Atomic Toys
January 9, 2012 9:51 AM   Subscribe

The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab (Geiger counter sold separately) was one of many rad atomic toys available for inquisitive young minds living in the US.
posted by Foci for Analysis (22 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

I got to see one of these up close at the Eli Whitney Museum in Hamden, CT. They have an impressive collection of AC Gilbert toys.
posted by The White Hat at 10:03 AM on January 9, 2012

In the 40s and 50s the US ruled in science. Today, not so much. Kids back them had access to cool, if dangerous toys to stimulate interest in science. Hmmm...

Kidding, kind of. But I have to think the ability to create explosions in the garage without DHS arresting your parents got at least a few kids excited about a STEM education and career.
posted by COD at 10:41 AM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm with COD. This stuff is awesome, even if insane. The Atomic Energy Lab included Polonium 210!
posted by Mister Fabulous at 10:46 AM on January 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

The 8 Most Wildly Irresponsible Vintage Toys looks one of my Christmas wishlists from many years ago. I think we had one of the chemistry sets (red metal box instead wood).

As for mail-order dangerous? If we couldn't buy it we'd make it - or just experiment with off-the-shelf products that went boom or sizzle.

Great post. Thanks! (And if anyone knows where I can get an atomic train, I'd be grateful.)

Note: I know that 'rad' is an obsolete term for a unit of radioactive measurement, but it's still pretty cool that the OP used it in relation to atomic toys. That's worth some points.
posted by Man with Lantern at 10:47 AM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Atomic energy was super-triple exciting in those days for reasons that have vastly diminished - the bright Jetson's futurism of energy too cheap to meter has faded into yet another tarnished polluting energy source. After decades of hard-won progress, the looming threat of nuclear war has receded significantly. The gold-rush dreams of striking uranium in your back yard and getting rich, are unknown to today's generation.

The equivalent for today in terms of pop-sci buzz would probably be the more serious alternative energy kits. (eg. fuel cell cars are very cheap compared to the Gilbert atomics sets.)

The equivalent for today in terms of actual science might be kid's DNA labs and biotech kits, though I can't see this or alternative energy capturing the excitement/danger factor of an atomic lab :-/

Shipping requirements, safety standards, safety expectations (and paranoia) have increased significantly since the 50's, making it difficult to sell exciting labs today. It seems to me that Thames & Kosmos kits seem to be the today's leading manufacturer of kits and labs for children that aren't a complete joke.

At the end of the day, a big part of the appeal of these kits was the feeling of doing something a bit dangerous, a bit out there, or even merely that there was potential for danger if the lab wasn't used with respect. The lab demanded respect. A modern chemistry set where the only chemicals included are so non-hazardous you could eat them... it's hard to reproduce that appeal.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:57 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

er... fuel cell cars - fixed link.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:59 AM on January 9, 2012

Best Christmas of my nerdy son's life was the year he got THREE count 'em THREE chemistry sets. he really loved that.
And yeah, at least mildly dangerous, must be treated with respect, that only made it better.
I wanted all those chemistry sets and such, but next to no one ever got those for girls back then.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:58 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

"...many rad atomic toys..."

Nicely done!
posted by Gorgik at 12:12 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had a little cloud chamber kit back in the '60s. It came with some alpha source, maybe a dot of radium on a pin head. We only used it a couple of times because we needed to have some dry ice to make it work.

The 8 Most Wildly Irresponsible Vintage Toys.

Glass blowing: I tried a little of that, but our alcohol lamps weren't capable of getting the glass hot enough to blow well, or produce Rupert drops like I wanted. Still we could bend and stretch glass to a thread.

Casting lead figures: I didn't have that kit, but we used some lead strip from a chemistry set and cast them in some Creepy Crawler molds. Lead melts pretty easily. I have often imagined we lead-poisoned my whole family in the process.

Chemistry set: I'm pretty sure I had those chemicals in my chemistry sets of the '60s. Burning magnesium was fun. Making hydrogen and exploding it was fun...

