For the 15th time this Christmas season, I came across yet another post labeling Gilbert’s Atomic Energy Lab the “Most Dangerous Toy in the World.”
It’s time to get some stuff straight.
The Atomic Energy Lab wasn’t nearly as dangerous as internet media makes it seem.
I can see how it might seem so. The kit, presented by the Chicago-based Gilbert Hall of Science only sold 5,000 units over two years. It was a pet project of Alfred Gilbert, the inventor of the Erector Set, and he seemed to take its failure personally. The kit’s scarcity and drama make it one of the most desired and elusive finds for toy collectors today.
It had to be dangerous, didn’t it? Atomic, radiation, nuclear, Geiger, these were all Cold War buzzwords. And 5,000 units in two years? Consumers purchased 350,000 Barbie dolls in its inaugural year of 1959.
It had to be dangerous.
The lab’s demise had nothing to do with safety, folks. It was cost.
Its failure had nothing to do with rads or radiation sickness or exposure or clicks per minute. The Barbie doll cost $3 in 1959 (its first year). That’s about $30 today. Gilbert’s Atomic Energy Laboratory cost $50 in 1950, equal to about $600 today.
Now, I don’t know how YOU were raised, but my Santa did not deliver $600 Christmas presents. I would not have even considered asking. Even in 2022, with two kids of my own, I strongly believe NO kid needs to own anything that costs $600. Not unless they are preternaturally, almost supernaturally, responsible. For my kids, a Nintendo Switch (about $300) is the absolute ceiling.
When is a Toy not a Toy?
Gilbert’s Atomic Energy Laboratory was a different kind of toy, made for a different kind of kid in a different kind of America. When this kit hit the market, World War II had ended only a few years earlier. Large portions of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still lightly-radioactive char. American nuclear weaponry was still cutting-edge, but had grown since 1945. Yields in 1950 measured in the hundreds of kilotons.
The Soviets had their own nuclear shot in 1949, using the exact design of our first implosion devices (Trinity Test and Fat Man). Identical because they stole it from us.
In late 1952, the American military would introduce the bone-chilling term megatons. Megatons flattened our largest cities. Megatons poisoned entire counties of farmland. Megatons could end civilization. An ugly word. To see how ugly, refer to the graphic below comparing “Little Boy” to “Ivy Mike.”
There was another side to atomic power.
With it, Americans had in their hands an essentially limitless power source. Aircraft carriers could stay at sea for months at a time without needing to refuel. Submarines could traverse the Earth’s oceans with a silent power plant instead of thundering diesel engines. Planes could circumnavigate the globe. Cars could go thousands of miles. Our homes wouldn’t need power lines. Instead, they could run all day and night on a power source no larger than a 1950 television.
It was a terrifying, thrilling, adventurous time for science. For this reason more than any other, the U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory by the AC Gilbert Company could be considered not the “Most Dangerous Toy in the World” but the “Most Timely.” It truly was. So much so that the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the US Geological Survey (USGC) both had an (unofficial) hand in compiling its educational materials and designing experiments. Even General Leslie Groves, the fellow who commanded the Manhattan Project, offered input on Gilbert’s new educational toy.
We were unofficially encouraged by the government, who thought that our set would aid in public understanding of atomic energy and stress its constructive side. We had the great help of some of the country’s best nuclear physicists and worked closely with MIT in it’s development.
There was nothing phony about our Atomic Energy laboratory. It was genuine, and it was also safe. We used radioactive materials in the set, but none that might conceivably prove dangerous.
~A. C. Gilbert. The Man Who Lives In Paradise. 1954.
How dangerous was the lab?
The kit contained a myriad of well-made components. There’s not enough room or patience to list its entire contents. Only two might raise parental eyebrows.
First are the four (4) ore samples of uranium U-238. These were described as “low-level ore” samples. Radioactive sources, particularly ore, are measured in counts per minute—literally the number of times a Geiger counter detects a radioactive particle in 60 seconds. The higher the count, the more active the source.*
*I am painting with a wide brush here.
The low-level ore samples in Gilbert’s kit likely averaged between 1,000 to 3,000 cpm. That is high compared to the background radiation level in our atmosphere, which is about 100 cpm. However, you are only absorbing that dose if you directly handle the ore for a minute, which you generally don’t do. Even if you hold it, it would take a LONG time before the accumulated dose caused the slightest illness or injury.
