How Dagwood Split the Atom

In 1907, with a generous loan from his very understanding father, young Alfred Carlton Gilbert (deciding not to use his Yale medical degree) started the Mysto Manufacturing Company dedicated to the production of magic kits. A few years later, Gilbert took a train from Connecticut into New York and while taking in the sites through the train window, mused to himself that the steel girders of a distant building project looked a bit like a toy.

Ever the imaginative chap, Gilbert got to work and soon patented his Erector Set, changing the name of Mysto to the A.C. Gilbert Toy

English: Advertisement for Erector Set toy 1922
English: Advertisement for Erector Set toy 1922 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Company. The Erector Set became enormously popular and soon new products emerged, all with the goal of education through play. Before it was a widely accepted concept among early educators, A.C. Gilbert subscribed to the idea that play was how children learned best and his product line demonstrated it. Gilbert produced not only building sets, but also chemistry sets, microscopes, glass-blowing kits, mineralogy sets, model trains, and even an atomic energy lab.

That’s right, folks, in 1950 and 1951 (obviously before the days of the Consumer Product Safety Commission), wealthy parents could purchase for their curious young children the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, complete with a Geiger counter, electroscope, spinthariscope (and if you know what that is, perhaps you played with one as a child), Wilson cloud chamber, four Uranium-bearing ore samples, three low-level radiation sources (and an order form for refills: “Gentlemen: I need replacements for the following radioactive sources, (check which): ALPHA____, BETA _____, GAMMA ______ or CLOUD CHAMBER SOURCE____.” ), ball and stick model supplies, the Gilbert Atomic Energy Manual, three C batteries, and a comic book called Learn How Dagwood Split the Atom.

Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, 1950

The kit sold for $49.50, which Wikipedia suggests is about 460 of today’s US dollars. Of course you couldn’t buy the U-238 for that little today. I found one that sold at auction about a month ago for $8,000 (In today’s money that would be around $8,000!).

But I did recently see a mostly complete set on display at the A.C. Gilbert Discovery Village in Salem, Oregon, a children’s museum named for the toy inventor who was a Salem native. The museum contains a number of imaginative exhibits, including a display dedicated to A.C. Gilbert’s life and work, and a playground in which you can find a play structure that claims to be the largest Erector Set in the world.

I’ve been to the museum a number of times with my two sons since we live nearby, but this particular visit was at the request my 8-year-old who received a large Erector Set for Christmas this year. He sorted through the little steel girders, screws, and various other doodads (that’s a technical term for those of you who are not as mechanically savvy as I am), and rapidly assembled a crane that lifted all manner of household items. As he worked I reminded him about A.C. Gilbert and the museum.

Erector playset at A.C. Gilbert Discovery Village
Erector playset at A.C. Gilbert Discovery Village

Though E certainly did not inherit from me his natural curiosity and mastery of all things mechanical, I am delighted to report that he does share at least a little bit of my interest in research. So to the museum we went, where I geeked out about the fabulously dangerous sounding science kit marketed for only one or two years by the A.C. Gilbert Company and where it turned out that E was actually more interested in climbing all over the giant Erector Set.

He was probably examining it to see how it was put together and perhaps whether or not he would be able to take it apart. I’m sure he would love an atomic energy lab, too. Unfortunately (or not), I don’t think you can still get replacement radioactive material without winding up on a government watch list.

The "Baker" explosion, part of Opera...

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6 thoughts on “How Dagwood Split the Atom

  1. Bridget

    Erector Set (Meccano as we klnow it in GB) is a great toy. As for the Atomic Energy Lab, well “Elfin Safety” would have a field day!!! (that is Health and Safety, the scourge of all things fun and dangerous)

    1. Oh, I know, right? Kids usually manage to find dangerous fun no matter what we let them play with. Meccano was a similar building set that was around a little before Erector and then later purchased by the A.C. Gilbert company. My son’s set actually has both names on it. And I’m pretty sure it is dangerous, though probably not radioactive. I think.

  2. Wonderful post. I somehow missed Erector sets as a kid, much to my chagrin when I played at my buddy’s houses that had one. Totally cool toy. I had to confine my creativity to my two American Bricks sets, which were early analogs to Lego sets … except you could only build houses with the red bricks they provided (with white trim and a blue paper roof). Radioactive toys would have been far beyond our means, unfortunately. Alas, alack….

    1. I didn’t have an Erector Set either. I actually remember being really intimidated by them. In retrospect perhaps that should have been my first clue that I should cross engineer/architect off my list of things I could possibly want to be when I grew up. But just imagine the possibilities if I could have had an atomic energy lab. Alas, I was born after the introduction of the CPSC.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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