Saturday, April 12, 2008

A. C. Gilbert "U-238 Atomic Energy Lab"

Science can yield technologies that can grease the economic wheel--so can an old science toy: The A. C. Gilbert "U-238 Atomic Energy Lab" issued in 1951. The A. C. Gilbert chemistry sets were enormously popular and existing sets do command a premium but nothing like the physics set.

The A. C. Gilbert "U-238 Atomic Energy Lab" was auctioned on December 14th, 2006 and sold for $7, 944.

Here is the auction description:

1951 Complete A.C. Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab (Complete)

A. C. 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, then 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. One such, Gilbert's "Atomic Energy Lab," is here available and it includes all the original componentry which detail:

1. U-239 Geiger radiation counter.
2. Electroscope to measure radioactivity of different substances.
3. Spinthariscope to watch "live" radioactive disintegration.
4. Wilson Cloud Chamber to see paths of electrons & alpha particles at 10k mps
5. Three very low-level radioactive sources (Alpha, Beta, Gamma).
6. Four samples of Uranium-bearing ores
7. Nuclear Spheres (used to visual build models of molecules)
8. The book "Prospecting for Uranium"
9. The "Gilbert Atomic Energy Manual"
10. The comic book "Learn How Dagwood Splits the Atom"
11. Three "Winchester" Batteries (size "C")

All of these components were retail-presented in a sturdy, hinged case that measures 25" x 16 1/2" x 5", all with an easy-to-carry handle. The case came in beautiful faux snake skin cover with "Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab" wonderfully stenciled on the cover, and atomic particles displayed below.

The set we offer here is truly amazing in that it has all the original pieces in remarkable and apparent unused condition. The case remains in its wonderful red color with minimal wear to the surface, and survives in very strong EX/MT condition. Inside the cover, there appears a full dimension, illustrated paper appliqué which is in Excellent condition, qualified only by a couple small stains and handwritten pricing. The remainder of the contents are still intact, and though appearing unused, they have lain dormant for over half a century and appear in EX/MT condition. The two books are still in EX/MT-NM condition, with the comic book in Excellent (taped spine). Last, but not least, included is an original Gilbert Toys catalog from 1951 which provides an ad for the Atomic Energy Lab. The book is in VG/EX condition.

Overall, the entire set (remarkably still complete) is a true find and though we can't physically go back to the time when atomic energy and toys were as fascinating as this, we may reminisce in how much fun it was to be a kid.

Associated with the A. C. Gilbert "U-238 Atomic Energy Lab" were other physics toys and a famous cereal premium.

This ring spinthariscope was known as the Lone Ranger Atom Bomb Ring and advertised as a "seething scientific creation." The Lone Ranger was more closely associated with silver bullets than atomic bombs but that's what it was called. When the red base (which served as a "secret message compartment") was taken off, and after a suitable period of time for dark adaptation, you could look through a small plastic lens at scintillations caused by polonium alpha particles striking a zinc sulfide screen.

Distributed by Kix Cereals (15 cents plus a boxtop), the instructions stated: "You'll see brilliant flashes of light in the inky darkness inside the atom chamber. These frenzied vivid flashes are caused by the released energy of atoms. PERFECTLY SAFE - We guarantee you can wear the KIX Atomic "Bomb" Ring with complete safety. The atomic materials inside the ring are harmless.

It has been difficult to determine exactly what radioactive element was used for some sources indicated a bit of uranium or radium, but most favored polonium210 that had a halflife of about 138 days.

I still have mine and can fetch $125 and up if that precious shipping box was retained. Maybe there is a lesson to be learned--don't throw away any science toys.

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