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11 Ways We Used Radiation in Everyday Life

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Radiation as a medical cure has valid uses and definite dangers to the human body. We use radiation for diagnosis (as in x-rays) and for therapy (as in cancer treatment), but the benefits must be carefully weighed against the costs. Once upon a time, radiation in different forms was new and wondrous and had a million uses -medications, cosmetics, industrial applications, and even entertainment. It was only later that the danger became evident.

1. Radioactive Toothpaste

What could possibly make your smile brighter than radioactive toothpaste? A German firm called the Auer Company (Auergesellschaft) diverted thorium supplies from the Nazi atomic program in 1944 when it became clear that Germany would not win the war. The forward-thinking company saw the future of nuclear materials in cosmetics and developed Doramad radioactive toothpaste. Besides the usual wonderful benefits of radiation, the marketing mentioned that radiation would hinder bacteria in the mouth.

2. Shoe-fitting Fluoroscope

The radiation from x-rays was not considered particularly dangerous to humans when the machine was first invented. Despite injuries to scientists and technicians, the miracle instrument found its way into doctor's offices, military labs, and even shoe stores. From the 1930s to the 1960s, children were encouraged to have their shoe size determined "scientifically" by putting their feet into an x-ray fluoroscope at the shoe store. The shoe salesman and the customer could both see the bones in the foot (and be bombarded by leaking radiation). By 1950, these machines were recognized as dangerous, but they were only gradually banned state-by-state until 1970, when remaining states restricted the machines' use so strictly that the manufacturers stopped supplying them. They continued to be used in Europe for years afterward.

3. Tho-radia Cosmetics

Dr. Alfred Curie was no relation to either Marie or Pierre Curie, but his name sold French women on the idea of radioactive cosmetics. Curie along with Alexis Moussali developed a line of beauty products under the name Tho-radia. The line included face cream, soap, powder, and even toothpaste containing thorium and radium. Although they were expensive, Tho-radia product were a hit in Paris, and therefore popular everywhere else.

Dorothy Gray Salon Cold Cream was not marketed as containing any radioactive material, but this television ad is a bit shocking to modern audiences. The model is covered with radioactive dirt to show how well the cold cream removes it. At least we hope it did.

4. Radithor

Radithor was a cure-all patent medicine consisting of distilled water and two isotopes of radium. Advertisements called it "Perpetual Sunshine". Radithor was only one of many radioactive elixirs sold to alleviate pain and cure all manner of maladies. According to this article from 1932, a popular advocate of Radithor developed holes in his bones and skull, and his entire jaw had to be removed as it had deteriorated badly, just before he died of radiation poisoning. Image by Flickr user Somewhat Frank.

5. Radium Emanators

If you needed more radioactive water than could be supplied by patent medicines, you could make your own with any of dozens of devices produced to add radiation to water. This Radium Emanator was sold in the 1930s. It had uranium embedded in the cement core, which would leach into the water overnight.

6. Radium Clock Dials

Radium paint was special in that it tended to glow in the dark. The obvious use for this was for clock dials, so they could be seen with the lights out. Young women were hired in the 1920s to paint the numbers and hands on these clocks. The painters needed a very fine point on their brushes, so they would pull the brush fibers between their lips to keep the point. The amount of radium in each clock or watch was rather weak, but the painters in the factories absorbed so much that many died of radiation poisoning and related cancers, and others suffered from various radiation-induced disorders, particularly bone loss in the jaw. Five of the "Radium Girls" sued the company, U.S. Radium for damages, a case which led to stricter safety standards for the use of radium in industry.

7. Radon Health Mines

Although natural radon emissions have been designated as a health hazard and limits of safe exposure are set, some people still believe in the health benefits of radon. For these people, a vacation to a spa just for this purpose can be arranged. These spas were opened in the 1950s at abandoned mining sites in Montana where radon seeps out in unusual amounts. Spas include the Sunshine Health Mine in Boulder, Montana and Earth Angel Health Mine in Basin, Montana. Similar facilities are open in Europe as well. Image by Landon Nordeman/National Geographic.

8. Home Experiments

The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab was one of many children's chemistry sets that included radioactive materials, in this case four kinds of uranium. The Gilbert lab was recommended for "only boys with a great deal of education", and was priced at $50.00, an astronomical sum in those days. The high price was the reason for the disappearance of these kits rather than the danger of the materials. You could buy less expensive kits for your youngster in the sixties, such as the Atomic Energy Lab which only had one kind of uranium, but also contained radium.

9. Radiendocrinator

In the 1930s, anyone with $150 could purchase a radiendocrinator to place over your endocrine glands to expose them to therapeutic radium. The device came with paper soaked in radium, which you inserted into the case and exposed, screen-side up, to your testicles or other glands.

10. Vita Radium Suppositories

Another way to introduce radium to your vital glands was in a suppository form. Vita Radium Suppositories were guaranteed to contain radium, which sounded like a good thing at the time. Some ads contained euphemisms such as "vitality" alluding to a promised increase in sexual potency, while other ads targeting both men and women promised global benefits for anything that ailed you.

