The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab kit was actually a thing for kids in the 50s

Vintage Gilbert nuclear physics atomic energy lab - 1950s box front

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In the early 1950s, Alfred Gilbert, the inventor of the Erector Set, came out with an atomic energy lab kit for kids.

The thing was actually radioactive. The set had real uranium ore, and three radiation sources. (Then again, bananas are radioactive, too.) 

As one of the newspaper articles below noted,  the elaborate Gilbert set was “developed with the help of some of America’s most noted nuclear physicists and instrument makers.”

While there were no reports of anyone blowing up something with one of the expensive sets, unsurprisingly, the at-home atomic kits were removed from store shelves before too long.

Below, see how these old science kits worked, and what you could do with them!

Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab (c1950-1954)

Performs over 150 exciting experiments! For the junior scientist

  • Most modern scientific set ever created!
  • See paths of alpha particles speeding at 12,500 miles per second!
  • Watch actual atomic disintegration — right before your eyes!
  • Prospect for uranium with Geiger-Mueller counter!

Exciting! Safe! Another Gilbert Hall of Science product

Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab

Energy lab includes:

  • U-238 Geiger radiation counter
  • Electroscope to measure radioactivity of different substances.
  • Spinthariscopic to watch “live” radioactive disintegration.
  • Wilson Cloud Chamber to see paths of electrons & alpha particles at 10k mps
  • Three very low-level radioactive sources (Alpha, Beta, Gamma)
  • Four samples of Uranium-bearing ores
  • Nuclear Spheres (used to visual build models of molecules)
  • The book “Prospecting for Uranium”
  • The “Gilbert Atomic Energy Manual”
  • The comic book “Learn How Dagwood Splits the Atom”

Vintage Atomic Energy Lab science toy from 1951

See the Atomic Energy Lab up close

Gilbert nuclear physics atomic energy lab kit - Left side - 1950s

Gilbert nuclear physics atomic energy lab kit - right

Gilbert U-238 — Atomic Energy Lab instruction manual cover

Gilbert nuclear physics atomic energy lab 1951 instructions

More about the Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab set from the 1950s

The most extraordinary set ever developed!

One of the most sensational products ever to come out of the Gilbert Hall of Science! Not just a toy — precise and accurate scientific instruments developed by Gilbert engineers with leading nuclear physicists.

With this complete Laboratory, everyone can explore the mysterious universe of the Atom — with complete safety! Each one of the instruments in the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab actually performs the same feats as professional instruments which cost up to hundreds of dollars!

One of the Gilbert instruments alone, the Geiger Counter, enable you to prospect for Uranium — maybe win a Government bonus of $10,000.

No. U-238 Atomic Energy Lab

Includes Geiger Counter, Gilbert Cloud Chamber, Electroscope, Spinthariscopic, Neutron and Proton Spheres for making Nuclear models, Alpha, Beta, and Gamma radiation sources, plus Uranium-bearing ores.

Also packed with Lab are “Prospecting for Uranium,” “Gilbert Atomic Energy Instruction Booklet.” Sturdy attractive hinged chest, plus an illustrated full-color booklet explaining atomic energy in an easy-to-understand fashion.

ALSO SEE: How to make a bomb shelter & survive a nuclear attack: Tips from the Cold War era

Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab toy from the fifties

Gilbert Cloud Chamber (included with Atomic Energy Lab)

Enables you actually to SEE the paths taken by electrons and alpha particles which travel at nearly the speed of tight! Action is fantastic and awe-inspiring.

Electrons moving at terrific velocities create delicate, intricate patterns — beautiful to watch. The closest approach man has made to seeing the Atom. You see sights impossible to view through a microscope!

Assembly Kit includes Dri-Electric Power Pack, Deionizer, Compression Bulb, Viewing Chamber, Stand with legs, plus Tubing, Wire, and radioactive source.

Nuclear Spheres (included with Atomic Energy Lab)

Make your own Nuclear models with these colored Spheres! Aids in understanding arrangement of Protons and Neutrons which make up the Atom. Fascinating to put together. Illustrated instructions included.

