World's most dangerous toy goes on display at Ulster Museum

By Richard Moss | 17 February 2015

Only available between 1951 and 1952, the Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab’was the most elaborate atomic energy educational set ever produced

A photo of a man with an old fashioned science set in a box
Dr Mike Simms with the Atomic Energy Lab science set
Most parents with youngsters of primary school age have probably encountered the phenomenon of the science set – the box of plastic volcanoes, measuring jugs and DIY rockets that will have you scouring the cupboards for vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and food colouring.

But the danger that lies within the creation of home-made lava eruptions and rocket launches pales in comparison to what some children of the 1950s were encouraged to engage in.

The Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab, which was produced in the US between 1952 and 1953 and was on sale for the princely sum of $50, has gone on display at Ulster Museum - and it by the looks of it, it lives up to its reputation as being the most dangerous toy in the world.

Billed as being “for the junior scientist”, the set allowed budding nuclear physicists to perform more than 150 experiments, and even came with four types of uranium ore and three different radiation sources (alpha, beta and gamma). 

A contraption called a spinthariscope and a cloud chamber were used to reveal the speeding particles produced by atomic disintegration, while a handy Geiger counter was on hand to detect how contaminated the young scientist had become.

There was a government manual too, “Prospecting for Uranium”, and even a form for ordering replacement radioactive sources.

a close up of a text lable on the box highlighting a $10,000 reward for the discovery of uranium ore deposits
A call out for Uranium Ore deposits
National Museums Northern Ireland’s Curator of Palaeontology, Dr Mike Simms, recently came across the opportunity to purchase the “fabulous and unusual set”.

“I think visitors will find it amazing and amusing that this set allowed budding young scientists to measure radioactivity of Uranium in the comfort of their own homes," he said.

“Perhaps it wouldn’t pass today’s health and safety standards but it is a perfect fit for the Elements exhibition. And, on the eve of the Northern Ireland Science Festival, timing for this new addition couldn’t be better.”

The Ulster Museum’s Elements exhibition is based on the periodic table and explores how some 90 natural elements, including carbon and hydrogen, make up everything that we can see and feel around us – and on into the universe. 

Visitors can discover where elements were created, how they occur naturally, what they look like, how we use them and why they can be dangerous. 

  • The Northern Ireland Science Festival takes place between February 19  and March 1 2015. Visit nisciencefestival.com.


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