The Spinthariscope

Christmas 1903 and, if you had the money, there was only one gift to buy that special someone– radium.

“How nice!”, I hear you cry, “What generosity!” (etc, etc, etc). Well I thought so too but The Baltimore Sun in a contemptuous moment more reminiscent of The Daily Mail decided to ruin it all:

“In the desire of extravagant English women to find “something new” in the way of a Christmas gift, with utter contempt for the cost, one ingenious woman hit upon the novelty of giving – guess! Particles of radium! Just a speck of dust to be sure, but the recipient certainly cannot turn up her nose to say “How cheap!”*

The Baltimore Sun and their clear contempt for women’s interest in science aside (for the moment) the surprising fact remains that by 1903 a form of radium was available to buy and was marketed as the latest in scientific entertainment.

Yes, for £10 (a shade over £1,000 in today’s money) you could buy a Spinthariscope – described as THE most fashionable fad for the well to do. And certainly, there seems to have been plenty of people willing to part with that type of money to own one as in January of the following year it was reported that one of the main manufacturers, Martindale’s, had completely run out of radium salts** due to demand.

Daily Express 3rd December 1903

But what was it? The Spinthariscope started life as a scientific instrument and was actually discovered by accident by Sir William Crookes. Crookes was an English chemist and sometimes President of the Royal Society, Institute of Electrical Engineers, the Society of Chemical Industry, and the Society for Psychical Research. He helpfully outlined the cause of this accident in an article in The Chemical News in April 1903 beginning by describing his experiments with radium nitrate and diamond crystals during which some of the radium nitrate got onto a zinc sulphide screen. Crookes reported that “the surface was immediately dotted about with brilliant specks of green light.”***

Although he didn’t exactly understand the full details of what he was seeing Crookes definitely understood an opportunity when he saw it and a couple of weeks later The Chemical News****, which he also edited, described the brand new invention as:

“A convenient way to show these scintillations is to fit the blende screen at the end of a brass tube with a speck of radium salt in front of it and about a millimetre off and to have a lens at the other end.  Focusing, which must be accurately effected to see the best effects, is done by drawing the lens tube in or out.  I propose to call this little instrument the “Spinthariscope,” from the Greek word, a scintillation. – Greek words for “spark” and “to view””****

With a target market of fellow scientists, this was first displayed during one of the Royal Society’s “conversazione” on the 15th May 1903 at Burlington House, London. My favourite fact about this evening was that Crookes did a party trick – using radium nitrate he painted the word ‘Radium’ onto a cardboard screen covered with zinc blende – a glow in the dark trick which is reminiscent of both the MIT Sunshine Dinner and my 1912 Radium Party.*****

By June 1903 the Spinthariscope appeared in Nature for sale from the scientific instrument makers, A.C Cossor, who had a legal agreement with Crookes to manufacture his invention.

It was, of course, immediately popular with scientists and science enthusiasts but it is the embracement of it by the fashionable crowd that seemed to take everyone by surprise.

By Christmas 1903 radium, after a somewhat slow start, had hit its stride in popularity and was being embraced by the general public and entrepreneurs alike. December 1903 was a particularly important time as the year culminated with the Curies, along with Becquerel, being jointly awarded the third ever Nobel Prize cementing the burgeoning public fascination with the element and ensuring its place in the wish lists of extravagant present buyers everywhere.

And it should come as little surprise that a discovery so closely associated with a woman would also be marketed to women. Now, as a Christmas present, the spinthariscope got a little less functional and a little more luxurious with firms producing ever costlier versions. One firm, for instance, created a version that was given to Queen Alexandra as a Christmas present, which was gold mounted in a velvet lined case.

Spinthariscopes, with replacement screens as even if the radium was inexhaustible they weren’t, continued to be used until the 1920s when both their scientific utility and their fashionable cache had run out.

That is until….

Known as the Lone Ranger Atomic Ring this was a spinthariscope that was produced by the cereal company Kix in 1947.

For 15c (and one box top) children all over America could get their hands on their very own piece of radioactive science.

The advertising copy was effusive:

“you’ll see brilliant flashes of light in the inky darkness inside the atom chamber. These frenzied vivid flashes are caused by the released energy of atoms. PERFECTLY SAFE – we guarantee you can wear the Kix Atomic “Bomb” ring with complete safety.”

And, surprisingly, the Lone Ranger Atomic Ring actually did contain minute traces of Polonium-210 (along with a small amount of Lead-210).

The red, plastic, base could be pulled off (and doubled as a secret message compartment), revealing a small lens through which you could apparently see the scintillations caused by the polonium alpha particles hitting the screen.

Luckily Polonium-210 has a half-life of 138 days so any risk would have been short-lived so if you still have one of these knocking around definitely feel free to wear it with pride.



*Baltimore Sun 13th December 1903
** Daily Express 19th March 1904
*** The Chemical News 3rd April 1903
**** The Chemical News May 1903
***** William Brock – William Crookes and the commercialization of science

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