For months Gilbert engineers worked with America’s top Nuclear Physicists and instrument makers, in order to make the Atomic Energy Lab accurate, safe and complete.

ALSO SEE: Vintage chemistry sets & science kits for kids from the ’60s & ’70s

Science atomic kit info

Dagwood splits the atom! (1949)

Vintage 1949 booklet - Dagwood Splits the Atom

Bringing an Atomic lab into the home (1950)

By Elsie McKay — Pittsburgh Post Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) December 13, 1950

From fear to fascination — that’s how you can change your thoughts about atomic energy with a few simple experiments. All you need is an atomic energy laboratory in your living room for a couple of days.

Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Having alpha, beta, and gamma rays racing around your home at thousands of miles per second. Holding in your hand a vial of uranium-bearing ore, a refinement of which helped make a shambles of Hiroshima.

Fantastic though it sounds, it is possible to have a miniature Manhattan Project in your own house.

To help take some of the mystery out of the vital subject, and provide a safe and exciting way for the layman to explore the world of nuclear physics, the United States Atomic Energy Commission has been working with manufacturers interested in developing this field.

In August, the commission licensed the A. C. Gilbert Company, New Haven, Connecticut, to buy low-grade carnotite — an ore containing uranium — and uranium salts, and also to obtain radioactive materials from the commission’s Oak Ridge, Tennessee, laboratory.

The company, one of the country’s leading manufacturers of scientific educational toys, now has on the market an “Atomic Energy Laboratory.”

Atomic Energy science kit ad - for kids from 1950

The Porter Chemical Company, Hagerstown, Maryland, also licensed by the commission, includes an atomic energy kit in its’ larger “Chemcraft” sets, and Electronic Products, Mt. Vernon, New York, sells a student-type Geiger counter construction set which was designed by the Atomic Energy Commission’s instrument branch.

ALSO SEE: Vintage Erector Sets were toys that made toys: See old sets & find out their history

The elaborate Gilbert set, developed with the help of some of America’s most noted nuclear physicists and instrument makers, is housed in a kit about the size of an overnight bag.

In it, the manufacturers have stored enough material and instruments to present in A-B-C fashion some of the mysteries that have had folks shuddering since the atomic age was born.

There is a Geiger counter, a cloud chamber, a deionizer, an electroscope and a spinthariscopic. All are accurate reproductions of laboratory equipment used by nuclear physicists, and guaranteed harmless in the hands of a junior scientist, aged 12 to 16.

Kids in 1950 with a Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab kit at home (1)
Clicks and ticks on the Geiger counter provide hours of fun for Frances Bauer, 13, of 236 Adeline Street, Mt. Lebanon, and Joe Curran, 11, of 209 Adeline. They are testing relative radioactivity of several uranium ores.

If you react like the writer did, however, the red-packaged laboratory might just as well have contained an atomic bomb, for all the comfort it gave during its first few hours in the house.

Among the first things you’ll see when you get up enough courage to open the atomic energy lab are three little packets labeled alpha, beta and gamma sources. They’re all radioactive, and they all emit rays.

To most of us unschooled in scientific tact, talk of alpha, beta and gamma rays recall only dreadful things — the deadly mushroom that rose over Bikini in 1946, or what happened to two Japanese cities in 1945 when billions of atoms let loose their fury, proving atomic energy is mankind’s most destructive weapon.

SEE MORE: A look back at the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (1945)

We forget that such rays are ever present in the world about us. To help remind us of this fact. and perhaps bring order to a mind troubled with fear of the unknown, the Gilbert lab contains the Geiger counter.

With this instrument you can detect radioactive rays that are otherwise elusive to the naked eye or ear. Take the gamma ray, for example.

The gamma source in the Gilbert lap is a little box made of clear plastic. It looks empty except for a piece of paper, about the size of a dime, embedded inside and bearing the words “gamma source.”

Leave the room with your Geiger counter and have somebody hide the gamma source.

