The scientific tourist #287 — scenes from the Radium Craze

When Marie Curie discovered the radioactive element radium in 1898, she inadvertently kicked off a craze wrapped around the metal.  In part, Curie’s demonstration that radium could be used to kill cancerous cells led people (with no little help from charlatans) to believe that the new element had miraculous healing properties.  The resulting “Radium Craze” of the early 20th century lasted for decades — until the long-term health impacts of radiation began to make themselves known.

Today you get two pictures from the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (in Albuquerque, New Mexico), of devices dating to the Radium Craze.  Both were designed to add radon to drinking water — the first a “Revigator” from 1912:


A Revigator was pretty much just a ceramic water crock lined with uranium and radium — the idea being that you filled it with water before bedtime, and the magic crock would irradiate it overnight, presumably rendering the treated water ready to fill you with energy when you drank it.  A modern analysis of the results found that the water would contain elevated levels of radon (with fairly low health risk), but also unhealthy levels of arsenic, lead, vanadium, and uranium.

The second device was called a Radium Emanator Filter Jar (build ca. 1930), and originally held a radium-laced filter element in the lower jar.  

Radium Emanator Filter Jar

Here, the idea was that the water passing through the filter element would be infused with radon gas.  This device’s top and bottom parts are made of uranium glass, by the way.

From a placard:

The properties of radium changed the current thinking in regards to energy and the human body. This new thinking was due to the element’s properties such as its seeming ability to release great quantities of energy. Its long half-life seemed to defy the laws of science; it did not decline in perceptible mass or energy over a period of years. In fact it seemed to gain energy, and when dissipated into the atmosphere, it changes into a different element — helium.

This new scientific discovery mesmerized the American public. Radium seemed capable of transforming the body into a system capable of producing its own, limitless energy. Radium’s apparent ability to alter cells, killing the damaged and renewing the depleted challenged American thinking about human energy.

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