured, the more basic unit of CPM is preferable.

Still, it is a complete radiation detector in a nice, small and simple handheld unit.   It may be worth talking to the company to find out if it would be possible to make the one small modification of adding a counts per minute or counts per second reading.

Another option would be to build a GM detector-counter.  The Electronics Goldmine has a Geiger-Muller driver kit, which includes the high voltage supply and and detection circuitry for $30.  That price would be tough to beat by acquiring the components individually, and it has the big advantage of having a per-fabricated circuit board, which would be expensive to have manufactured and time consuming to fabricate individually.  The unit still needs an enclosure, battery holder and switch, but that should be obtainable for about ten US dollars.  The kit does not include a meter movement, so that will need to be added too.  An analog meter would need to have some kind of range switch (to allow for ranges such as 0-100 cpm, 0-1000 etc), which would complicate construction a bit.  There is a digital meter adapter available for about $60, which would work nicely and also adds the ability to hook the unit up to a PC.  The most expensive part of the counter will be the tube.  A suitable, although very small tube could be bought for about $60 each.  This tube would be sensitive to alpha, but given the small size, it would not work very well for general survey work.  All in all, the cost of this geiger counter, including shipping and expenses like solder and wire looks to be about $175, resulting in a total cost of the set of close to $500.

Another option would be to use the venerable CDV-700 as the basis for the detector.  The CDV-700 is a Geiger counter manufactured for the US government during the Cold War.  It was standard issue for fallout shelters. Tens of thousands were manufactured.  Production ended in the 1970′s and since then, many have been sold off as surplus.  It’s about the cheapest Geiger counter that can be purchased, often available for about $50 from a surplus dealer and sometimes less if bought in bulk.  It comes with a small check-source mounted on the side.  This is often depleted uranium but occasionally may be a sealed radium source.  It would definitely be a nice bonus to have an extra source included.

Unfortunately, the CDV-700 has a number of major drawbacks.  For one thing, it will be important to find the right version of the unit.  It was produced by a number of manufacturers and went through a few design changes over the course of its production.  Some early models use high voltage batteries, so these should be avoided as the batteries are no longer widely available.  Another problem is that many CDV-700′s sold surplus do not work, as they have spent years in storage in damp bomb shelters and were not maintained.  Repair is usually fairly easy, as long as they are in good physical shape and not rusted out or otherwise physically damaged.

Assuming the counter is in good condition, it will still need a few modifications.  For one, the headphone connector is a rather obscure fitting known as a “Single button microphone plug.”  These are not found on many devices anymore and would only allow the original headphones to be used.  Replacing it with a more modern 1/8 or 1/4 inch plug will both allow for modern headphones to be used and allow the unit to be easily hooked up to the sound card on a computer so that it can be calibrated and data logged using available Geiger counter software.  It would also be worthwhile to replace some of the more failure-prone electronics with modern versions that are also more efficient and produce less RF noise.  Finally, a reasonably easy addition would be to add a small amplified speaker so that headphones would not be required for listening.  A speaker with a switch or knob would require drilling in the case, but would not be terribly expensive.   Since the meter would need to be taken apart anyway, it would be worthwhile to paint it to make it look more like a scientific instrument and less like a piece of emergency equipment. All in all, about fifty dollars invested in the internals would produce a very reasonable meter.

That does still leave one problem, however: the probe.  The CDV-700 comes with a Geiger-Muller tube that was originally intended for use after a nuclear war.  It only detects gamma radiation and relatively high energy beta particles.  Even as a gamma detector, it’s not terribly sensitive and thus leaves some to be desired for surveying relatively low background levels.  The probe on the CDV-700 is permanently attached to the unit, but that is relatively easily solved by disconnecting it and adding a BNC connector to the meter and to the end of the probe attachment, thus allowing the original probe or another probe to be used.

The next problem is finding a suitable alpha-sensitive probe to include.  This site has a surplus alpha-sensitive end window tube for only 37.95 plus shipping.  It would be fairly easy to make a probe out of it by using a small piece of PVC pipe with one end open to hold the probe and a BNC connector and cable to connect it to the modified CDV-700.  The only question is whether the tube is available in large enough quantity to make a reasonable number of lab sets.  If not, there may be other probes that can be acquired as surplus.

