Dec 18, 2007

The Most Memorable Christmas Gift...

I've been thinking lately about the whole "gifting" process. It's evolved enormously in the last century. My grandmother, who lived with us for the last 10 years of her life, came from a family of thirteen children. Even though her father was a successful boat builder and probably could have afforded lavish gifts, she often spoke of her family exchanging very modest gifts at times like Christmas -- gifts like mittens or a spinning top or a hand knit sweater. Gifts in her childhood were very personal and often made by the giver.

Fast forward to today. We seem to be competing for giving the "right" gift, in which "right" often is something that the recipient has specifically asked for. Spontaneity and surprise seem to have taken a back seat. And the idea of the gift being crafted by the giver is almost a thing of the past. We now tend to buy all of our gifts with the possible exception of food gifts. In this transition over the last couple of generations, I think we've lost a lot.

I think the most wondrous gift I ever received for Christmas was in 1951, when I received the Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab. Please don't laugh. This was an incredible gift for a blooming nerd.

I had always shown an interest in science. I loved to take things apart and see how they worked. My family lived a block off the campus of Union College in Schenectady, New York. Many of the faculty were close friends and many of their children were my playmates. I hung out in the labs at Union College and I'm sure I was a pain to the graduate students as I asked hundreds of questions. I befriended Dr. Edward S.C. Smith, head of the geology department. He inspired me to build many home lab experiments. A fair number of discarded Union College laboratory assets ended up in my home laboratory (we lived in an 18-room house with plenty of unused space, so I had staked out an area on the third floor as my "lab").

In 1950, the A.C. Gilbert firm introduced its Atomic Energy Lab. I desperately wanted one but knew it was out of the question to even ask for it -- it cost $49.95! In current dollars, that's about $400. This was an amazing educational product.

A.C. Gilbert was a company most famous for its American Flyer electric trains and Erector sets, but also produced a variety of other educational "sets." These included microscope sets, chemistry sets, and electronics sets. But the Atomic Energy Lab captured my imagination the first time I saw it advertised. To quote from the Blog, Notes from the Technology Underground, "With the help of faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gilbert designed a sort of chemistry/physics set that included radioactive materials, an accurate Geiger Counter, and much more. The purpose of this toy, which was purported to be by 1950’s standards to be completely safe, was to demystify nuclear energy and encourage a deeper, less hysterical understanding of it. The problem with the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory was that is was very expensive to make. It came in a brief case style box and had cool drawings of Rutherford style atoms, with electrons whizzing by in elliptical orbits, on its cover. Inside was the apparatus that allowed boys and girls to “See the Paths of Alpha Particles Speeding at 12,000 Miles per Second!” and “Watch Actual Atomic Disintegration – Right Before your Eyes!”But such meaningful science costs a lot of money, too much in fact, to make for a profitable toy product line. Gilbert lost money with each sale. And even worse, nuclear physics is, well, nuclear physics, which means it’s pretty complex stuff, even for brainy children, and most simply could not understand what was going on. So, the set did not last for a long time in the marketplace. But there were certainly those kids and no doubt adults too, who loved the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Experimenters Kit."

I talked about someday owning one of these sets but knew my parents either couldn't afford such a gift or would think it was too extravagant. They let me know there was no way I could ever get such a gift. But my grandmother had other ideas. Against my parents' better judgement, she put the only Atomic Energy Lab in town on layaway at The Carl Company department store. Little did I know.

On Christmas morning, I saw the package and knew right away what it was. I did every experiment in the first few weeks I owned it, but its influence lasted much longer than that. I used the geiger counter to look for radioactive rocks in upstate New York, and several years later, shared credit with Dr. Smith for a published paper on the subject. The lab had a Wilson Cloud Chamber in it (a device that tracks the paths of subatomic particles) and that inspired me years later to enter the Westinghouse Science Talent Search competition with a related project. I still remember where every piece of the lab fit into its box.

About a year ago, on December 14, 2006, a mint condition Atomic Energy Lab went up for auction at It sold for an astounding $7,944. Unfortunately, my mother gave mine to the Salvation Army while I was in college. Ah, but the memories last forever.

Isn't it wonderful that a gift has the power to bring joy more than 50 years later?!?

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