Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Kids with Radioisotopes

Anyone remember owning one of these Lone Ranger Atomic Rings? I was probably about 13 years old and either ordered one though the mail for a quarter and a cereal box or perhaps pestered my mom to buy Kix cereal so I could get the ring inside.

All by itself, it's a pretty cool looking ring, but there's more. The Lone Ranger Atomic Ring lets kids look at atoms. How many thirteen year olds get to do that today? In a darkened room you pull off the red plastic fins and thru a small lens you get a magnified view of a white screen which sparkles several times a minute. Each spark is caused by the decay product (probably an alpha ray) of a radioisotope (probably Radium) which leaves a glowing track in a phosphor--a material that turns the energy of a charged particle into light. Phosphers are what lights up your obsolete CRT screen as well as fluorescent lights. I used to take my Atomic Ring to bed with me, pull the covers over my head and watch radioactive nuclei disintegrate. As a physicist many years later I was given the chance to meddle with many more kinds of radioactive materials and even made some of my own with a research reactor at Ohio State University and a Van De Graaf accelerator at Stanford.

I had completely forgotten about my youthful experiences with radioactivity until I read John Walker's review of Mad Science by Theo Gray--a book full of fascinating, awe-inspiring and truly dangerous physics and chemistry experiments. The chapter on how to make your own cloud chamber with a pint of vodka and some dry ice includes a picture of the Atomic Ring and the information that American kids in 1947 could purchase their own radioisotopes for the price of a box of Kix cereal. I remember the ring, I remember seeing the flashes, but what I can't recall is what the Atomic Ring had to do with the Lone Ranger and Tonto whose activities preceded the atomic age by decades.

More info here including a lurid advertisement. Apparently Polonium was the radioactive source.

2 comments:

Gab said...

I want a radioactive Lone Ranger Ring too!!!! That is SO COOL. Slept with it under your pillow, ey? Now, that explains Everything! :-)

Yammerschooner said...

I had an atomic ring when I was five or six years old in 1947 or 1948. It was the coolest toy I ever owned. It must have had an influence on me, as an adult I spent five years working in a nuclear plant as an emission spectroscopy analyst