A Lab Kit For Kids Filled With Radioactive Material – What Could Go Wrong?

We grow up in the presence of our family, friends, and teachers, but most importantly- of toys. I don’t even think the concept of ‘toys’ needed to be invented; it was sort of just there since the beginning of humans. Yeah, even cavemen. You weren’t busy hunting or eating or fighting? You were playing with stones and sticks and even critters. Anything and everything is a potential plaything for a child. Some more than others, definitely. For instance, you wouldn’t want your children near this Radioactive Atomic Energy Lab Kit For Kids that features some fun substances like the super-hazardous Uranium!

The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab- taking science too far?

The creator of this toy and the founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company, Alfred Carlton Gilbert was actually a bit of a legend in his day. One of his inventions, a toy called the Erector Set, was a best-seller during the time and people found his vision of making educational, scientific toys for kids refreshing. 

A Lab Kit For Kids Filled With Radioactive Material – What Could Go Wrong?
Wikimedia Commons/Tiia Monto

The Atomic Kit, released in 1950, was based on the same vision and encouraged kids to discover the workings of atomic and nuclear reactions firsthand. It emphasized the peaceful and wondrous role of atomic energy as opposed to its scary reputation. The world’s most dangerous toy posed threat if the child didn’t know what radioactive is.

But was it really okay to hand blocks of uranium ore and radioactive material to 10 and 12 year-olds? Legally, yeah. They didn’t have much regulation on trade during the 1950s. But practically? Probably not. 

Exploring The Sciency-Stuff – the components

What was the radioactive toy like?

When it hit the market, the Atomic Lab Kit For Kids was praised as one of the most elaborate and complete science kits ever. It was designed to allow you to create and watch nuclear and chemical reactions using radioactive material, so of course it contained said radioactive material in the form of four jars of different uranium ore samples and low-level radiation sources such as pure beta, beta-alpha, and gamma. 

A Lab Kit For Kids Filled With Radioactive Material – What Could Go Wrong?
Wikimedia Commons/NoahCarter2

Additionally, you got a Geiger–Müller counter, an electroscope, and a spinthariscope – all used to measure different aspects of ionizing radiation. Then, of course, you have the wonder ball where the magic happens – a cloud chamber allowing the viewer to watch alpha particles traveling at 12,000 miles per second. The product catalog described it as an awe-inspiring sight, allowing you to see ‘delicate, intricate paths of electrical condensation’. 

A Lab Kit For Kids Filled With Radioactive Material – What Could Go Wrong?
Wikimedia Commons/Science History Institute

Finally, there was the Gilbert Atomic Energy Manual, Prospecting for Uranium (a book), and Learn How Dagwood Split The Atom (a comic book introducing radioactivity through famous characters and scenes). 

The Quick Downfall of An Interesting Invention

Fortunately or unfortunately, the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab Kit didn’t fare so well in the market. It was only produced during 1950 and 1951, and fewer than 5,000 units sold. Strangely enough, the main reason for its plight was not the risk of radiation; but its sky-high price. It was one expensive toy, selling at $49.50 in that time, which would be equivalent to over $500 today. Shocked? Thought so. People of the 1950s were too, probably, and they didn’t spend on this highly-priced tool-kit, especially when cheaper, qualitatively similar options became available. 

A Lab Kit For Kids Filled With Radioactive Material – What Could Go Wrong?
Wikimedia Commons/Internet Archive Book Images

Safety concerns weren’t that prevalent erstwhile. This children’s lab kit came with appropriate warnings and the assurance that all of the materials inside it were not substantially harmful; the radiation was as mild as a day’s worth of UV exposure from the sun. Nonetheless, the protective regulations and rules imposed after the 1950s would have rendered this toy kit questionable, if not banned, in today’s time. Other toys like the Exothermic Exuberance chemistry kit and the Fingerprint Examination kit also show us how safety and science clash when it comes to toys for kids. 

However, Gilbert’s intention was well-placed. It IS important to introduce children to science and its workings from a young age, and to teach them not to be afraid of science, but how to use it. We just need to find more kid-friendly ways to do it! What do you think?

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