Splitting Atoms: The U-238 Atomic Energy Lab Kit from A.C. Gilbert

With the Barbenheimer phenomenon currently setting the Internet abuzz, it’s the perfect time to look back at the U-238 Atomic Energy Lab Kit from A.C. Gilbert. Released in 1950, the venerable science kit has been the subject of much press and a staple on any self-respecting “what were they thinking?!?” list of vintage toys.

In that spirit, let’s irradiate 10 facts about the toy:

10. Its retail price was $49.50 USD, approximately $630 in today’s dollars.

9. Fewer than 5,000 units were produced; the toy sold poorly and disappeared from the Gilbert Toys catalog after 1951.

8. The kit came with three sources of radiation (alpha, beta, gamma) and four samples of uranium ore (autunite, torbernite, uraninite, and carnotite), all stored in glass jars.

7. The toy was endorsed by several notable scientific organizations, including the American Institute of Physics and the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

6. Junior scientists could complete experiments using an included electroscope, spinthariscope, or cloud chamber.

5. It is highly prized by collectors today. Sotheby’s recently sold a complete set in very good condition for $4,800 USD, almost 100 times the original price.

4. The kit included a comic book that featured Dagwood from the Blondie comic strip, titled Learn How Dagwood Split’s the Atom!

3. Two different versions of the toy were produced. While the contents were the same in both, Gilbert Toys shipped the initial release in a tan-colored case before pivoting to one in the more commonly seen red case.

2. Documentation included with each kit featured several suggested activities, including the oft-cited “playing hide and seek with the gamma ray source”, and challenging players to locate the hidden radioactive sample using the battery-powered Geiger counter.

1. The kit included a government-produced manual titled, Prospecting for Uranium.

And BOOM! There you have it—a timely retrospective of a brand of fun that characterized a very different era.

Todd Coopee is Editor-in-Chief of Toy Tales, an online publication that covers toys and games past and present.

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