Moments in History

Playing With Atoms

From the 1950s through sometime in the 1980s, schoolchildren across America were taught to duck and cover in the event of a nuclear explosion. While controversial, there was anecdotal evidence from Nagasaki that suggests this method would work.

But what about when you weren’t huddled under your desk, fearful that the commie bastards had let the big one go? You play with atoms, of course!

As part of the Atoms for Peace program, which yielded the NS Savannah, between 120 and 140 gammators were made for schools and other places of learning to educate people about the atom. Basically, it was about the size of a pony keg and had a small chamber in which objects could be placed and a control panel on top. School science classes and university students would use it to perform simple experiments with radiation. The irradiating action came from 400 curies of caesium-137 in the gammator.

The Department of Energy, which oversees nuclear activity in the United States has been going around and collecting as many gammators as they can find. Because records were a bit shoddy, they don’t know how many were actually produced. Even more worrisome, several they do know existed can not be located. Why is this a worry? The government is concerned that these toys they had built in the 1950s and 1960s could be used to make dirty bombs.

[Image Credits: The L Magazine]

  • The Professor

    Hmmm. I wonder how many gerbils and hamsters those things have irradiated?

    • Alff

      I wonder how many regulars here ever participated in a duck and cover drill. As an elementary student in the 70's, I never did.

      • pj134

        As an elementary student in the 90's and early aughts, what's a "Cold War"?

      • The Professor

        Hmmm, that's a bit after my time, I'm afraid. When did pennyfarthing bicycles go out of fashion?

      • HS graduation in 1980, so that was not part of our curriculum. My wife is 10 years older, and she does remember doing that.

      • domino_vitali

        no "duck and cover" for us, just fire and tornado drills. but i went to elementary school during the cold war and was frequently referred to as "commie" by other students in order to blow my cover. everyone knows the Soviets used 7 year old American girls as sleeper agents.

  • Number_Six

    Related to the duck and cover aspect: I once spent an afternoon with a Hiroshima survivor who was in his eighties and had been an engineering student on his way to school when the bomb was dropped. He instinctively threw himself to the floor of the tram he was riding when he realized he'd seen a flash in his peripheral vision. The tram was flipped over in the blast and he was pretty badly injured, but everyone else who'd remained in their seat had been killed by flying debris and the windows of the tram. I didn't get into the gory details of his subsequent illnesses, but suffice it to say his dropping to the floor saved his life. Similarly, one of his friends threw himself into a fountain when the flash caught his attention. The water boiled and his skin was mostly seared off, but he survived and nobody around him did.

    I wonder if there's anything today we're treating as casually as we have radiation in the past – like the foot x-ray machines in shoe stores. Could it be smart phones or gaming consoles or digital picture frames?

    • craigsu

      Foot x-ray machines in shoe stores? Why? Makes me glad I order my shoes online. I couldn't tell you the last time I was in an actual shoe store. Gotta love Sierra Trading Post, those folks have some great deals.

      • tonyola

        My mom told me that when she was a child, shoe stores would sometimes have fluoroscopes so customers could see the bones in their feet. It was quite an impressive gimmick to show how well shoes fit.
        <img src="http://cache.gawkerassets.com/assets/images/8/2011/09/medium_shoe-fitting_1.jpg&quot; width=400>

        • The Professor

          Oh yes, there were lots of 'miracle cures' containing radium back in those days. Many people died extremely gruesome and painful deaths because of them. I use to have an alarm clock that had radium painted hands on it, haven't seen it in donkey's ears. With any luck it was thrown out years ago and is now in our groundwater, hohoho.
          I've only seen the X-ray shoe sizers, or whatever they were called, in a museum. Evidently they put out horrendous amounts of X-rays and were quite dangerous. Ah, for the good old days, eh?

          • Alff

            I used to have a Soviet submariner's watch painted similarly. Perhaps it was fortuitous that I left it in a campground some 20 years ago.

          • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

            Still have not ever seen my old one anywhere, sorry. I had a wind-up alarm clock that I got from my grandmother as a kid that had the painted hands too, that one is long gone for sure though. It fell, broke, and one day I stepped on a piece of the hand, ouch. It must be why I have such a good sense of time, my super power I guess.

          • Alff

            Maybe that's why you're so light on your feet.

          • tonyola

            When I broke my elbow and had it rebuilt a couple of years ago, the doctor during a post-op followup visit put me under a modern fluoroscope to see how the repaired elbow acted during movement. He told me that his modern machine had only a small fraction of the radioactive output of the old fluoroscopes, and even then he kept my exposure time to the bare minimum. (By the way, the elbow is fine with no complications, but don't ever break one. They're hard to fix.)

          • MrHowser

            My grandma broke hers as a kid, and that arm won't straighten out fully. A friend broke hers as a kid, and that arm straightens out too far; it even bends backwards the other way a little bit.

          • tonyola

            Being unable to fully straighten an arm is a very common after effect of elbow fracture. I can't straighten mine beyond maybe 5 degrees of flexure, and my doctor told me I was lucky to get that far, but I was also very rigorous in doing the right rehab exercises after surgery.

          • The Professor

            Doing the therapy is very important. Many years ago I cut all of the fingers of my right hand down to the bone, severing the nerves and tendons. I lucked out and got a very good surgeon, a Korean immigrant who specialized in industrial injuries, who put me back together. I was in PT for several months, and I ended up with about 98% of the function and feelings in my hand. The doc said that the people who didn't do the therapy ended up with a hand like a claw, and I didn't want that. He ended up using the before and after pictures of my hand in lectures at a medical school to show what is possible. My damned memory, I can't remember his name anymore.

          • The Professor

            Dr. Prahbus Tung, that was the doctor's name. I knew it would come to me once I stopped trying to remember.

          • Alff

            In addition to his surgical skills, I understand Dr. Tung is a cunning linguist.

          • The Professor

            That took longer than I expected. At the time of my accident, I worked at the local Mercedes dealership, and Dr. Tung had a leased 450SEL that he regularly brought in for service. You can imagine what the service writers and mechanics did with with his name. When he was off the premises, of course.

          • The Professor

            That sounds painful. How long was your physical therapy? Do temperature changes affect it now?

          • tonyola

            I went to therapy weekly for about two months, but most of the exercises were done at home. The surgeon told me that the most crucial thing was to get all of the damaged ligaments to heal and stretch properly, and that meant actually using the arm instead of treating it as if it was made of glass. He also told me that ligaments are like Silly Putty – liable to snap or be injured in sudden moves, but will stretch properly in long, slow repeated stretching exercises. His advice was that frequent exercises at home were more important in the long run than the therapy sessions. I don't notice any difference in temperatures and I have basically no pain, but there are still days when the elbow seems a little bit stiff. The only motion limit I have is the inability to completely straighten the arm, and there's no problem with heavy loads. The biggest concern I have is that damaged elbows tend to become arthritic over time, though there's no sign of that yet (knock on wood).

          • The Professor

            Good for you! I hope your repaired wing keeps behaving.

        • P161911

          I'm pretty sure those things were common until the 1950s or so.

        • The name itself remained popular (presumably with positive connotations) long after casual use of the element was restricted:

          <img src="http://farm7.static.flickr.com/6107/6305945617_902883ec9c.jpg&quot; width="450">

          Contains Lanolin.

          • The Professor

            That's false advertising. I expect Radium hand cleaner to make my skin glow.

          • Well, the instructions say "Apply about one teaspoon to the hands. Use no water. Rub until it liquifies…."

            It's not at all clear from context whether that final verb is transitive or intransitive, but there is a guarantee that it "cleans pores thoroughly." I bet it does.

          • pj134

            Damn sheep and their filth.

          • My father spent one summer as a teenager working on a sheep ranch; years later he taught me to call them "meadow maggots."

          • The Professor

            Most of the people out here in the Wild West (excluding the cityfolk) aren't too fond of the land-killing disease vectors, preferring to run cattle everywhere there is grazable land. The stench is a bit less, too.

