A Spinthariscope [spin-thar-uh-skohp] is a device for observing individual nuclear disintegrations caused by the interaction of ionizing radiation with a phosphor (radioluminescence). It was invented by William Crookes in 1903. It consisted of a small screen coated with zinc sulfide affixed to the end of a tube, with a tiny amount of radium salt suspended a short distance from the screen and a lens on the other end of the tube for viewing the screen. Crookes named his device after the Greek word ‘spintharis’, meaning ‘a spark.’

It is said that for a short time after its invention, spinthariscopes were very popular among the social upper classes who gave them as gifts and used them in demonstrations to appear up to date with the most modern scientific advances of the day. Spinthariscopes were quickly replaced with more accurate and quantitative devices for measuring radiation in scientific experiments, but enjoyed a modest revival in the mid 20th century as children’s educational toys. They can still be bought today as instructional novelties, but they now use Americium or Thorium.

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