I had a nice microscope back then too. From what I can see, science toys these days mostly suck by comparison.
posted by DarkForest at 12:41 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had a Power Mite drill. My friend Alex had the jigsaw. They were harmless. We used them on other toys. It took forever to mutilate a plastic army man.
posted by Splunge at 12:42 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and my brother got a nasty burn from some molten lead once. I managed to get through those years mostly unharmed, except for some super-loud experiments with gunpowder that left me with a bit of tinnitus.
posted by DarkForest at 12:49 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

it's hard to reproduce that appeal.

Oh, it's pretty easy; it just doesn't come in a kit. For lack of any interesting chemicals in my (sadly post-nerfing) chemistry set, most everyone I know just supplemented (or replaced) them with household cleaning chemicals, gasoline, Estes rocket motor cores, match heads, gasoline siphoned from the lawn mower, smokeless gunpowder, or -- best of all, if you could get some -- Pyrodex.

By making chemistry sets boring, we've probably cost ourselves a generation of STEM majors, but by god we've produced a lot of clever pyromaniacs.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:50 PM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Geez, that link clvrmnky is pretty crazy. After the first article I was like "go curiosity!" and imagined the kid having a great career, but that second article really crushed that.
posted by ianhattwick at 2:46 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's not quite so easy in these days of LCDs, but give a lad a screwdriver, a soldering iron and an old TV, and he can build quite the mad scientist high voltage experimental station. Does all that cool arcing and sparking stuff, melts innocent objects, makes anything glow that deserves it, and throws said lad across the room in a trice.

Kits? Hah.
posted by Devonian at 6:00 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I owned the Powermite Working Power Tools. The article is pure bullshit on this one.

The circular saw wouldn't cut through an eyelid, much less your finger's skin. The thinnest balsa wood available in hobby stores was too thick for it, as were three sheets of paper (it could handle two). Safe enough to let a toddler handle. Almost too safe to even be interesting.

Go figure: a Cracked article that is mostly hype.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:40 PM on January 9, 2012

Wow, a gamma radiation source included!

Here's the included comic book Learn How Dagwood Splits the Atom
posted by eye of newt at 10:32 PM on January 9, 2012

@Kadin2048, the radiation sores on the 'Radition Boy' are scary !
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:24 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, if those toys are all "wildly irresponsible" then today's children are even weaker than I thought (although, okay, the nuclear science and lead-casting ones are questionable). I had a meths-powered steam engine similar to that one and if I'd been a more practical child I probably would've used it to power all kinds of crazy devices. And I remember making a cloud chamber in high school chem in about 1994, alpha source and everything.

I also have fond memories of my dad taking me to a chemical supply shop to buy potassium nitrate for homemade gunpowder, although I think he made me wait in the car outside. This was in the late '80s; these days he'd end up on at least three different government registers if he did something like that.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 2:28 AM on January 10, 2012

I'm all for the revival of all the "wildly irresponsible" toys that launched a generation of engineers, scientists, and visionaries, as opposed to what thirty years of pearl-clutching fear-state consumer safety mafia has given us, which is a generation of kids trained to be afraid of the outdoors, of traffic, of "strangers," and of all risk (with no concept of risk mitigation), who consume the world predigested from screens and are so utterly dependent on constant entertainment that a ten minute drive to the store requires the use of flip-down DVD screens in the car. By the time they finally crawl out of their LCD dungeons, they've got so much pent-up energy that all they can do is act out Jackass over and over.

Honestly, just the atomic playset alone would go a long way in giving people a realistic understanding of nuclear science, rather than the panicky ninny reaction most have about such things. Being able to use a geiger counter and understand that radiation doesn't act like a virus, a magical invisible gas (as a rule), or Ice 9 is important.

Luckily for me, my parents were holdouts from another age. They did eventually take the real electric vintage toy iron from me, not because it was dangerous, but because I was a kid when most of our clothes were polyester and nylon and I kept melting all my button-down shirts with photographs of people rollerskating, surfing, and driving baja buggies.
posted by sonascope at 7:26 AM on January 10, 2012

Kadin2048, the radiation sores on the 'Radition Boy' are scary !

They're not radiation sores, they're probably from meth use.

Yes, meth is scary!

(Link goes to a blogger who seems quite idiotic in his constant defence of nuclear materials as harmless, but in this instance I think he's insightful and most likely correct in fingering meth for the sores.)
posted by -harlequin- at 7:43 PM on January 11, 2012

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