You’ll be able to find it. For when you enter the room again, listening through the earphones on the electrically charged counter, the gamma rays come ticking through. 

After a few rounds of nuclear hide-and-seek, you’ll soon discover that the gamma rays can be muffled or absorbed only with several thicknesses of lead.

If you get a helpless feeling realizing how hard it is to stop the gamma rays, turn your Geiger counter on the beta source. These rays are much less tenacious than the gamma, even though they travel faster — up to 184,000 miles per second.

Kids in 1950 with a Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab kit at home (2)
Frances squints through a spinthariscopic watching atomic disintegration. Joe tests gamma ray radioactivity.

Despite their speed, the beta rays absorb easily. Bury the beta source under a layer of cardboard one-third inch thick, and the “ticks” on the counter virtually cease.

Having gained mastery over at least the beta rays, we felt it time to start exploring the field of alpha radiation.

Alpha rays move slowly and because they are absorbed so readily, they will not penetrate the walls of the Gilbert model Geiger counter, we discovered. Hence, we tried the Gilbert cloud chamber. It would show us alpha rays, the book said.

It was dark in the living room when we finally had the cloud chamber put together. The only light was a faint glow coming from two flashlight bulbs focused on the alcohol-filled ”cloud chamber,” a glass flask in which was suspended a radioactive wire.

Hesitantly, following directions from the atomic energy manual that comes with the laboratory, we pressed a rubber bulb attached to the chamber, then released it quickly.

We pushed the de-ionizer button, held it a second, then let go, expecting the worst. Dense white tracks shot like lightning through the fog.

Though the tracks disappeared instantly, we would renew them again by the same simple process.

Fog in the chamber formed for exactly the same reason it does out of doors. When air expands, it cools, causing tiny droplets of water to condense onto invisible specks of dust. The droplets then are visible as fog.

ALSO SEE: How nuclear power was promoted in the ’80s as the solution for America’s energy needs

Kids in 1950 with a Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab kit at home (3)
Joe times Geiger counter clicks as Frances locates a hidden gamma ray source in the little round box.

Because there was a radioactive wire inside the chamber, sending out radiations resulting in broken-up atoms and ions. this, too, caused fog to form.

This “atomic lightning” wasn’t alpha rays, we learned later, but tracks left by invisible alpha particles streaking through the cloud chamber at 3,600,000 miles per hour. There was no sound.

Having read that the atoms are so small that there are 30 billion more atoms in the head of a pin than there are people on earth, we doubted that even our atomic energy lab could help us see one.

Strangely enough, however, a simple instrument called the spinthariscopic brought us as close as anyone ever has come to seeing an atom. It showed the effect of atomic disintegration of radium.

FIND OUT MORE: Marie Curie tells how she discovered radium – a scientific breakthrough

The spinthariscopic is a metal tube with a rubber eyepiece at one end, a zinc sulfide screen at the other and a lens in the middle.

If you take the tube into a dark room, put a small amount of radium compound up close to the screen, you can see the alpha particles bombard out at the rate of 10,000 miles per second.

Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab manual - Vintage toy

As each particle strikes the screen, a flash of light is produced. For much the same reason that a fluorescent tube. lights up. The entire effect is like a Fourth of July sparkler that will never go out, for the energy locked in the radium atom is so tremendous that it lasts billions of years.

By now, we were as excited as Ben Franklin must have been when he tied a key to the tail of a kite and saw electricity for the first time.

We had watched the effects of atomic disintegration within four inches of our eye, held beta and gamma ray sources in our hand without feeling any pain, and played with a de-ionizer without blowing up.

Atomic energy, a thing of fear before we brought it into our home, had become a fascinating field for experimentation.

ALSO SEE: 47 dangerous old playgrounds that our great-grandparents somehow survived

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. This kit was not “yanked from the shelves”, it sold poorly because it was priced so high. There were no dangerous levels of radiation present, the alpha particles from U-238 can’t even penetrate human skin. Sad to see the hysteria over the word “radiation.”

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