The spinthariscope was invented by William Crookes in 1903. While observing the apparently uniform fluorescence on a zinc sulfide screen created by the radioactive emissions (mostly alpha radiation) of a sample of radium bromide, he spilled some of the sample, and, owing to its extreme rarity and cost, he was eager to find and recover it. Upon inspecting the zinc sulfide screen under a microscope, he noticed separate flashes of light created by individual alpha particle collisions with the screen. Crookes took his discovery a step further and invented a device specifically intended to view these scintillations. It consisted of a small screen coated with zinc sulfide affixed to the end of a tube, with a tiny amount of radium salt suspended a short distance from the screen and a lens on the other end of the tube for viewing the screen. Crookes named his device from Greek σπινθήρ (spinth´ēr) "spark".
Spinthariscopes were quickly replaced with more accurate and quantitative devices for measuring radiation in scientific experiments, but enjoyed a modest revival in the mid 20th century as children's educational toys. In 1947, Kix cereal offered a Lone Ranger atomic bomb ring in exchange for a box top and 0.15 USD that contained a small one. Spinthariscopes can still be bought today as instructional novelties, but they now use americium or thorium. One such device is sold by United Nuclear Scientific. Looking into a properly focused toy Spinthariscope, one can see many flashes of light spread randomly across the screen. Almost all are circular, with a very bright pinpoint centre surrounded by a dimmer circle of emission.
In popular culture
- A spinthariscope plays a pivotal role in the Rick Brant book The Blue Ghost Mystery.
- The spinthariscope is mentioned on page 1703 in Burnham's Celestial Handbook by Robert Burnham Jr..
- Crookes, W. Certain Properties of the Emanations of Radium. Chemical News; Vol. 87:241; 1903.
- Frame, Paul W. "The Crookes Spinthariscope". Oak Ridge Associated Universities. Retrieved 2 May 2013.
- Alfred Romer (1960). The Restless Atom: The Awakening of Nuclear Physics. Anchor Books. Retrieved 2 May 2013.
- Santos, Lucy Jane (2020). Half Lives The Unlikely History of Radium. London: Icon Books Ltd. ISBN 1-78578-608-3. OCLC 1158229829.
- Bonnier Corporation (June 2007). "Popular Science". The Popular Science Monthly. Bonnier Corporation: 86–. ISSN 0161-7370. Retrieved 2 May 2013.
- Reif, Rita. ARTS/ARTIFACTS; Trivia Long Ago, Serious Treasures Now. The New York Times. 11 June 1995.
- Miklós, Vincze (15 January 2014). "The Terrifying Age of Radioactive Toys for Kids" – via Gizmodo.
- "Lone Ranger Atom Bomb Ring Spinthariscope (1947 - early 1950s)". 5 October 2011 – via Oak Ridge Associated Universities.
- Modern spinthariscope
- Elements of electricity: a practical discussion of the fundamental laws and ... by Robert Andrews Millikan, Edwin Sherwood Bishop, American Technical Society