Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab: nuclear playset for kids

This Gilbert No. U-238 Atomic Energy Lab on eBay is a pretty fabulous bit of science education history: a children's science kit that included a Geiger counter, electroscope, cloud chamber, spinthariscope, and, of course, radioisotopes.
Gilbert was a man of true inspiration, often compared to Walt Disney for his creative genius. Gilbert had high expectations of America's youngsters, and with such he tried to help the future engineers, doctors and leaders by providing toys worthy of their imaginations. As the inventor of the Erector Set, and seeing its commercial appeal, the he and his company set a higher goal. They became the leading manufacturer of scientific toys (chemistry sets) and construction sets (Erector), all of which gained wide acclaim at the retail level. Interested in the joy of science more than remuneration, however, Gilbert created the Atomic Energy Lab U-238 - with the help of MIT's able faculty. The toy was made to de-mystify the perils of nuclear energy and to encourage the understanding of chemistry, physics and nuclear science - ultimately helping kids (and adults) become more open to the possibilities these disciplines offer. This educational composite, which was marketed during 1950-51, sold for $49.50 - a very high price for a toy set, even by today's standard.
Gilbert No. U-238 Atomic Energy Lab (Thanks, Cinemajay!)


  1. That auction has a $250 shipping cost – are they going to have to hire the Mafia to transport it across state lines, or what?

  2. It’s probably illegal to send that in the mail. So I imagine they will seal it in a lead-lined box and drive it to your front door personally.

  3. Actually, it looks like it ships UPS, and it comes out to under $100 for them to send it to me. It must be heavy! And you must be much further away from New Hampshire than I am.

    1. If you can find your way to Google you’ll find your answer all on your very own. It’s not hard, really, even a simple search for “gilbert toys” will bring you great satisfaction.

  4. Today, what passes for a science kit consists of a few balloons, a rubber band, some baking soda, and 100 pages of legal disclaimers.

  5. I remember my Gilbert chemistry set with fondness. I wasn’t that in love with my Erector set. It came with square nuts and no lock washers. Allied kits also lacked lockwashers. Heathkits came with lockwashers.
    Some years later I took the motor from the Erector set and used the coils and a bundle of nails to make my first bulk tape erasure.
    One of the Lone Ranger premiums from that period was a “silver bullet” that contained a speck that emitted particles causing flashes on a screen within the bullet. All this visible if you held it up to your eye.
    Obviously the cereal company involved wasn’t paying a monster retainer to a law firm.

      1. I still have my Lone Ranger Atomic Bomb Ring purchased with a coupon from a Kix box, but only the Fat Man bomb part of it; the ring itself is long gone. Maybe 15-20 years ago I held it to my eye while going to sleep and saw one flash. Or was that my imagination? It’s for sure dead now, with a 138 day half-life for Po-210. And I’d always thought it had tritium inside.

  6. The A.C. Gilbert Company also manufactured American Flyer model trains, which were once the main competitor to Lionel. As a little kid in New York, I remember visiting the grandly named “Gilbert Hall of Science,” which featured a huge model train layout. There must have also been areas devoted to the other Gilbert goods like Erector Sets, but I don’t remember that part.

    The Hall of Science was near Madison Square in Manhattan, where 5th Avenue and Broadway meet. A quick googling found this page about it:

    1. I have a nice old American Flyer set. Two rails rather than Lionel’s three, which always struck me as having a bit more correspondence with actual railroading.

      (Also, the light and “smoke” things in the old steam loco still worked, last time I tried them!)

      1. The two rails instead of three was American Flyer’s big selling point — it was “more realistic.”

        I still have a few remnants of my old American Flyers, including a cattle car that loaded and unloaded little magnetic(?) cows from and to a corral.

  7. The ring was pure crap but can you imagine getting it by the legal dept today or for that matter anything Gilbert made?
    Everyone with an Edmund Scientific catalog in their john, raise your hand.
    Wish I’d saved a Johnson-Smith catalog. They were to a 10 year old boy what a Sears catalog was to adults.

  8. I was born in the late 60’s. I remember having two chemistry sets. One was fairly modern (late 70’s early 80’s?) that actually contained all the ingredients for Gelignite. I’m not sure how my Portuguese uncle knew the recipe, but he sensibly refused to divulge the combination even when pestered. The other was a hand-me-down from the 50’s and included a completely lethal asbestos board. Thankfully I knew the dangers of asbestos even at a young age, and only slid it halfway out of it’s envelope once. It looked like crumbly cardboard, and I’m sure would have happily given me asbestosis.

    Ahh, those were the days.

  9. Fifty bucks in the early 50s would be like oh, US$300-400.00 now.

    @ Roy Trumbull – Hello from a fellow audio geek!

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