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1951-1962 Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab (click on image to enlarge)
Gilbert’s U-238 Atomic Energy Lab was the most elaborate Atomic Energy educational set ever produced. Before Gilbert introduced his own Atomic Energy Lab in 1951, the American Basic Science Club produced their Atomic Energy Lab kit which came with real samples of uranium (which is radioactive) and radium (which is a million times more radioactive than uranium).
Gilbert’s Atomic Energy Lab came with four types of uranium ore, a beta-alpha source (Pb-210), a pure beta source (Ru-106), a gamma source (Zn-65?), a spinthariscope, a cloud chamber with its own short-lived alpha source (Po-210), an electroscope, a geiger counter, a manual, a comic book (Learn How Dagwood Splits the Atom) and a government manual “Prospecting for Uranium.” Using real radioactive materials, one could witness mist trails created by particles of ionizing radiation.
A product catalogue at the time describes the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab 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 the closest man has come to watching the Atom! The 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.”
The Atomic Energy Lab was only around for one year to 1952. In addition, it was a relatively high price for the time ($50.00). This was the reason given for its short lifespan as well as the sophistication of the lab. However even at $50.00, the company lost money on every one sold.
The excerpt below is from A.C. Gilbert’s autobiography: “The Man Who Lives In Paradise” Rinehard & Company 1954.
“The most spectacular of our new educational toys was the Gilbert Atomic Energy Laboratory. This was a top job, the result of much experimentation and hard work. We were unofficially encouraged by the government, who thought that our set would aid in public understanding of atomic energy and stress its constructive side. We had the great help of some of the country’s best nuclear physicists and worked closely with M.I.T. in it’s development.
There was nothing phony about our Atomic Energy laboratory. It was genuine, and it was also safe. We used radioactive materials in the set, but none that might conceivably prove dangerous. There was a Geiger-Mueller Counter. It was accurate; a carefully designed and manufactured instrument that could actually be used in prospecting for radioactive materials. The Atomic Energy lab also contained a cloud chamber in which the paths of alpha particles traveling at 12,000 miles a second could be seen; a spinthariscope showing the results of radioactive disintegration on a fluorescent screen; an electroscope that measured the radioactivity of different substances.
It caused quite a sensation at the Toy Fair and received a great deal of publicity. But there were difficulties. It had to be priced very high–$50.00–and even at that price we managed to lose a little money on every one sold. The Atomic Energy Lab was also the most thoroughly scientific toy we had ever produced, and only boys with a great deal of education could understand it. It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance, and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab. So we had to drop this wonderful new addition to our line of educational toys–and toy has never seemed to me to be the right word to apply to such things. We adapted some of its features so that they could be added to our largest chemistry set–using the spinthariscope, some radioactive ore, and the atomic energy manual.”
Parents today wouldn’t consider letting their children play with radioactive materials, but this science kit has become a much-sought-after collector’s item. Complete sets can sell for more than 100 times the kit’s initial cost.