By now, we are fully aware of the risks and dangers that the radioactive Uranium cause to one’s body when exposed to it: anemia, kidney damage, and cancers of the boner, lung, or liver, among others. When the United States detonated its very first nuclear weapon during the Trinity atomic bomb test under the Manhattan Project, it appeared to them that everything in this world could have a boost of nuclear energy at that time. Engineers in different fields experimented on how the nuclear reactor could be applied to anything: there was the Ford Nucleon concept car, nuclear-powered aircraft, and even a nuclear tank. The craze over the Atom had taken over the country and the imagination of the country. They even made a nuclear science kit for kids that contained enriched Uranium.
The Man Who Saved Christmas
Alfred Carlton Gilbert was an American magician, inventor, businessman, and toymaker and was dubbed as “The man who saved Christmas” when he argued against the halt of toy production during World War I and successfully did so. He attended the Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, before transferring to Yale University. There, he financed his education by working as a magician until he earned his degree in sports medicine.
As an athlete, Gilbert had some accomplishments, like when he broke the world record for consecutive chin-ups in 1900, which was 39, as well as his distance record for running in 1902. He was also credited for the invention of the pole vault box and then setting two world records in the pole vault, one of which was at the Spring meeting of the Irish American Athletic Club.
Later on, he decided not to pursue a medical career and instead co-founded Mysto Manufacturing which manufactured magic sets in 1907. Soon, the company became the A.C. Gilbert Company, an American toy company that once was one of the largest in the world.
Among his famous set of toys was the Erector Set, a construction toy with metal components that the kids could assemble together as inspired by the steel construction girders used on the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad.
Uranium for Kids
In 1950, five years after the Trinity Test, Gilbert released his rather terrifying children’s toy laboratory that had real Uranium in it. The atomic laboratory kit was called the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory. He said he had the same purpose when he released his Erector Set, which was to teach children practical skills at an early age and inspire them into a science career. Probably to possibly traumatize them at a young age about the horrors of lab accidents too?
The toy set came with four different types of Uranium ore: a beta-alpha source (Pb-210), a pure beta source (Ru-106), and a gamma source (Zn-65). There was also a spinthariscope, a cloud chamber with its own short-lived alpha source (Po-210), an electroscope, a Geiger counter, a manual, the Dagwood Splits the Atom comic book, and a government manual “Prospecting for Uranium.”
The kit was deemed safe at that time, with Gilbert promising that “all radioactive materials included with the Atomic Energy Lab have been certified as completely safe by Oak-Ridge Laboratories, part of the Atomic Energy Commission.” Still, it came with a warning against opening some of the jars with uranium ore, but because “they tend to flake and crumble and you would run the risk of having radioactive ore spread out in your laboratory. This will raise the level of the background count,” instead of because it could give you cancer or something similar.
The product catalog described,
Produces awe-inspiring sights! Enables you to actually SEE the paths of electrons and alpha particles traveling at speeds of more than 10,000 miles per SECOND! Electrons racing at fantastic velocities produce delicate, intricate paths of electrical condensation – beautiful to watch. Viewing Cloud Chamber action is closest man has come to watching the Atom!
Decay of Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab
Aside from the unrecognized danger that the kit posed to children, another main issue that Gilbert’s energy lab encountered was the 60-page manual written by Dr. Ralph Lapp, the very same physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, was too complex for a child to understand without prior knowledge. Hence, it was hard for them to enjoy the toy set fully.
The second problem was its price. The kit was almost 50 USD when it was released in 1950, which was about around $500 in today’s value. Because of this, only 5,000 of the Atomic Energy Laboratory were sold from 1950 to 1951.
Because so few were made they turned out to be very valuable collectibles. They sell at auction houses in the range of $5,000 dollars. Just bring along a lead-lined shopping bag to take it home in.