What did you want for Christmas in the 1960s? Meccano? Lego? A toy nuclear power station?
Popular toys often reflect new technologies of their time. From ways of seeing to building, drawing and powering, some of these toys inspired young people to pursue careers in design, technology and science.
In our collection are several toys that have helped shape children’s attitudes to science and technology. Alongside such classics as Meccano, Lego and Spirograph, there reside some rather more unusual playthings, including an ‘Atomic Power Station’ model steam engine, made in West Germany in 1965 by Wilhelm Schröder and Co. for the American and British market.
This is a toy of its time, which reinforces a message of the positive benefits of nuclear power and the exciting future made possible through the harnessing of the atom.
Its instruction leaflet offers an extraordinary polemic on the benefits of atomic power, while acknowledging the recent ‘destructive purposes’ to which atomic power has been used. It starts:
"A new technical era has made its appearance – the era of the atomic age. We are still on the very threshold of that bewildering and exciting period and you will be fortunate enough to grow into it. No doubt you will look at all these matters with a rather dispassionate technically trained mind, contrary to the older generation and perhaps also to your own parents. They still get a bitter feeling when they hear the word ‘atom’. For them it is coupled with the idea of the ‘atomic bomb’, with death and destruction. The thought of radioactive contamination has become a real nightmare to many of us. It is no wonder that they lose sight, under such circumstances, of the actual value of this nearly inexhaustible source of energy – a source of power on which we may have to rely in a near future to a still unthought of extent. Not for destructive purposes, but exclusively for peaceful aims…"
Fortunately, no nuclear fission was actually involved. Encased in a lithographed tinplate structure reminiscent of the late 1950s nuclear test reactor at Dounreay, in reality the toy is a mini steam engine, operated by steam heated by an electric element plugged into the mains.