Sparklets is a familiar name from my childhood and I can remember most of my relatives having one of these iconic syphons on the sideboard. So it came as somewhat of a surprise (and had me digging through my gran’s cupboard) to learn that there was a time when Sparklets went, well, radioactive.
The complete history of Sparklets is told much clearer than I can (and with tons of pictures of syphons) by the Sparklets Collectors Guide so do head over and check out the gorgeousness.
Are you back?
We pick up the Sparklets story in 1923 when J C Barr registered a patent in Britain (no 203848) for:
“Storing under pressure.-Capsules, cylinders, or like containers for compressed or liquefied gas are provided internally with means for holding a radioactive substance in such a manner that the latter is retained in the capsule or the like when gas is discharged and so can be used to impregnate successive charges of gas with emanation. The radioactive substance may be mounted on a support capable of being removed from the container or it may be attached to the inside of the container by varnish or applied as a paint. In one modification a carrier B supporting by means of wing-pieces b the radioactive pad C is introduced into a small perforable capsule or “sparklet” before the latter is charged. The carrier can be readily removed from the capsule. In another modification, radioactive material C is suitably supported on a rod b attached to the valve-piece a of the cylinder A.” [ORAU]
And the following year Sparklets launched their new product, called “Spa Radium” in the form of special radon bulbs that, when used with any Sparklets Syphon, made normal table water radioactive. This was one of several special types of bulbs that they offered at the time – all designed to turn ordinary water into curative waters.
These were affordably priced at 6/9 for the syphon plus 3 bulbs and were sold in department stores and chemists, including Boots, throughout Britain. Further bulbs could be bought for 7/6 for half a dozen bulbs with a discount if you took your old, used ones back at the same time.
A certificate was issued by the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, corroborating the emanating strength of the capsules which was claimed as
Bulb No 1E: Active radium salts of 1,400 Mache units
Bulb No 4E: Active radium salts of 5,600 Mache Units
Bulb No 8F: Active radium salts of 11,200 Mache Units (available on prescription)
The bulbs were sold as “Nature’s own Spa on your sideboard” as a way of getting the health benefits of a radioactive spa without the bother and expense of travel they were particularly targeted at people who wanted to treat gout, arthritis and Sciatica.
The Radon bulbs were certainly still available as late as 1937 as an issue of Chemist and Druggist reported that the launch party for the new Streamline Sparklet Syphon also included a display of the radioactive bulbs.
With the kind permission of Tony Cook [http://www.sparklets.net]
In 1954 a firm in Wellington, New Zealand, were advertising Radon Sparklet Bulbs to their customers. These were tested by the Dominion X Ray and Radium Laboratory who found they contained 0.5-1.0 micrograms of radium making them prohibited under the Radioactive Substances Act (1949) and were duly taken off the shelves.*
The Laboratory advised at the time that it wasn’t the radon produced by the bulbs that was likely to cause any harm but that the contents of the bulb itself may become dislodged and enter the water with the possible result of being ingested.**
Sparklet Syphons were in production until the early 1980s but I cannot find any date as to when they stopped producing their radon bulbs. Certainly, they had stopped by 1954 as the Dominion X Ray and Radium Laboratory helpfully noted that the English manufacturers were no longer making them. Based on newspaper evidence it is likely that the Spa-Radium bulbs were no longer in production by 1939 but whether it was the war that stopped it or changing fashions remains to be seen.
Rebecca Priestley, Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2013)