“Users should not take ore samples out of their jars, for they tend to flake and crumble and you would run the risk of having radioactive ore spread out in your laboratory.” Such was the warning that came with the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, a 1950s science kit that included four small jars of actual uranium. Budding young nuclear scientists were encouraged to use the enclosed instruments to measure the samples’ radioactivity, observe radioactive decay, and even go prospecting for radioactive ores. Yes, the Gilbert company definitely intended for kids to try this at home. And so the company’s warning was couched not in terms of health risk but rather as bad scientific practice: Removing the ore from its jar would raise the background radiation, thereby invalidating your experimental results.
The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab put a positive spin on radioactivity
The A.C. Gilbert Co., founded in 1909 as the Mysto Manufacturing Co., was already a leader in toys designed to inspire interests in science and engineering. Founder Alfred Carlton Gilbert’s first hit was the Erector Set, which he introduced in 1913. In the early 1920s, the company sold vacuum tubes and radio receivers until Westinghouse Electric cried patent infringement. Beginning in 1922, A.C. Gilbert began selling chemistry sets.
When the Atomic Energy Lab hit the market in 1950, it was one of the most elaborate science kits available. In addition to uranium, it had beta-alpha, beta, and gamma radiation sources. It contained a cloud chamber, a spinthariscope (a simple device for watching atoms decay), an electroscope, and a Geiger counter, as well as a 60-page instruction book and a guide to mining uranium.
Also included in every kit was Learn How Dagwood Splits the Atom! Part comic book, part educational manual, it used the popular comic strip characters Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead, as well as their children, dog, and friends, to explain the basics of atomic energy. In the tale, they all shrink to the size of atoms while Mandrake the Magician, another popular comic strip hero of the day, supervises the experiment and explains how to split an atom of uranium-235.
Despite the incongruity of a magician explaining science, the booklet was prepared with expert advice. Published in 1949 by King Features Syndicate, it featured Leslie R. Groves (director of the Manhattan Project) and John R. Dunning (a physicist who verified fission of the uranium atom) as consultants.
Groves’s opening statement encourages the pursuit of truth, facts, and knowledge. He strives to allay readers’ fears about atomic energy and encourages them to see how it can be used for peacetime pursuits. The journalist Bob Considine, who covered the atomic bomb tests at Bikini, likewise dwells on the positive possibilities of nuclear energy and the availability of careers in the field.
Alas, fewer than 5,000 of the Gilbert kits were sold, and it remained on the market only until 1951. The lackluster sales may have been due to the eye-popping price: US $49.50, or about $500 today. Two competing sets, from the Porter Chemical Company, also contained uranium ore and were advertised as having atomic energy components, but retailed for $10 and $25.
Starting in the 1960s, toy safety became a concern
Parents today might be baffled that products containing radioactive elements were ever marketed to children. At the time, however, the radioactivity wasn’t considered a flaw. The inside cover of the Atomic Energy Lab proclaimed the product “Safe!”
But it’s also true that in the 1950s few consumer protection laws regulated the safety of toys in the United States. Instead, toy manufacturers responded to trends in popular opinion and consumer taste, which had been pro-science since World War II.
Those attitudes began to change in the 1960s. Books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962, Houghton Mifflin) raised concerns about how chemicals were harming the environment, and the U.S. Congress began investigating whether toy manufacturers were providing adequate safeguards for children.
Beginning with the passage of the 1960 Federal Hazardous Substances Labeling Act [PDF], all products sold in the United States that contained toxic, corrosive, or flammable ingredients had to include warning labels. Additionally, any product that could be an irritant or a sensitizer, or that could generate pressure when heated or decomposed, had to be labeled a “hazardous substance.”
More far reaching was the 1966 Child Protection Act, which allowed the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare to ban the sale of toys that contained hazardous substances. Due to a limited definition of “hazardous substance,” it did not regulate electrical, mechanical, or thermal hazards. The 1969 Child Protection and Toy Safety Act closed these loopholes. And the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 banned some chemicals outright and strictly controlled the quantities of others.
Clearly, makers of chemistry sets and other scientific toys were being put on notice.
Did the rise of product safety laws inadvertently undermine science toys?
What were ostensible wins for child safety was a loss for science education. Chemistry sets were radically simplified, and the substances they contained were either diluted or eliminated. In-depth instruction booklets became brief pamphlets offering only basic, innocuous experiments. The A.C. Gilbert Co., which struggled after the death of its founder in 1961, finally went bankrupt in 1967.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, established in 1972, continues to police the toy market. Toys get recalled for high levels of arsenic, lead, or other harmful substances for being too flammable, or for containing parts small enough to choke on.
And so in 2001, the commission reported the recall of Professor Wacko’s Exothermic Exuberance chemistry kit. As you might expect from the product’s name, there was a fire risk. The kit included glycerin and potassium permanganate, which ignite when mixed. (This chemical combo is also the basis of the popular—at least on some university campuses—burning book experiment.) A controlled fire is one thing, but in Professor Wacko’s case the bottles had interchangeable lids. If the lids, which might contain residual chemicals, were accidentally switched, the set could be put away without the user realizing that a reaction was brewing. Several house fires resulted.
Another recalled science toy was 2007’s CSI Fingerprint Examination Kit, based on the hit television show. Children, pretending to be crime-scene investigators, dusted for fingerprints. Unfortunately, the fingerprint powder contained up to 5 percent asbestos, which can cause serious lung ailments if inhaled.
In comparison, the risk from the uranium-238 in Gilbert’s U-238 Atomic Energy Lab was minimal, about the equivalent to a day’s UV exposure from the sun. And the kit had the beneficial effect of teaching that radioactivity is a naturally occurring phenomena. Bananas are mildly radioactive, after all, as are Brazil nuts and lima beans. To be sure, experts don’t recommend ingesting uranium or carrying it around in your pocket for extended periods of time. Perhaps it was too much to expect that every kid would abide by the kit’s clear warning. But despite sometimes being called the “most dangerous toy in the world,” Gilbert’s U-238 Atomic Energy Lab was unlikely to have ever produced a glowing child.
An abridged version of this article appears in the February 2020 print issue as “Fun With Uranium!”
Part of a continuing serieslooking at photographs of historical artifacts that embrace the boundless potential of technology.
Allison Marsh is a professor at the University of South Carolina and codirector of the university's Ann Johnson Institute for Science, Technology & Society. She combines her interests in engineering, history, and museum objects to write the Past Forward column, which tells the story of technology through historical artifacts.