Page about the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab (1950-1951)


Here's a nice homage to the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, from the early 1950s.

This was the most elaborate Atomic Energy educational set ever produced, but it was only only available from 1951 to 1952. Its relatively high price for the time ($50.00) and its sophistication were the explanation Gilbert gave for the set's short lifespan. Today, it is so highly prized by collectors that a complete set can go for more than 100 times the original price.

The set came with four types of uranium ore, a beta-alpha source (Pb-210), a pure beta source (Ru-106), a gamma source (Zn-65?), a spinthariscope, a cloud chamber with its own short-lived alpha source (Po-210), an electroscope, a geiger counter, a manual, a comic book (Dagwood Splits the Atom) and a government manual "Prospecting for Uranium."


  1. My god, this is beautiful.

    I think someone really talented should build toys that serve absurd or fantastic purposes (like Bill Barker’s Eldritch Co. stuff or Chris Ware’s comics) and have the same luscious, colorful kickass Googie design as this Atomic Energy Lab.

  2. with its own short-lived alpha source (Po-210)

    Po-210 is orders of magnitude more dangerous than mercury. Perhaps Andrei Lugovoi played with the Soviet equivalent as a tot?

  3. Methinks Gilbert ought to get into the retro science kit business. They could sell a few thousand of these kits to rich Cold War children.

    They might have to leave out the polonium to get it past the safety people, but still…

  4. @12 you can get Po-210 at very low (National Regulatory Exempt) levels without needing licensing. A bunch of other Isotopes too: List of NRC exempt levels The top-level domain company sells several alpha, beta and gamma sources to the public (you would have to eat them or sleep with them to be dangerous). The main problem with Po-210 is that it has a short half life and decays pretty quickly, They use the stuff a lot in anti-static brushes for lenses. Personally, I think Na-22 (sodium 22) is pretty nifty, it’s one of the few isotopes that decays and produces antimatter (positrons).

  5. The included “How Dagwood Splits the Atom” comic book, with his wife Blondie, Mandrake the Magician, and Popeye(?!), is priceless. Who could have imagined back then that Dagwood’s best accomplishments; napping, avoiding his boss, and eating huge sandwiches, would be overshadowed by his prowess in nuclear physics!

  6. Major Baird: Joyce! Come back!

    Joel (or Crow or Servo): You haven’t written Ulysses yet!

  7. Little Johnny on the box already looks like he has a radiation burn down the side of his face and he is surrounded by a glowing halo which my guess isn’t Ready-Brek induced.

  8. Cool. I want one.

    (I had a giggle when I noticed that the box says “Safe!” and it contains Polonium-210. I do realise it’s probably trace amounts embedded in glass or something, but still.)

    By an amazing coinkydink I was down at the op-shop earlier looking for uranium glass with my geiger counter.

  9. @#16 hkedi,
    Based on that list, if my calculations are correct, the exempt amount of Po-210 would be less than 0.2 nanograms.

  10. @#4 – doesn’t he look like a square-jawed about-to-become superhero subject to a radiation test gone wrong?

    These sets have just tripled in price – no more suitcases out of Siberia boys! Just buy some kits!

  11. Anyone care to write to the ‘Gentlemen’ at Erector Sq. (snigger) and see if replacement sources are still available?

  12. @22 Spazzm,

    I actually get 22 femtograms of Po-210 (source) , which is still enough to have close to 4000 disintegrations per second (3703 bequerels), more than enough to detect when you put it into a cloud chamber. By physical standards this is a vanishingly small amount, and they probably put bismituth-209 near a neutron flux to convert it to Po-210. These sources are incredibly small, which is why they can be purchased without licensing. You would have to buy hundreds to thousands of these sources to get into dangerous territory, by which time the feds would be knocking on your door.

  13. buy? Just head down to Hanford with a shovel. Or better still, bring a case of beer and swap it with the clean-up guys for some radioactive garbage they’d otherwise have to bury.

  14. I have this and a huge chem kit from the same era. My father’s uncle gave them as x-mas gifts way back when.

    Sometime ago a whole bunch of train cars came through with radioactive sand from Kuwait. They sat in the yard here for a few days. We took the counter over to see what it would do. It crackled at about the same rate it does on U-glass. But there were hotspots were the crackling became nothing more than a loud hiss! EEK!

  15. #6 “Having one of these now probably puts you on the terrorist watch list.”

    Just bidding for one on eBay will put you on a terrorist watch list

  16. Note that if you throw one of these out in the trash, London Police demand that snooping neighbors tell on you.

  17. I think i will have to report this to the proper British authorities. Because, you know, don’t rely on others. If you suspect it, report it.

  18. “‘Dagwood Splits the Atom?’ Wasn’t that a Tijuana Bible?”

    Planettom, you’re thinking of “Dagwood Splits the Madam”.

  19. Around 1988, I found one of these at a flea market in Birmingham, Alabama and gave it as a graduation gift to my good friend (and mad computer scientist) Rob Smith, when he got his PHD. It was complete except for the glass cloud chamber. Rob found a Geiger counter at school and the radioactive bits were indeed slightly
    radioactive! The most bizarre aspect of it- besides the whole concept- was that the case it came in. It was a sort of faux, speckled, reptile skin!

    What a wonderful packaging choice…

  20. Kids toys, back in the day, were wonderful. I have a book from 1911, “Pepper’s Playbook of Science” that has fun experiments that can kill you fifty times over. But what a way to go!

  21. #6 “Having one of these now probably puts you on the terrorist watch list.”

    #32/Ned613 Just bidding for one on eBay will put you on a terrorist watch list

    Just joking about bidding for one on eBay will put you on a terrorist watch list.
    And, No, joking about joking about bidding for one on eBay will NOT put you on a terrorist watch list. (I looked it up, so dont try to out-meta me!)

  22. #39 I’ve made a homemade cloud chamber and geiger counter before: for radiation sources, a balloon with a good static charge works well.

    Don’t confuse an E-field associated with a static charge with actual ionizing radiation. They will both ionize gas particles, but through entirely different mechanisms.

  23. @42

    fair go. actually you have to set the balloon aside for a bit, until it has collected some radioactive dust.

    That, or you COULD just RTFM.

  24. #43:

    That, or you COULD just RTFM.

    Could you elaborate on that? I don’t see anything in the original article or the links you posted about balloons.

  25. “you would have to eat them or sleep with them to be dangerous”

    There goes my summer vacation plans.

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