Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory
The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab is a toy lab set that was produced by Alfred Carlton Gilbert, who was an American athlete, magician, toy-maker, business man, and inventor of the well-known Erector Set. The Atomic Energy Lab was released by the A. C. Gilbert Company in 1950. The kit's intention was to allow children to create and watch nuclear and chemical reactions using radioactive material.
Background and development
Gilbert believed that toys were the foundation in building a "solid American character", and many of his toys had some type of educational significance to them. Gilbert was even dubbed "the man who saved Christmas" during World War I when he convinced the US Council of National Defense not to ban toy purchases during Christmas time.
The Atomic Energy Lab was just one of a dozen chemical reactions lab kits on the market at the time. Gilbert’s toys often included instructions on how the child could use the set to put on his own "magic show". For parents, he pushed the idea that the sets' use of chemical reactions directed their children toward a potential career in science and engineering.
In 1954, Gilbert wrote in his autobiography, The Man Who Lives in Paradise, that the Atomic Energy Laboratory was "the most spectacular of [their] new educational toys". Gilbert wrote that the Government encouraged the set's development because it believed the lab would aid public understanding of atomic energy and emphasize its constructive aspects. Gilbert also defended his Atomic Energy Laboratory, stating it was safe, accurate, and that some of the country's best nuclear physicists had worked on the project.:333-334
The lab contained a cloud chamber allowing the viewer to watch alpha particles traveling at 12,000 miles per second (19,000,000 m/s), a spinthariscope showing the results of radioactive disintegration on a fluorescent screen, and an electroscope measuring the radioactivity of different substances in the set.
In 2006, Radar Magazine called the lab set one of "the 10 most dangerous toys of all time, ... exclud[ing] BB guns, slingshots, throwing stars, and anything else actually intended to inflict harm", because of the radioactive material it included (it was number 2 on the list; number 1 was lawn darts). Gilbert's promotions claimed that none of the materials could prove dangerous.:333-334 The instructions encouraged laboratory cleanliness by cautioning users not to break the seals on three of the ore sample jars, for "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", thus impairing the results of experiments by distorting the performance of the Geiger counter.
- Battery-powered Geiger–Müller counter
- Wilson cloud chamber with short-lived alpha source (Po-210) in the form of a wire
- Four glass jars containing natural uranium-bearing (U-238) ore samples (autunite, torbernite, uraninite, and carnotite from the "Colorado plateau region")
- Low-level radiation sources:
- "Nuclear spheres" for making a model of an alpha particle
- Gilbert Atomic Energy Manual — a 60-page instruction book written by Dr. Ralph E. Lapp
- Learn How Dagwood Split the Atom — comic book introduction to radioactivity, written with the help of General Leslie Groves
- Prospecting for Uranium — a book
- Three C batteries
- 1951 Gilbert Toys catalog
A product catalog described the set as follows: "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! Assembly kit (Chamber can be put together in a few minutes) includes Dri-Electric Power Pack, Deionizer, Compression Bulb, Glass Viewing Chamber, Tubings, Power Leads, Stand, and Legs."
Unlike other A.C. Gilbert Company chemistry sets, the Atomic Energy Lab was never popular and was soon taken off the shelves. Fewer than 5000 kits were sold, and the product was only offered in 1950 and 1951. Gilbert believed the Atomic Energy Lab was commercially unsuccessful because the lab was more appropriate for those who had some educational background rather than the younger crowd that the A.C. Gilbert Company aimed for.:334 Columbia University purchased five of these sets for their physics lab.:333-334
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- Watson, Bruce (2002). The man who changed how boys and toys were made. New York.: Viking. pp. 179–181. ISBN 978-0670031344.
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