Radioactive Materials in Watches of Old
Before 1920s, making watches was perilous work, especially if the watch involved glow-in-the-dark dials. The luminosity on the dials came from painted radium -yes, the same radium which scientist Marie Curie discovered, then later passed away due to its radioactive poisoning.
Young women and girls were hired to paint the dials and numbers. U.S. Radium Corp. instructed them to dip the tip of the brush into their mouths to make the tip as fine as possible for the detailed painting. This practice was dubbed "lip pointing". You can imagine how much radium these ladies consumed after painting more than 150 watches daily!
In the early twentieth century, radium was seen as a magical thing - it glowed, crackled a bit, and for a time people even claimed it had curative properties. Little did people back then know how dangerous radium is.
Radium, Ra on the periodic table, has an atomic number of 88 and is highly radioactive. Marie Curie's notebooks from the late 1890s to the early 1900s are still too radioactive to be handled today. Radium is also an unstable element and is used today in the production of radon gas, which is a treatment for certain types of cancer.
Just a few years after these watch painters began painting dials and numbers at US Radium Corp, they were falling ill by the dozens, the radium eating their bones from the inside. Many died from horrific causes, including many types of cancer. The workers sued US Radium Corp. and won, many using the money to cover their own burial costs. The plight of these women contributed to both stringent radium regulations and factory workers' rights.
The workers sued US Radium Corp. and won, many using the money to cover their own burial costs. The plight of these women contributed to both stringent radium regulations and factory workers' rights.
The amount of radioluminescent paint in antique watches still poses a danger to watch repair workers today. It's best to use a radiation detector before working on a vintage (before 1970s) watch, and to have an antique watch tested before you buy it.