          • tonyola

            So the old sheepmen vs. cattlemen battle of the Old West still goes on, it seems.[youtube 4nqPLSwF9ZM http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4nqPLSwF9ZM youtube]

          • The Professor

            Ha! That's a good one, and only slightly exaggerated. Most cattle ranchers aren't that wily, however.

        • domino_vitali

          good thing that radium is in triple distilled water, you wouldn't want any impurities getting in the way of the therapeutic benefits.

  • Regarding the lead pic, I can still hear the air-raid sirens. The good old days were scary indeed.

    • That's probably just tinnitus from driving the Bee.

    • The Professor

      Speaking of racing, are you going for a rePete in the next one?

      • ABSOLUTELY!

        What do you mean?

        • The Professor

          To finish the race, of course. "In order to finish first, one must first finish". I dunno who said that, but they had raced before.

  • fodder650

    Duck and cover was a brilliant stroke of propaganda. Along the same lines as the bomb shelter. Of course the Governement agencies really didn't understand the effects at the time either.

    My favorite weapon of that era was the Genie air to air unguided nuclear missile. Aim at a bomber stream and take the whole damned thing. Did I mention it was unguided?

    • tonyola

      There's a decent documentary film called The Atomic Cafe which covers the nuclear propaganda of the '50s and '60s. You can watch it on Hulu or YouTube.

      • fodder650

        Yeah it's on my instant watch list. Which means it's on my list to never be watched đŸ™‚
        There is an interesting duck and cover short film from the 50s as well. With a turtle teaching kids how to do duck and cover

    • The Professor

      Sure, unguided is fine if you you have a large enough blast radius. You just have to get kinda close and hope the target doesn't dodge. It gets a little tricky if they dodge.

      • fodder650

        Right it's more interesting if it misses

        • Not a problem for the one who fires it. Unless it takes out the local brewery. Then expect lots of bitching from neighbors.

    • highmileage_v1

      Ah, the Genie. The ultimate in "launch and leave" area weapons. Or as the guys who carried it said, "launch and run".

  • P161911

    I spent all of the 1980s in public schools (and a couple of years in the 1970s) and I don't ever remember doing the whole duck and cover thing. I think it had been gone for a few years by then. I remember plenty of fire and tornado drills, but no nuke drills. At the time I lived about 3 miles down the road from one of the main east coast switching stations for Bell/AT&T telephone. It was a four story building that had 5+ levels underground. I'm sure that place was pretty high up on the Ruskies target list.

    • I remember having some drills in the very early '80s, but by '82 or '83 we were too busy watching space shuttle launches to worry about commie nukes. It does seem that the phase out of the duck and cover drills was regional and, probably, even had more to do with the local school system than anything else.

    • B72

      Like you, we figured we were at ground zero, as we were surrounded by defense contractors and other high value targets. I remember everyone at school laughing about the futility of duck and cover when we heard about it in the '70's. As Engineerd said, phase out must have been regional.

  • skitter

    I wish I could find the chart that talked about how long you had after the initial blast before the fallout returned to earth.

  • highmileage_v1

    I think I remember doing duck and cover in my Kindergarten years. I definitely remember the air raid siren tests that occurred a couple of times a year up until the '70's. When I was in the military the NBCW training days were a joy. Trying to do your job with the protective suit and mask on as well as use the self injector, etc, etc, was not easy. I didn't have a lot of confidence in the protective capabilities of the equipment seeing as it wouldn't take much for the suit to be compromised.

    • OA5599

      Our school desks were a design that really didn't provide much cover, so they had us go out to the corridor and get as close to the wall as possible. The school's design had the corridors transitioning from roof to open atrium without any doors, so we were effectively outside.

      • highmileage_v1

        No doors? It sure would get windy when the blast wave hit. Even as a kid I realized that there were no winners in this kind of exchange.

        • P161911

          There's a reason the policy was called MAD, mutually assured destruction.

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