Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab
In 1950, American inventor—and magician—Alfred Carlton Gilbert sought to bring the marvels of nuclear physics to the playtimes of children all across America.
Gilbert was no stranger to producing playsets for children, becoming most famous for producing the commercially successful Erector sets in the 1920s. While the popularity of the Erector brand would last to this day, Gilbert had much higher hopes for the sophistication of children’s playtime.
As America entered the age of the atom, it seemed as though there was no problem that wouldn’t be solved without the help of nuclear physics. While atomic gardening was marketed to housewives, the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab was meant for the kids.
The kit included a cloud chamber for viewing particle physics, a Geiger counter for monitoring radiation levels and measuring radioactive decay, as well as radioactive ore.
Despite containing radioactive uranium, he claimed the kit posed no danger to children. Then-popular comic character Dagwood even appeared in an included comic book explaining the very basics of atomic energy.
The kit really let anyone set up their own nuclear lab at home. The cloud chamber specifically allowed people to observe alpha particles moving 12,000 miles per second. To make things more fun, he suggested kids play a game of hide-and-seek with a gamma-ray source.
The kits cost a mere $50, which would be about $400 adjusted to today’s dollars. Despite this steep price for a children’s toy, Gilbert advertised that children could use it to prospect for uranium. At the time, the United States government was offering a $10,000 reward to anyone who identified new sources of fission material.
When the kits launched, children were generally overwhelmed by their complexity, and Gilbert later admitted that some of the kit’s features may have been a bit advanced for young children at home. As safety concerns mounted, the kits were quickly removed from store shelves, though an estimated 5,000 made it out into the world.
I still have a “mineral kit” that my parents bought me in the ’60’s. It has several mineral specimens (about nickel size) and includes a piece of “uranium ore”.
I had a copy of Electronic Experimenters Handbook from that period that showed how to make a small Xray machine by re-wiring a certain Vacuum tube.