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Atomic Energy Lab

The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab was a toy lab set produced by Alfred Carlton Gilbert, an American athlete, magician, toymaker, businessman and inventor of the well-known Erector Set.

The Atomic Energy Lab was released by the AC Gilbert Company in 1950 and was intended to allow children to create and watch nuclear and chemical reactions – using radioactive material.

Gilbert claimed his Atomic Energy Laboratory was safe and that some of the country’s best nuclear physicists had worked on the project, adding that “all radioactive materials included with the Atomic Energy Lab have been certified as completely safe by Oak-Ridge Laboratories, part of the Atomic Energy Commission.”

The lab contained a “cloud chamber” allowing the viewer to watch alpha particles travelling 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.

The complete contents of the kit included:

  • Battery-powered Geiger–Müller counter
  • Electroscope
  • Spinthariscope
  • 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:
    • beta-alpha (Pb-210)
    • pure beta (possibly Ru-106)
    • gamma (Zn-65)
  • “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 (director of the Manhattan Project) and John R. Dunning (a physicist who verified fission of the uranium atom)
  • Prospecting for Uranium — a 1949 book published jointly by the Atomic Energy Commission and the United States Geological Survey
  • Three “C” cell batteries
  • 1951 Gilbert Toys catalogue

Among other activities, the kit suggested “playing hide and seek with the gamma-ray source”, challenging players to use the Geiger counter to locate a radioactive sample hidden in a room!

The Atomic Energy Lab was just one of a dozen chemical reactions lab kits on the market at the time and fewer than 5000 kits were sold.

The product was only offered in 1950 and 1951 and ultimately failed to sell because of its high price – it originally sold for $49.50 (equivalent to $530 in 2020) – rather than due to any safety concerns at the time.