Ireland’s Ulster Museum has a new star – the Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab, often dubbed “the most dangerous toy in the world”.
Why? Because it came with four types of uranium ore and three different radiation sources. And just for fun, a Geiger counter which could tell parents exactly how contaminated their child had become while playing with it.
It wasn’t cheap either, selling off the shelf in 1950 for $49.50, around the $500 mark in today’s money.
National Museums Northern Ireland’s Curator of Palaeontology Dr Mike Simms said he was delighted to come across the rare toy and took the chance to buy it for the museum’s Elements exhibition immediately.
“I think visitors will find it amazing and amusing that this set allowed budding young scientists to measure radioactivity of Uranium in the comfort of their own homes,” he said.
“Perhaps it wouldn’t pass today’s health and safety standards but it is a perfect fit for the Elements exhibition.”
As well as four uranium-bearing ore samples, the kit also included a spinthariscope – a cloud chamber that shows speeding particles produced by atomic disintegration:
Here’s how it was described in the product catalogue:
“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.”
A government manual taught young atomic scientists how to prospect for uranium and even offered a hefty reward for finding it:
The man who invented it, Alfred Gilbert, was a magician, toymaker and athlete who once held the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and pole vault.
He defended the Atomic Lab in his autobiography, The Man Who Lives in Paradise, saying none of the materials it contained were conceivably dangerous and America’s best nuclear physicists had helped develop the kit.
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