What was Known about Radioactivity in Lovecraft’s Day

The next article will discuss how the Colour out of space impacts life on Earth, resulting in symptoms similar to radiation poisoning. However, this article will focus on what was known about radiation in Lovecraft’s time, specifically from the late 19th to the early 20th century.

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The Colour Out of Space by Victoria Dadedra (www.deviantart.com)

In 1895 some strange new electromagnetic rays were discovered by Wilhelm Rontgen who called them X-rays, while in 1896 Antoine Henri Becuquerel discovered that uranium salt produced similar rays that he called “Becuquerel rays” (The Great Scientist: From Euclid to Stephen Hawking; Farndon, 2007). However, it was the pioneering work of Marie Curie who quantified such “emissions” from uranium and other elements that she and husband discovered, calling these emissions radioactivity.

Both of Marie Currie’s parents were teachers and her father instilled in her a love for nature and science in spite of the many limitations society forced on women in the late 19th century. For example, although Marie was frequently top of her class in high school she was not allowed to attend college in her native land of Poland. Thus, she attended college in Paris and graduated with a degree in physics top of her class in 1893. Two years later she completed a second degree in mathematics. Marie met Pierre Curie in 1894; they married in 1895 and in 1897 Marie gave birth to their first daughter and in the same year began her Ph.D. dissertation on the properties of the element uranium (Farndon, 2007).

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Marie Currie (www.biography.com)

Marie and her husband Pierre conducted the dirty and dangerous work of isolating and discovering two elements from material called Pitchblende, which is a black crystalline mineral of uranium oxide. A German chemist by the name of Martin Klaproth discovered uranium in 1789 (www.britannica.com) but it was Marie and Pierre Curie who isolated and discovered the other two elements in Pitchblende: polonium and radium. The Curies won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, with Marie being the first women to win the prize. However, even then in his acceptance speech, Pierre warned of the dangers of radium and how it could be a very powerful and destructive weapon. Their work on radioactivity took a toll on the health of the Curies. Pierre tragically died in an accident associated with a horse and cart in 1910. Marie was awarded a second Nobel Prize in Physics in 1911 for her work on polonium and radium. She and her daughter contributed to the war effort by developing a special vehicle that could take X-ray equipment to wounded soldiers on the battlefield and also set up over 200 stationary X-ray clinics. She continued her work through the 1920’s and early 1930’s on radium but ultimately died of leukemia in 1934 as a result of her continuous work with radioactive substances (Farndon, 2007).

I could find no reference to Marie Currie and her pioneering work in any of HPL’s stories or selected essays. However, he must have been familiar with her work and he was certainly familiar with radioactivity, at least with what was known about it in the early 20th century. For example radium, which is highly radioactive and can be extremely harmful, particularly if inhaled or swallowed, was used in all sort of strange commercial products, primarily for its property to produce a strange green glow. Such products were produced from the late 19th century up to the mid-1940s and included products such as creams, facial powders, lipstick, cigarettes and even condoms (see below). It was touted as a health remedy for all sorts of aliments from skin and eye problems to “rejuvenation tonics.” HPL must have been familiar with these products (most likely excluding the condoms) but he was also probably familiar with the accumulating evidence that radium was a dangerous radioactive substance.

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Hand Cleaner with radium (www.buzzfed.com)

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Condoms with radium to make them glow I the dark (www.io9.com)

In the early 1920’s one of the best jobs a young woman could get was working at the Waterbury Clock Company in Connecticut. Essentially, girls with sharp eyes and nimble fingers would paint numbers on the face of watches. The material used was paint laced with radium, which at the time was considered a wonder-chemical since it would glow in the dark. Many of the girls would wet the fine brushes with their mouths before dipping them into the radium-laced paint to give them a fine point. After a few years of such work many of the girls began to suffer from radiation poisoning, displaying horrible symptoms (The Waterbury Observer, by Ann Quigley, September 2002). Some examples of radium poisoning are shown below.

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A person suffering from radium poisoning (www.videomedicine.com)

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One of the radium girls suffering from radium poisoning (www.videomedicine.com)

In spite of radium being proclaimed as the “miracle element of the future” these young women began dying, starting in the mid-1920’s while they were only in their 20’s. Initially many of the symptoms associated with radium poisoning were misdiagnosed but over time the connection between their jobs as dial painters and these symptoms began to emerge. Many companies were making a lot of money with radium so compensation for the women and their families was long, arduous and hard-fought. If you want to know more, I recommend Radium Girls: Women and the Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935 by Claudia Clark, 1997. In spite of the litigation problems and roadblocks, the lawsuit and associated publicity was a factor in eventually establishing the occupational disease labor laws, which established safety precautions and required protective gear for workers. While I have no evidence of this, I am sure HPL read of these horrible accounts and the legal proceedings in his local papers, particularly since a large part of this occurred in Connecticut. Did these accounts of radiation poisoning and the “miracle” element of radium stimulate HPL’s imagination as he developed and wrote “The Colour Out of Space” in March 1927?

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An article on the death associated with radium from 1927 (www.io9.com)

To conclude, it should be noted that Lovecraft owned a spinthariscope, which is a device that detects radioactivity (I Am Providence: The Life and Time of H.P. Lovecraft, by S.T. Joshi, 2013). This simple device would detect ionizing radiation, typically with the creation of alpha particles and their bombardment on a screen, resulting in the generation of light or fluorescence. Typically, a tube was inside of the device, with a screen coated on one end with zinc sulfide. Between the screen and the lens a small amount of radium salt was suspended, which generated the green fluorescence. Again, “The Colour Out of Space” may have originated from HPL reading about radium and radioactivity in the newspapers as well as using his spinthariscope to observe the green glow of radium.

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An antique spinthariscope, possibly similar to the type owned by H.P. Lovecraft (www.orau.org)

Next time we will actually discuss the biological impacts the Colour had on life on Earth at the Gardner farm.  Also, if you are interested in a digital or hard copy of The Journal of Lovecraftian Science, Volume 1, please check out our Kickstarter site at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1081353216/journal-of-lovecraftian-science-volume-1. Thank you – Fred.

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The Colour Out of Space (from http://www.hplovecraftart.blogspot.com)

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7 thoughts on “What was Known about Radioactivity in Lovecraft’s Day

  1. Radium condoms…dear God!

    Its easy to imagine a science-lover like HPL being inspired by the greenish glow emitting from his spinthariscope…

    1. They also had suppositories with radium as well! However, as one person on Facebook noted – you don’t know if these products actually had radium in them. Many products would claim to have radium but not put it in; at the time radium was thought to be a “wonder drug.” Still the condoms did glow in the dark which means they probably had radium! Fred

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