The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab

Feb 1, 2021 6 comments

The 1950s were exciting times. There was much enthusiasm and optimism around the use of atomic energy, which was seen as the solution to all energy problems in the future. Power would be so cheap and plenty that humans could achieve things at scale that was not economically and practically possible in the past, such as irrigation of deserts and interstellar travel. While many people feared the dawn of the Atomic Age due to the destructive power of the atomic bomb, there were many others who believed that the easy availability of cheap and limitless power would render the very need for wars moot.

Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab

Photo: Oak Ridge Associated Universities

To further this utopian vision, the United States launched an “Atoms for Peace” program to enlighten the American public on the risks and hopes of a nuclear future. The chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, even commented that electrical energy in future will be “too cheap to meter”. Leading car manufacturer Ford created a nuclear-powered concept car, while others promised golf balls which could always be found and aircraft run by nuclear reactors. It wasn’t overtly inappropriate, hence, when toymaker Alfred Carlton Gilbert decided to introduce a remarkable “toy” in 1950, that allowed children to create and watch nuclear and chemical reactions using radioactive materials.

The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab was one of the most elaborate chemistry sets on the market. The kit contained four types pf aluminium ore, and three low-level radiation sources—a beta-alpha source (Pb-210), a pure beta source (possibly Ru-106), and a gamma source (Zn-65), as well as a bunch of devices—a cloud chamber with its own short-lived alpha source (Po-210) (for watching alpha particles zip through the gas), a Geiger counter, a spinthariscope (for watching atoms decay), an electroscope, a couple of “nuclear sphere” for making a model of an alpha particle, a 60-page instruction book and a guide to mining uranium written jointly by the Atomic Energy Commission and the United States Geological Survey.

Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab


The kit also included a comic book titled Learn How Dagwood Splits the Atom, based on the popular comic strip characters Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead. In the tale, the Bumstead family shrink to the size of atoms while Mandrake the Magician supervises the experiment and explains how to split an atom of uranium-235.

The instruction book was pretty detailed. It explained how each of the instruments included in the kit worked and how it could be used in a playful way. “Let someone in your family hide the gamma source while you are in another room,” the book suggests. “Then, using the [Geiger Counter as] ferret, explore the room. Soon, by noting the increased number of flashes or clicks, you will be able to locate the hidden source.”

The radioactive sources were kept in sealed glasses and users were advised not to take them out because “they tend to flake and crumble and you would run the risk of having radioactive ore spread out in your laboratory.”

Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab

Cloud chamber from the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab. Photo: Science History Institute/Gregory Tobias

Parents today might be appalled that products containing radioactive materials were marketed towards children. But at that time, there were few laws that regulated the safety of toys. Instead, toy manufacturers responded to trends in popular opinion and consumer taste, which had been pro-science since World War II. Gilbert in particular believed that his toys built a “solid American character”, and many of his toys had some type of educational significance to them. One of his popular line of toys were the ERECTOR construction sets containing metal beams, girders and nuts and bolts.

In the book that accompanied the Atomic Energy Lab, Gilbert tried to assure parents and children that his kit was safe to play with:

There has been so much misinformation about radioactivity that we pause here to reassure you and your parents that the radioactive sources supplied to you are not dangerous in any way. They have been carefully designed by some of the nation’s top scientists to be instructive and harmless. We assure you that no harm will come to you through daily contact with the radioactive sources supplied with your Atomic Energy Lab.

Although modern publications tend to demonize the Atomic Energy Lab, calling it “the world’s most dangerous toy”, but in reality, it was probably no more harmful than a day’s exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun.

The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab sold at $50 a piece, which was expensive at the time, equivalent to about $500 today. For comparison, two competing sets, from the Porter Chemical Company, also containing uranium ore retailed for $10 and $25. No wonder, the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab sold very poorly, with fewer than five thousand units sold during the two years the product was manufactured.

# Allison Marsh, Fun—and Uranium—for the Whole Family in This 1950s Science Kit, IEEE Spectrum
# Gilbert Atomic Energy Manual


  1. I remember that, as a little kid in the '50s, I had an erecter set, but I don't remember ever seeing one of these Atomic Energy Lab sets.

    1. The Atomic Energy Lab sets were on sale for only two years 1950 and 1951. I read somewhere that some stores used to stock them for a few more years, until they sold out. Perhaps that's why you missed it. It wasn't marketed enough.

  2. Do we honestly believe that our parents would buy us a radioactive playset. I had Gilbert Chemistry sets, their Microscope Set, and an Erector Set ... but never even KNEW of a radioactive set.
    Why wasn't I informed that it was available?
    My education has been stunted!
    I mean ... What could go wrong?

    1. The Atomic Energy Lab sets were on sale for only two years 1950 and 1951. Some stores stocked them for a few more years, until they sold out.

      On the other hand, Gilbert's other toys were available for much longer. Even after the company sold out in 1961, these toys were still manufactured and sold under the original names by the new company.

  3. Hey- my hubby remembers being given Mercury to work with in Science class when he was a kid. The teachers encouraged the kids to roll it around on their desks, coat various objects from their pockets with it (hubby remembers coating his house key), and basically fool around with it for the entire class period, and take notes on its properties.
    What could go wrong? *SMH, facepalm*

  4. I had often wondered why I never saw this kit, as my science-obsessed and overly indulgent parents bought me every bit of "kid stuff" lab apparatus and specimen that could be had. But I was only one year old during the heyday of the Gilbert U-238 lab, and the company folded before the Gilbert Time Travel Lab could hit the market.


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