11. Uranium Glass

Beginning around 200 years ago, uranium salts were combined with silica before it was melted to create pretty yellow-green glass dishes. Most of these uranium glass dishes are valuable antiques now, and this is why you may see people carry black lights into an antique shop or flea market -they are testing for actual uranium content as opposed to later recreations. Image by Wikimedia Commons user Z Vesoulis.

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Ramones Karaoke, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
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Fake It Until You Make It: 10 Artificial Ruins
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Ramones Karaoke, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The love of ruins, sometimes called ruinophilia, has for centuries inspired the creation of clever fakes—a host of sham facades and hollowed-out castle shells found on grand English, European, and even American estates. The popularity of constructing artificial ruins was at its peak during the 18th and 19th centuries, but architects occasionally still incorporate them today.

Why build a structure that is already crumbling? Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the popularity of counterfeit ruins was influenced by two factors—a classical education that enforced the ideals of ancient Greece and Rome, and the extended tour of Europe (known as The Grand Tour) that well-to-do young men and women took after completing their education. Travelers might start in London or France and roam as far as the Middle East, but the trip almost always included Italy and a chance to admire Roman ruins. More than a few wealthy travelers returned home longing to duplicate those ruins, either to complement a romantic landscape, to demonstrate wealth, or to provide a pretense of family history for the newly rich.

Here are a few romantic ruins constructed between the 18th and 21st centuries.

1. SHAM CASTLE // BATHAMPTON, ENGLAND

Sham Castle (shown above) is aptly named—it’s only a façade. The "castle," overlooking the English city of Bath, was created in 1762 to improve the view for Ralph Allen, a local entrepreneur and philanthropist as well as to provide jobs for local stonemasons. From a distance it looks like a castle ruin, but it's merely a wall that has two three-story circular turrets and a two-story square tower at either end. The castle is not the only folly (as such purely decorative architecture is often called) that Allen built. He also constructed a sham bridge on Serpentine Lake in what is now Prior Park Landscape Garden—the bridge can't be crossed, but provides a nice focal point for the lake. Today, Sham Castle is part of a private golf course.

2. WIMPOLE FOLLY // CAMBRIDGESHIRE, ENGLAND

Building a structure that looks as if it's crumbling does not preclude having to perform regular maintenance. The four-story Gothic tower known as Wimpole Folly in Wimpole, Cambridgeshire, England, was built 1768-72 for Philip Yorke, first Earl of Hardwicke and owner of the Wimpole Estate. Owned by Britain’s National Trust, the ruin threatened to truly crumble a few years ago, so restoration efforts were needed. The last restoration was so well done it won the 2016 European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage. The Wimpole Estate is now open to the public for walks and hikes.

3. CAPEL MANOR FOLLY // ENFIELD, ENGLAND

Capel Manor at Bulls Cross, Enfield, England has been the site of several grand homes since the estate’s first recorded mention in the 13th century, so visitors might be tempted to believe that the manor house's ruins date back at least a few centuries. But that sense of history is an illusion: The faux 15th-century house was built in 2010 to add visual appeal to the manor gardens, which have been open to the public since the 1920s.

4. ROMAN RUIN // SCHONBRUNN PALACE, VIENNA, AUSTRIA

The Roman Ruin was built as a garden ornament for the 1441-room Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, one of the most important monuments in Austria. The ruin was once called The Ruins of Carthage, after the ancient North African city defeated by Roman military force. But despite the illusion of antiquity, the ruins were created almost 2000 years after Carthage fell in 146 B.C.E. The ruin’s rectangular pool, framed by an intricate semi-circle arch, was designed in 1778 by the architect Johann Ferdinand Hetzendorf von Hohenberg, who modeled it on the Ancient Roman temple of Vespasian and Titus, which he had seen an engraving of.

5. THE RUINEBERG // POTSDAM, GERMANY

One of the earliest examples of artificial ruins in Germany was the complex of structures known as The Ruinenberg. Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, had a summer palace in Potsdam, near Berlin, that was said to rival Versailles. In 1748 Frederick commissioned a large fountain for the palace complete with artificial ruins. The waterworks part of his plan proved too difficult and was soon abandoned, but not before designer Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff constructed the ruins. The complex includes Roman pillars, a round temple, and the wall of a Roman theatre. Since 1927 the site has belonged to the Prussian Gardens and Palaces Foundation, Berlin-Brandenburg.

6. PARC MONCEAU // PARIS, FRANCE

Elegant Parc Monceau is located in the fashionable 8th arrondissement of Paris near the Champs-Elysees and Palais de l’Elysée. In 1778, the Duke of Chartres decided to build a mansion on land previously used for hunting. He loved English architecture and gardens, including the notion of nostalgic ruins, so he hired the architect Louis Carrogis Carmontelle to create an extravagant park complete with a Roman temple, antique statues, a Chinese bridge, a farmhouse, a Dutch windmill, a minaret, a small Egyptian pyramid, and some fake gravestones. The most notable feature of the park is a pond surrounded by Corinthian columns, now known as Colonnade de Carmontelle.

