Tuesday, March 31, 2015

It's a Spinthariscope, Kemo Sabe

This is one of 1122 articles in my book Now and Then Again, The Way We Were and the Way We Are, second edition. The book is available from Amazon for $20.95 print and $9.95 Kindle and also as an ebook from Apple, Kobo, and Scribd for $9.95. It's fixed format so it's better with a tablet, laptop, or computer. There are more articles from the book on another blog here. And there is a book preview website.

It's a Spinthariscope, Kemo Sabe

See genuine atoms split to smithereens inside this Kix Atomic Bomb Ring. For just 15¢ plus a Kix cereal boxtop the Lone Ranger Atomic Bomb Ring could have been yours in 1947.

The ring was advertised on the Lone Ranger radio show. It was also advertised in print, but  came to be known as the Lone Ranger Atomic Bomb Ring.The contra-diction of a 19th century cowboy selling a 20th century weapon was missed, maybe because the business end of the ring bomb looked like the Lone Ranger's silver bullet. (My wife actually had one as a kid.)

The red tail fin on the bomb could be removed to expose a secret message compartment. Then you could go into a dark room and look through a lens at the back and see a shower of light flashes.
The light flashes were caused by particles emitted by a radioactive element hitting a screen coated with zinc sulfide. This is called a spinthariscope.

The spinthariscope was invented by English scientist Sir William Crookes (1832-1919) in 1903. Crookes was experi-menting in the dark with radium bromide, observing how it made a screen coated with zinc sulfide glow, when he accidently spilled some of the very costly radium on the screen. When he examined the screen under a microscope to locate even the smallest speck, he saw flashes of light rather than a uniform glow.

Crookes then built a small device with a speck of radium bromide on the tip of a needle, a zinc sulfide screen behind it, and a lens in front, all inside a brass tube. He named it a spinthariscope, from the Greek word for scintillation.

On May 15, 1903, Crookes showed his spinthariscope at a gala affair at the British Royal Society. It was a hit, and soon became the must-have toy for toffs.

The Lone Ranger spinthariscope used polonium 210, really bad stuff (remember that Russian guy who was poisoned with it?). But the alpha particles it emits don't penetrate the skin and the glass lens on the ring blocks them. (The problem comes when you eat it.) It has a half-life of only 138 days, so all the old Lone Ranger rings are dead now.

You can buy spinthariscopes today that use thorium or americium.

Copyright © 2020 Joseph Mirsky

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