This approach seems to end up being the most favorable, as it would provide two probes for different types of use and would also give the option to add more probes in the future, possibly even including scintillation probes or other types of detectors.

In the end, the CDV-700 option with modifications and an additional probe seems to be the best one.

So while the $300 price tag seems unrealistic, it appears that a $500 price should be possible for a very well equipped set with an excellent Geiger counter, expandability, a good assortment of sources and a wide range of possible experiments.

Other considerations:

Many of the readers of this blog are from outside the United States.  Unfortunately that could present some problems for shipping radioactive sources, even those small enough not to require a license.  Simply being of very low quantity is not enough to make the sources legal – they generally must also be inspected and approved by the local regulatory body for radioactive substances, although this varies from country to country.  I’m told that shipping to Canada should be just fine and some countries in Europe are probably okay, although each would have to be individually verified.

Other countries may allow the sources but have restrictions on just who can import and sell them.  Spectrum Techniques has a worldwide network of affiliates and distributors.  In some cases, it may be necessary to sell the set without the actual sources and instead have them shipped separately from a domestic distributor in the country of the purchaser.

Interested? It’s expensive, admittedly. Perhaps I could come up with a partial lab or one that could be bought in pieces. I’m still looking into the possibilities. I’m not going to say that I’m definitely going to go for it, but I might. If I get enough interest I may go for it and start putting some of these lab sets together.

This entry was posted on Saturday, October 29th, 2011 at 5:33 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Culture, Education, Good Science, History, media, Nuclear. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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57 Responses to “Time to Revive the Nuclear Energy Experiment Set?”

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  1. 51
    Anon Says:

    The fact that you pretty much can’t seem to actually buy a chemistry set these days (the slime and perfume kits they try and sell as chemistry sets don’t count) means that the electronics kit is probably the only option.

    Quote Comment
  2. 52
    George Carty Says:

            drbuzz0 said:

    It turns out that some smoke detectors manufactured in Russia and Eastern Europe used plutonium sources, similar to americium sources used in most areas.

    Interesting — which isotope did they use?

    Quote Comment
  3. 53
    AugieDoggie Says:

    When I was 13 I got one of those real chemistry sets for xmas…after I was done doing all the proposed tests in the instruction booklet, I got bored & just started mixing anything up to see what kind of reactions & smells I could get bubbling out of the test tubes. At some point I got some yellow sulfuric stuff growing beyond my ability to contain it & I ruined the top of our billiards table. The point I’m trying to make is that sometimes 13 year olds do stupid things, not all of them are mature enough to appreciate something like a chemistry kit or radioactivity detecting kit…at least not without adult supervision. Toys these days have to be 100% non-toxic in the assumption that an adult will not be with the child while playing with it, which is why they’re all so lame.

    Quote Comment
  4. 54
    BMS Says:

            AugieDoggie said:

    When I was 13 I got one of those real chemistry sets for xmas…after I was done doing all the proposed tests in the instruction booklet, I got bored & just started mixing anything up to see what kind of reactions & smells I could get bubbling out of the test tubes. At some point I got some yellow sulfuric stuff growing beyond my ability to contain it & I ruined the top of our billiards table.

    Ah … but did you learn anything from that?

    Quote Comment
  5. 55
    SA Kiteman Says:

    KickStart your kit. I’ll pledge!

    Quote Comment
  6. 56
    Marc Altés Says:

    I find that you have good reason, I think these games should still be in the market.
    Most of the people who have the radio-phobia are exaggerated.
    These last games have no chance and are a great source of knowledge.
    Glad to know.
    Sincerely Marc from Catalonia.

    Quote Comment
  7. 57
    jerz.setonhill.edu Says:

    Chicken salad is a staple food that never goes out of style.
    Basically the salads are healthy with low calories most
    commonly found on every dining table in US. You can place a
    lettuce leaf on a plate and put a scoop of chicken salad in the
    middle and serve with reduced calorie crackers.

    Quote Comment

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