The Ghosts of Christmas Presents Past: Atomic Bomb Kits

Number two: Chemistry Sets and Atomic Bomb Kits

ONCE upon a time, kids didn’t only wear shorts, shirts and ties at school; they wore them at home too, and probably in bed. But then, in those days playing at home was a bit like being at school.

In fact it was a lot like being at school, especially if one’s “toy” was the ever-popular Merit Chemistry Outfit (tie not included). With this kit, a young boy (or girl, providing she hid her pigtails and wore shorts, short and tie) could experience the fun of a double-science lesson at any time in Room B (bedroom) or Room K (kitchen).

These sets were quite fancy by the standards of British toys of the day (lump of coal with a face drawn on it, old cork with whiskers and a string tail, etc). In America, however, things were fancier still. And fanciest of all was the A.C. Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab.

This Armageddon-in-a-box didn’t come cheap – it retailed at $49.50 in 1951 – but then it didn’t exactly stint on the equipment. Contents included a U-239 Geiger radiation counter, an electroscope, a

Spinthariscope, a Wilson Cloud Chamber, some nuclear spheres, four samples of Uranium-bearing ores,
and three “radioactive sources”.
Oh, and a booklet on how to split the atom, written by the director of the Manhattan Project.

The best you could do with a Merit set was make a few stink bombs and set fire to the curtains. The junior atomic lab, on the other hand, opened up previously undreamt of opportunities for homemade fun.

Fact: A.C. Gilbert was also the man behind the best-selling Erector Set. Relax, ladies, it was a kind of Meccano.

Ed Barrett

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