Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab

Back in the 1950’s, at the height of the Cold War there was all sorts of amateur atomic experimentation going on. I guess it was a sort of “know thy enemy” attempt at making peace with a suddenly much too dangerous world.

A.C. Gilbert, who among other accomplishments, won the Gold Medal in Pole Vaulting at the 1908 Olympic Games in London, graduated from Yale Medical School and then, in what must have been a hard left turn on his life’s highway, started a toy manufacturing company.

Eventually, the A. C. Gilbert Company became the leader in the manufacture of construction and scientific toys like chemistry sets and erector sets.
Gilbert’s sets sold like hotcakes, and over thirty million of them would be purchased.

But Gilbert himself was a person who was interested in more than money. He was said to be deeply involved in the mission of his company, that is, to bring kids to enjoy and appreciate science. So, he tried several other avenues besides chemistry sets as well. Among them was the Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab. With the help of faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gilbert designed a sort of chemistry/physics set that included radioactive materials, an accurate Geiger Counter, and much more. The purpose of this toy, which was purported to be by 1950’s standards to be completely safe, was to demystify nuclear energy and encourage a deeper, less hysterical understanding of it.

The problem with the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory was that is was very expensive to make. It came in a brief case style box and had cool drawings of Rutherford style atoms, with electrons whizzing by in elliptical orbits, on its cover. Inside was the apparatus that allowed boys and girls to “See the Paths of Alpha Particles Speeding at 12,000 Miles per Second!” and “Watch Actual Atomic Disintegration – Right Before your Eyes!”

But such meaningful science costs a lot of money, too much in fact, to make for a profitable toy product line. Gilbert lost money with each sale. And even worse, nuclear physics is, well, nuclear physics, which means it’s pretty complex stuff, even for brainy children, and most simply could not understand what was going on. So, the set did not last for a long time in the marketplace. But there were certainly those kids and no doubt adults too, who loved the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Experimenters Kit.

If you have a Gilbert U-238, hang on it to it. From what I can tell from places that deal in collectibles, for instance, ebay, there is a big demand and they go for a lot of money.

As a kid, I did own a Gilbert chemistry set. In those days, chemistry sets had real (read potentially dangerous) chemicals in them and the science experiments were better than they are today. Editorializing now, it seems to me that modern chemistry sets are weak conceptually, because the only types of chemicals included are "safe" or non-toxic ones which drastically reduces the scope and depth of the projects available.


lcmaven said...

Yes, I had a Gilbert Chemistry set as a child in the 50's. I also had a manual for Gilbert's Hydraulic set, which apparently consisted of various small pipes, valves, and balloons. The manual included instructions for building several different kinds of water cannons. I remember thinking that this sounded extremely cool, and wishing that I actually owned the set, not just the manual. Does anyone else remember this?

BTW, I hope those electrons were in elliptical orbits, not parabolic ones!

James Aach said...

I enjoyed reading about the atomic lab. I also recall a Lassie show from the period where Timmy gets contaminated by a missle.

You might find my site Rad interesting.

Lee Snavely said...

Ahhh, but let us not forget the Chemcraft Atomic Energy Kit from the Porter Chemical Company (later Lionel/Porter) of Hagerstown,MD!

Sort of off the subject, I was astounded* to find that an entire book had been published about the Chemcraft Co., The Chemcraft Story: The Legacy of Harold Porter (review here, about midway down the page) and that some people attribute their professional careers to science kits such as these.

*Astounded because I'm related to the Porter family in convoluted ways. Their gift of a basic Chemcraft kit set off a lifelong fascination with science and, well, underground technology.

Anonymous said...

In 1956, I was six years old and a contestant on the Rootie Kazootie tv show. I won a Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab. I remember the geiger counter and all the fun I had with the set. It was like a small suit case and I often carried it around with me. I sure wish I still had it.

Charles Yulish said...

The Gilbert Atomic Energy Kit was a wonderful and fascinating experience for me at a very early age. So much so that for the past 40 years my entire career was engaged in nuclear energy...Still is. I never forgot that tin geiger counter. Charles Yulish