Now, I have about eight pounds of uranium ore on a garage shelf at home, each hunk individually wrapped in layers of tinfoil and sitting in old butter cookie tins.
Haha. Yes, really.
It’s been there for four years, rock-shaped soldiers from a public exhibit cancelled by COVID in 2020. Those pieces of ore are not low-level. Most are range “C” generic uranium ore, running from 3,000 to 5,000 cpm. A few are higher. Two pieces measure 15,000 cpm. One hits 25,000 cpm. None are particularly valuable, since extracting the pure uranium from them (colloquially called yellow cake) would be too labor-intensive.
Why do I hang onto them? I hope to one day put together the exhibit I had intended in 2020: a Nike Missile Site made from Legos, authentic components of a Nike missile, a model fallout shelter, authentic Civil Defense gear, and the uranium ore, presented in a lead-lined replica of Doc Brown’s plutonium case.
The other reason is the great joy I take when I tell people I have high-level uranium ore stored in my garage. “Wait. What?! Real uranium?” It’s all perfectly legal, but how many people have that, huh? It’s either a great conversation starter or stopper.
The other component is kind of a mystery. Three bottles, each with a different radiation source: a beta-alpha, a pure beta, and a gamma source.
Now—geez, condensing this into a couple sentences is a real challenge—radioactive decay generally releases three kinds of particles: alpha, beta, and gamma. Alpha and beta are by far the strongest and can potentially cause the most damage, but they are also the easiest to protect against.
Most alpha particles can only travel a few inches through the air and plain human skin is enough to deflect them. That’s a good thing, because they are also the most biologically destructive.
Beta particles released by radioactive decay travel a few feet through the air. While human skin can’t stop them, a light layer of metal serves as an effective barrier. They are not quite as destructive as alpha particles, but still pretty destructive. This ability to focus strong beta particles with laser-like precision makes them ideal for radiation therapy.
Gamma particles are the most common result of radioactive decay. Exposure is only prevented or slowed with dense shielding, such as lead (Pb). Gamma radiation isn’t as destructive as alpha or beta radiation, but if you absorb enough of it…well, it’s not good.
These three sources are potentially dangerous, there’s no doubting that. That danger only manifests if the containers are shattered, cracked, or otherwise abused. As long as they’re sealed, there’s nothing to worry about.
That is nothing new for kids. Remember those old glass thermometers you held under your tongue? Bite down on one of those accidently, and you’ll get a gulp of poisonous mercury and glass shards. It might not be a fatal dose of mercury, but you won’t be happy.
Like mercury thermometers, this kit isn’t for little kids, but it was never meant for little kids.
Does this kit sound dangerous?
It could be, if I were to sleep with the opened sources under my pillow for a year. Or if I were to ingest the uranium ore samples, or crush them into powder and snort them. Or lick them, kiss them, cuddle them, make a pendant from them, or a distinctive piece of jewelry.
Thankfully, I know better.
You know other toys that are that dangerous? Lead soldiers, for one. Generations of kids tanked their IQs by ingesting the lead dust on their fingers after a pleasant afternoon playing with these metal armies. Easy Bake Ovens are notorious for causing burns and fires. Lawn darts have sent over a thousand kids to emergency rooms. One girl went to the morgue.
Stores yanked the popular Aqua Dots from shelves after discovering the chemical inside the dots, gamma hydroxybutyrate, which is also known as the “date rape drug.” Children have fallen into comas ingesting those dots.
Roller skates, roller blades, skateboards, bikes, tricycles, BB guns, pellet guns, Slip n’ Slides, slingshots…Don’t get me started on trampolines. Medical professionals treat 100,000 children a year for injuries caused by trampolines.
Considering all that, is the Atomic Energy Lab really “the Most Dangerous Toy in the World”?
No, it’s not.
Why does the Atomic Energy Lab inspire so much vitriol?
I have a theory or two.
We are not comfortable with radiation. It is invisible and silent, present everywhere and more dangerous than any bullet if you’re overexposed. I can lay my uranium ore out, wave a Geiger counter and the chatter of radioactive static would send chills up your spine.
