My Nu-Klear Fallout Detector arrived today, and it’s awesome. With a name like that, and with what it was supposed to do, it totally sounds like a joke. I mean, come on, how likely are you to have a need to detect fallout? But apparently, this was actually a real product, sold in the late 50s and early 60s to people who really thought there might come a time when they had to know whether it was safe to leave their fallout shelter or not.

According to Oak Ridge Associated Universities “Following a nuclear confrontation, the instructions recommend leaving the detector just outside the fallout shelter exit for five minutes. If the beads have not all fallen to the bottom during that time, ‘you may risk exposure for a few minutes if you are faced with an emergency that cannot wait another day.'”

It worked, and still works to this day, on the principal of electro-static repulsion. When you shake it, 40 plastic beads in the center column gain a small electrical charge, repel each other, and stick to the walls. They jiggle around a bit, so they look like they’re floating in there. In the presence of radiation, the balls slowly lose their charge and fall to the bottom of the device, “like canaries in a mine”.

The faster they fall, the more screwed you are.

I’m always very curious about how people lived in the past. I love looking at people in historic photographs and wondering about their lives. And even though it’s only 50 years old, I wonder who bought it, and what they were thinking when they did. Was it someone who worried that their family could be nuked out of existence at any time? Or did it sit on a shelf for decades before it ended up in the stock of an antiques dealer? I’d really like to find out.

In any case, I love it, and I think it makes a great addition to my growing collection of Cold War-era artifacts.