The Most Dangerous Toy In The World (Cost $50)

By Debra Kelly on Thursday, September 18, 2014
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“Ay me! what perils do environ / The man that meddles with cold iron!” —Samuel Butler, Hudibras

In A Nutshell

A.C. Gilbert was the founder of one of the largest toy companies in the world—even if you don’t know his name, you know the toys he created. While many of the Gilbert toys, like the Erector set, were educational toys that would result in a few pinched fingers at worst, others ranged from bizarre to downright deadly. Their microscope kits came complete with insect parts, while their Gilbert Kaster Kit allowed kids to use molten metal to pour their own die-cast figures. And we can’t forget about the Atomic Energy Lab, which came with a few different kinds of uranium and instructions for mining your own.

The Whole Bushel

Today, most toys come with rounded edges, safety features, bright colors, and warning labels for all those pesky bits that they couldn’t get exactly 100 percent harmless. There are consumer safety warnings, there’s extensive testing done to make sure no one’s going to accidentally hurt themselves with whatever they’ve just gotten for their birthday . . . and parents can buy things assured they’ve been checked and double checked and rechecked again.

It wasn’t always like that, of course. Toys used to be epic.

Especially those made by the toy giant A.C. Gilbert. Named for its founder, the company was a leading toy manufacturer between 1909 and 1964. One of their first toys is perhaps the most iconic: the Erector set. The idea was developed by Gilbert when he was on a journey by train, and passed the time by watching men erecting power lines to run the brand new electric trains. It was just one of many toys that he designed to be fun and educational, most with an angle toward teaching kids all about construction, architecture, science, and physics.

Fortunately, this was before the days of warning labels.

For only $6.50, kids could purchase the Gilbert Kaster Kit. The machine allowed them to make their own metal-cast figurines and toy soldiers, simply by heating a bit of lead to 200 degrees Celsius (400 °F) and pouring it into the molds.

There were a number of different microscope kits for sale, and kids could choose from those that included things like bits of minerals to bits of insects, all ready for examination under the microscope. And we certainly can’t forget their chemistry sets. Quite the contrast to today’s chemistry sets (some of which, bizarrely, advertise that they’re so safe they don’t even contain any actual chemicals), the Gilbert chemistry sets had all the fun stuff. Kids could experiment with mixing and heating chemicals like sodium nitrate, ammonium chloride, and cobalt chloride—some even included different types of cyanide.

Then there was, of course, the Gilbert Glass-Blowing Kit, which allowed boys who were interested in creating their own test tubes and beakers to try melting and shaping glass from scratch—blow-torch required.

The Gilbert U-238 had a rather short-lived run, but its inclusion of four different types of uranium makes it one of the most ridiculous of the Gilbert toys. Kids could learn how to use a Geiger counter (also included in the kit), play with the miniature cloud chamber, and read all about radioactive materials in the included books. Learn How Dagwood Splits the Atom tells kids all about how nuclear energy is made, and there was also another booklet that gave kids a crash course on how to find their own uranium.

(There was a reorder form included if your attempts at finding uranium in your backyard failed, and you still wanted a few more tries at the Geiger counter and cloud chamber.)

It also urged kids to go out and find those new uranium sources, because the government was going to pay for them! It would have allowed their parents to recoup some of the hefty $50 that the kit cost in the first place. But really, who are we to put a price tag on learning?

Show Me The Proof

Featured image credit: Webms
Scientific American: The Inspiring, Nerdy Toys of A. C. Gilbert
Experimental glass blowing for boys (1920) (Digitized instruction booklet)
Gilbert House Children’s Museum: Alfred Carlton “A.C.” Gilbert
Gajitz: 1950s Radioactive Science Kit: Most Dangerous Toy Ever?
Elko Daily Free Press: Speaking of Science: A.C. Gilbert chemistry sets