Back When Children Played With Uranium

With the approach of Christmas, you might be wondering what to buy for the young budding scientist on your shopping list. An Albert Einstein bobble head? Monster scientist Lego kit? Periodic Table of the Elements with real elements included?

Not interested in those suggestions? Well, why don’t you get that aspiring atom-splitter something that will really set the little tike aglow? You can give a gift that will cause more buzz than a Geiger counter at a nuclear test site. Nothing could be better than a radioactive laboratory for children.

The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab

Before you scoff at the seemingly-preposterous notion of “children” and “radioactive” appearing in any sentence other than a news report of a tragedy, you will want to learn about the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab.

Created by U.S. toymaker Alfred Gilbert, the Atomic Energy Lab hit the stores in 1950. It was marketed as a fun and innovative way to educate children about the secrets of the atom. What better way to do that than to provide prepubescent crumb crunchers with radioactive material and let them experiment with nuclear fission in the comfort of their own homes?

In addition to several forms of uranium, the kit included a Geiger counter and cloud chamber. With these elements, children could, according to the instructions, create “awe-inspiring sights” and promised “electrons racing at fantastic velocities produce delicate, intricate paths of electrical condensation.” Among the activities suggested was a variation of hide-and-seek, where a child would hide with radioactive material, and see if a friend could find the hiding place by using a Geiger counter.

Cloud chamber from the Atomic Energy Lab

You may view the concept as horrifying, but we must remember that society used to have a decidedly-blasé attitude toward radioactive material in those days. This is evidenced in the case of the toothpaste that promised a bright smile through the use of radioactive thorium, or the miracle radium drug that supposedly cured everything until it caused the patient’s jaw to fall off.

Besides, it’s not as if children would do anything unsafe with radioactive material such as building a breeder reactor by collecting radioactive material from a bunch of smoke detectors. Nor could anyone imagine anything as outlandish as college students building an operational breeder reactor during a scavenger hunt.

The Atomic Energy Lab did take steps to make the radioactive material safe to handle. Granted, no one should be exposed unnecessarily to radiation, but the amounts in the kit were reasonably safe, as long as they were used as instructed. (And we all know that children always follow the directions on toys, don’t we?) The instructions warned that taking the uranium ore out of the protective jars could result in radioactive material being spread throughout the house. In all likelihood, kids were probably more fearful of incurring their mothers’ wrath from messing up the house than they were of permanently scrambling their DNA.

Perhaps the biggest saving grace about the kit was its cost. At $50 in 1950, that equates to about $500 today. The price limited the number that made it into the hands of the public. Even so, more than 5,000 Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Labs flew off the shelves and into the hands of delighted — and possibly mutated — children throughout the land.

If you happen to have one of these quirky pieces of history sitting around in your house and you’re not too busy getting medical treatment for the tail and third ear that oddly have sprouted on your body, you might consider putting it up for sale. Collectors (who most definitely are not terrorists looking for material to create a dirty bomb) pay as much as $2,000 for one of them.

If, by chance, you want to hold on to your Atomic Energy Lab, you can rest assured that we live in a much safer age today. We have safeguards in place, such as New Zealand’s law that limits each high school’s uranium inventory to one pound and imposes a $1 million fine for every nuclear explosion.

Anyway, it’s not as if anything bad has ever happened through the careless distribution of radioactive material. It would be downright silly to imagine something like — oh, just to pick a random and utterly hypothetical scenario — dangerous radioactive material getting stolen and accidentally spread throughout a whole community, resulting in radiation sickness and death for hundreds of people, simply because a guard took time off from work to take his family to see Herbie Goes Bananas.

No… There’s no way anything bad could ever come from letting kids play with fissionable material.

1 reply »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.