Popular Mechanics mentioned the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab in its recent article, “The Story Behind 5 Banned Toys and Games.” Gilbert put the toy on the market back in 1950 to 1951 and then, inexplicably, withdrew it. It cost fifty bucks, which is about $440 today, which may be why it didn’t last. However, other clues to the reasons for its disappearance may be the radioactive uranium ore that came with it. Kids and uranium. What could go wrong?
Called “the most elaborate Atomic Energy educational set ever produced” by the Oak Ridge Associated Universities, this sophisticated science kit contained four types of uranium ore, its very own Geiger counter and a comic book called Learn How Dagwood Splits the Atom. A form on the back of the instruction manual allowed a burgeoning Ernest Rutherford to send a note to New Haven, Conn., bearing the message, “Gentlemen: I need replacements for the following radioactive sources, (check which): ALPHA____, BETA _____, GAMMA ______ or CLOUD CHAMBER SOURCE____.”
Mechanical engineer and inveterate tinkerer Bill Gurstelle fondly recalls the Atomic Energy Lab, saying, “everybody wanted that kit.” Nowadays, he adds, “science kits are just sugar and salt.” This kit appeared 21 years too soon—the as-yet-nonexistent CPSC never got a chance to ban it. In the meantime, here are the results of our recent experiments with eight new, and decidedly less radioactive, science kits.