Radioactivity is also hefty science. Even gaining a casual understanding of it can take years. How complex can it be? Consider the units used to measure radiation: Grays, rads, rems, roentgens, sieverts, becquerels, curies, counts per minute. Each unit has its own application. Honestly, I have to look them up all the time.
I think of nuclear energy the same way I was taught to think of firearms: first and foremost, you have to respect it. Both are fantastic tools that can provide many of life’s necessities (a pioneer’s rifle provided food, clothing, a livelihood, and safety).
But both tools wait for the moment you get too comfortable.
In the case of firearms, you might forget to rack the slide and check for a stray round (I was just cleaning it and it went off…). Nuclear recklessness talks you into skipping a half-dozen safety protocols to meet some ridiculous quota or schedule, as in Chernobyl’s case.
These tools love those moments. That’s when guns load themselves. That’s when reactors explode and shower hundreds of square miles with elements too monstrous for nature.
It’s easier to hand that recklessness to a teenager’s toy like the U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, a kit which barely mentions atomic weapons. Instead, it focuses on the science and possibilities of the field to budding nuclear engineers. It’s a toy in the most liberal sense of the word. Better to define it as a tool geared toward younger students for self-guided education rather than practical application.
This is not a talking down.
Folks, don’t think for one second I am a spotless steward for nuclear energy. I am not, and I am not talking down to you.
Two years ago, just before COVID struck, I decided to record a video teaser for the Nike Missile exhibit. The Chicago-area Nike Hercules missiles were one of the first to receive nuclear warheads.
My idea for the video: unwrap a piece of ore, stack it over the wrapped pieces, and then record a video of the Geiger counter chattering away. It seemedlike a good idea. It was not.
I unwrapped a large-ish piece, tucked it in the center of the pile, then started recording. I walked from one end of the garage to the other, recording the increasing dose. It started at .14 microsieverts per hour (μSv/h). Then I started the video and put the Geiger counter over them, its counter clearly visible.
0.7 μSv/h. 1.0 μSv/h.
1.3…Then the Geiger counter honked out the word “WARNING!”
I swear, it sounded just like the robot from Lost in Space. No joke. The cpm indicator went from a glowing green to a flashing red. The screen lit up and the rate continued climbing. While 1.3 or 1.4 microsieverts an hour doesn’t sound like much, remember it’s a constant dose. I had been sitting next to that ore container for hours that day. And how many hours the week before? The month?
God, how much time had I spent with this stuff?!
My mistake was recklessness. Before that moment, I had never tested the ore with the Geiger counter. It had been sitting in my garage for 1 or 2 years, and I had no idea how dangerous it was. What if I had stored it inside my home, or in the closet near my daughter’s room…? Ugly thoughts.
On the video you can hear me saying “Sh-t. Go down. Go down.” I slapped a 1/16th inch thick square of lead over the container (I had luckily brought it along, intending it as a backdrop) and pressed the sheet down, as though I could hold back the invisible particles by force.
The rate climbed. And climbed. 1.6 μSv/h. 1.7 μSv/h. Off camera, I loosed a string of cursing that would make any Marine noncom proud. I won’t print them here.
To put this in perspective, a dental x-ray is around 5 μSv. That’s not too high. But a reading of almost 2 μSv/h was too high. Even the Geiger counter knew it. My worry was the amount of time I had already spent with the ore, plus my additional risk factors. I was already a smoker and spent a lot of time outside. These factors all add up, and you start to think of fried DNA and other nasty things.
It finally dropped. To 1.89 μSv/h, 1.85, 1.8, down, and down, and down…
Now, I keep each piece of ore separate now and don’t unwrap it for more than a few seconds, always wearing two layers of nitrile gloves if I have to handle it. I learned my lesson and walked away unscathed (I hope, gulp). I was lucky. Some are not.
Sometimes a good scare is the best way to tattoo caution to your brain.
Want to Know More?
Lose yourself in this nightmarish rabbit hole: NUKEMAP, created by graduate students at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, lets you virtually detonate any nuclear device anywhere in the world. You can customize hundreds of variables. This map is a fantastic tool to illustrate the most important lesson of nuclear war: it is NOT survivable.