Ulster Museum

Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab

You can see the Atomic Energy Lab in a rather dark corner of the Elements exhibition, on the third floor of the museum. The lighting has been dimmed here to stop the colours of the wonderful 1950s graphics from fading.

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The 1950s was a time of optimism as the ‘Atomic Age’ dawned. Nuclear fission was seen as a source of limitless cheap power and an end to wars.

Into this utopian vision a remarkable educational 'toy' emerged in 1951 - the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab – complete with an idyllic image of a child marvelling at the new technology.

The set contained several radioactive sources, uranium ore samples, a spinthariscope, and a cloud chamber. A young nuclear scientist could use this equipment to watch the flashes and trails of sub-atomic particles shedding from unstable isotopes. They could also use the Geiger counter to discover how contaminated they had become.

This amazing toy might not meet today’s health and safety standards, but it was not as dangerous as is often claimed. The box itself proclaimed that it was ‘Exciting! Safe!’.

It was withdrawn from sale in 1951 because its price of US$50 (US$470 in today’s money) was too expensive for most families. It was also far too complicated. Most Atomic Energy Lab sets that come on to the collectibles market today look as if they were barely used by their baffled owners.