Monday, July 3, 2023

The "Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab Kit," the Most Dangerous Toy in the World.

Marshall Field & Co. State Street Store sold the U-238, Christmas 1950, as informed by a former Toy Dept. employee.
The U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory kit for children was produced by Alfred Carlton Gilbert and is still listed as 'the most dangerous toy in the world.' It included three sources of radiation and four uranium ores that are also radioactive. The kit, which first went on sale in 1950, came with an instruction booklet, a pamphlet on how to prospect Uranium, and various tools that enabled children to dive deep into the world of atomic chemistry. 

A little history about Alfred Gilbert. First known as the Mysto Manufacturing Company, the company was founded in 1909 in Westville, Connecticut, by Alfred Carlton Gilbert, a magician, and his friend John Petrie to supply magic shows. 

Gilbert invented the Erector construction toy concept, first released by Mysto Manufacturing Company as the Mysto Erector Structural Steel Builder in 1911.
In 1916, the company's name was changed to "A.C. Gilbert Company." 

Beginning in 1922, Gilbert made chemistry sets in various sizes and similar sets for other sciences, adding investigations into radioactivity in the 1950s with a kit featuring a Geiger counter and radioactive samples. 

Gilbert began making microscope kits in 1934. In 1938, Gilbert purchased American Flyer, a struggling manufacturer of toy trains, and Gilbert re-designed the entire product line, producing 1:64 scale trains running on an 'S' gauge track. At the same time, Gilbert introduced a line of 'HO' scale trains, primarily marketed under the brand name Gilbert HO.

After WWI, Gilbert released the Atomic Energy Lab in 1950. The kit allowed children to create and watch nuclear and chemical reactions using radioactive material. A line of inexpensive reflector telescopes followed the Sputnik-inspired science craze in the late 1950s.

"Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab Kit."
The most dangerous toy in the world.

The set originally sold for $49.50 ($630 today) and contained the following:
  1. Battery-powered Geiger–Müller counter.
  2. Electroscope.
  3. Spinthariscope.
  4. Wilson Cloud Chamber.
  5. Four glass jars containing uranium-bearing ore samples (autunite, torbernite, uraninite, and carnotite from the "Colorado plateau region") served as low-level radiation sources of Alpha particles (Pb-210 and Po-210).
  6. Beta particles (Ru-106).
  7. Gamma rays (possibly Zn-65).
  8. "Nuclear spheres" are used to make a model of an alpha particle.
  9. Gilbert Atomic Energy Manual — a 60-page instruction book.
  10. Learn How Dagwood Split the Atom — comic book introduction to radioactivity.
  11. Prospecting for Uranium — a book.
  12. Three C batteries.
  13. 1951 Gilbert Toys catalog.

  Chicago Tribune, Wednesday, May 17, 1950
Atomic Kits for Kiddies, Latest in Toys.
New Haven, Conn., May 16 [Special] — Now it's a toy for the kiddies ─ atomic energy, that is.

A toy manufacturing company disclosed today the atomic energy commission has sold it a quantity of what the Commission said is harmless, altho radio-active isotopes, for inclusion in an atomic energy kit for budding physicists.

A spokesman for the company said it plans to retail the kit under the name of "U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory." The outfit will include, in addition to the isotope, a sample of uranium ore, a book of instruction, and working reproductions of such scientific devices as a Geiger counter, a spinthariscope, and a cloud chamber.

"This outfit is more for teenagers than for kiddies," the spokesman said. "We expect it to do a great deal to promote the understanding of atomic energy." The same company has manufactured chemistry sets.

A boy owner of an atomic energy laboratory will be able to hide his isotope under a rug and locate it by the Geiger counter, it was said. He can put the isotope in a dark room and, with the aid of a spinthariscope, watch the manifestation of atomic disintegration thru the appearance of sparks.

The spokesman said the AEC and postal authorities have given approval for the manufacturing and distribution of the kits. The company is the A.G. Gilbert Manufacturing Company.

The AEC said in Washington DC that the isotopes sold to the toy company are known as "Zinc 65" with a "half-life" of 250 days.

The meaning of the term half-life was not explained. The AEC said it understood the company proposes to make toys in which children can watch atomic disintegration.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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