radium dial

In the early 1920s, the hot new gadget was a wristwatch with a glow-in-the-dark dial.

“Made possible by the magic of radium!” bragged one advertisement.

And it did seem magical. Radium was the latest miracle substance — an element that glowed and fizzed, which salesmen promised could extend your life, pump up your sex drive and make women more beautiful. Doctors used it to treat everything from colds to cancer.

In the 1920s, a young working-class woman could land a job working with the miracle substance. Radium wristwatches were manufactured right here in America, and the U.S. Radium Corporation was hiring dial people to paint the tiny numbers onto watch faces for about 5 cents a watch.

They became known as the radium girls.

Mae Keane, The Last ‘Radium Girl,’ Dies At 107

Photo credit: Argonne National Library

And now for something completely different!

Here’s a watch my grandfather left me a few years ago. I’ve looked all over the internet and I’ve found exactly zero information about it, but two things I’m sure of - it dates to at least the 1950’s, and the dial is radium paint. That’s right! I’ve got myself a little radioactive watch.

Is it dangerous? As long as I don’t open it up and lick the numbers or snort the dust contained inside the glass, it’s perfectly alright. But that also means it’ll be next to impossible to get it working again.