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A low quality toy spinthariscope taken from a 1950s Chemcraft brand "Atomic energy" chemistry experimentation set
A spinthariscope crafted by Robert Drosten in Belgium in 1905 and used in the University of Mons Faculty of Engineering ("Polytech Mons") at the beginning of the 20th century.

A spinthariscope is a device for observing individual nuclear disintegrations caused by the interaction of ionizing radiation with a phosphor (see radioluminescence) or scintillator.


The spinthariscope was invented by William Crookes in 1903.[1][2] 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.[3] 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".

Crookes debuted the spinthariscope at a meeting of the Royal Society, London on 15 May 1903.[4]

Toy spinthariscopes[edit]

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.[5] 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.[6][7][8] 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[edit]

  • 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..


  1. ^ Crookes, W. Certain Properties of the Emanations of Radium. Chemical News; Vol. 87:241; 1903.
  2. ^ Frame, Paul W. "The Crookes Spinthariscope". Oak Ridge Associated Universities. Retrieved 2 May 2013.
  3. ^ Alfred Romer (1960). The Restless Atom: The Awakening of Nuclear Physics. Anchor Books. Retrieved 2 May 2013.
  4. ^ Santos, Lucy Jane (2020). Half Lives The Unlikely History of Radium. London: Icon Books Ltd. ISBN 1-78578-608-3. OCLC 1158229829.
  5. ^ Bonnier Corporation (June 2007). "Popular Science". The Popular Science Monthly. Bonnier Corporation: 86–. ISSN 0161-7370. Retrieved 2 May 2013.
  6. ^ Reif, Rita. ARTS/ARTIFACTS; Trivia Long Ago, Serious Treasures Now. The New York Times. 11 June 1995.
  7. ^ Miklós, Vincze (15 January 2014). "The Terrifying Age of Radioactive Toys for Kids" – via Gizmodo.
  8. ^ "Lone Ranger Atom Bomb Ring Spinthariscope (1947 - early 1950s)". 5 October 2011 – via Oak Ridge Associated Universities.

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