This incredible educational toy sounds like something straight out of a science fiction novel, but was actually produced and sold within the U.S. from 1951-1952 before it was pulled from the market. The “Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab” was one of many A. C. Gilbert invented during the era – including chemistry sets, microscope sets, and the famous Erector Set, to name a few – but the first to be pulled from shelves in relation to being dangerous and literally radioactive, as the name implies.
The kit touted the ability to perform over 150 experiments, allowing kids to directly witness chemical reactions with radioactive materials. Four types of uranium ore were included, as well as a Geiger counter, spinthariscope, electroscope, a comic on “Learn How Dagwood Splits the Atom!”, and a government-produced pamphlet on “Prospecting for Uranium.” In addition, the toy’s manual came with a reorder form to obtain more ore, should the child find the uranium’s radioactivity to deplete sooner than the anticipated 50 years.
The Atomic Energy Lab claimed to be built in collaboration with the nation’s leading nuclear scientists. I would like to know who was involved to have possibly deemed this safe.
Text on the packaging declares:
- 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!
Measure radioactivity of Uranium and other ores with Gilbert Electroscope, just like real scientists.
Thrilling to watch! Gilbert Spinthariscope shows you actual Atomic disintegration of radioactive material!
Prospect for Uranium and other radioactive Ores! Gilbert Geiger-Mueller Counter may win you $10,000 Govt. bonus!
That $10,000 government bonus seems particularly appealing, and likely did to gullible parents as well, considering the kit cost roughly $50 in 1951. This equates roughly to $455 in 2014 with inflation taken to account, and the bonus becoming a whopping $91,000.
The company pushed parents that the toy may foster an interest in the sciences, and even develop into a career in nuclear physics. However, the product was a flop in stores and was pulled from shelves after a year. Complaints from parents largely followed the need for more than a basic understanding of chemistry and physics to use the kit, plus lack of sales due to general fears of nuclear energy at the time.
It’s fortunate that the Atomic Energy Lab was a flop, considering isotope U-238 has been linked to cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, Gulf War syndrome, and others. One can only wonder how many canisters of errant radioactive uranium ore are still floating around in American basements and garages to this day.