7. HAGLEY PARK CASTLE // WORCESTERSHIRE, ENGLAND

The ruins of the medieval castle at Hagley Park in Worcestershire are definitely fake, but they were built with debris from the real ruin of a neighboring abbey. The folly was commissioned by Sir George Lyttelton in 1747 and designed by Sanderson Miller, an English pioneer of Gothic revival architecture. The castle has a round tower at each corner, but by design only one is complete and decorated inside with a coat of arms. The grounds, which also feature a temple portico inspired by an ancient Greek temple, some urns, and obelisks, are now privately owned and not open to the public.

8. TATA CASTLE RUINS // TATA, HUNGARY

French architect Charles de Moreau (1758-1841) was a scholar of classical Roman architecture known for his ability to counterfeit impressive ruins. Nicholas I, Prince Esterhazy of Hungary, hired him to work on Tata Castle and to create the ruins of a Romanesque church for the palace’s English Garden. Even though the ruin Moreau created was fake, he built it with the stones of a real ruin, the remnants of the early-12th-century Benedictine and later Dominican abbey of Vértesszőlős. A third-century ancient Roman tombstone and relief were placed nearby.

9. BELVEDERE CASTLE // MANHATTAN, NEW YORK

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed Central Park in the mid-1800s, and their plan for creating romantic vistas included the construction of a folly known as Belvedere Castle. The Gothic-Romanesque style hybrid, overlooking Central Park’s Great Lawn, was completed in 1869. Although the folly was designed as a hollow shell and meant to be a ruin, it eventually served a practical purpose, housing a weather bureau and exhibit space. The castle also provides a beautiful backdrop for Shakespeare in the Park productions, evoking the royal homes that play prominent roles in the Bard’s works.

10. FOLLY WALL IN BARKING TOWN SQUARE // LONDON

In a borough known for its real historic buildings, the ancient wall found in London’s Barking Town Square might look centuries old. It’s not, and ironically, the wall is part of the square’s renovation efforts. The wall was built by bricklaying students at Barking College using old bricks and crumbling stone items found at salvage yards. Known as the "Secret Garden," named after the children’s book about a walled garden, the wall was designed to screen a nearby supermarket and was unveiled in 2007.

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Lovely Vintage Manuals Show How to Design for the Human Body
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IA Collaborative

If you're designing something for people to hold and use, you probably want to make sure that it will fit a normal human. You don't want to make a cell phone that people can't hold in their hands (mostly) or a vacuum that will have you throwing out your back every time you clean the house. Ergonomics isn't just for your office desk setup; it's for every product you physically touch.

In the mid-1970s, the office of legendary industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss created a series of manuals for designers working on products that involved the human body. And now, the rare Humanscale manuals from Henry Dreyfuss Associates are about to come back into print with the help of a Kickstarter campaign from a contemporary design firm. Using the work of original Henry Dreyfuss Associates designers Niels Diffrient and Alvin R. Tilley, the guides are getting another life with the help of the Chicago-based design consultancy IA Collaborative.

A Humanscale page illustrates human strength statistics.

The three Humanscale Manuals, published between 1974 and 1981 but long out-of-print, covered 18 different types of human-centric design categories, like typical body measurements, how people stand in public spaces, how hand and foot controls should work, and how to design for wheelchair users within legal requirements. In the mid-20th century, the ergonomics expertise of Dreyfuss and his partners was used in the development of landmark products like the modern telephones made by Bell Labs, the Polaroid camera, Honeywell's round thermostat, and the Hoover vacuum.

IA Collaborative is looking to reissue all three Humanscale manuals which you can currently only find in their printed form as historic documents in places like the Cooper Hewitt design museum in New York. IA Collaborative's Luke Westra and Nathan Ritter worked with some of the original designers to make the guides widely available again. Their goal was to reprint them at a reasonable price for designers. They're not exactly cheap, but the guides are more than just pretty decor for the office. The 60,000-data-point guides, IA Collaborative points out, "include metrics for every facet of human existence."

The manuals come in the form of booklets with wheels inside the page that you spin to reveal standards for different categories of people (strong, tall, short, able-bodied, men, women, children, etc.). There are three booklets, each with three double-sided pages, one for each category. For instance, Humanscale 1/2/3 covers body measurements, link measurements, seating guide, seat/table guide, wheelchair users, and the handicapped and elderly.

A product image of the pages from Humanscale Manual 1/2/3 stacked in a row.

"All products––from office chairs to medical devices—require designs that 'fit' the end user," according to Luke Westra, IA Collective's engineering director. "Finding the human factors data one needs to achieve these ‘fits' can be extremely challenging as it is often scattered across countless sources," he explains in a press release, "unless you've been lucky enough to get your hands on the Humanscale manuals."

Even setting aside the importance of the information they convey, the manuals are beautiful. Before infographics were all over the web, Henry Dreyfuss Associates were creating a huge compendium of visual data by hand. Whether you ever plan to design a desk chair or not, the manuals are worthy collectors' items.

The Kickstarter campaign runs from July 25 to August 24. The three booklets can be purchased individually ($79) or as a full set ($199).

All images courtesy IA Collaborative

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