Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Wearing Luminosity: Remembering the Radium Girls


 Update June 2017:  Best-selling author Kate Moore has written a highly acclaimed and extensively reviewed new book on the history of the Radium Girls.  It's titled The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women ( Sourcebooks, April 2017)

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Ideas for my posts often do not start with specific watches or watchmakers but with visual or literary works that move me to connect them to time worn at hand.

Some of my readers have commented that my approach is "idiosyncratic," "serendipitous,"  or "a teasing out of postmodern pairings." Others have said it's "inconsequential."  That last epithet doesn't get under my skin. I've got a tough wrist.

My own take -- These musing are a provocative way to interest others in exploring horology. I call it oblique inspiration. I liken this reflective process to Emily Dickinson's poem: "Tell all the truth but tell it slant." (Complete poem at bottom of post.)

I decided to write about the "Radium Girls" -- that group of young, American female factory workers in Orange, New Jersey who used radioactive paint in the 1920's to paint watch dials. This decision came after I saw a beautiful, riveting photograph by Adrien Broom in an article by Amy Crawford, titled "Let There Be Light." (Smithsonian, October 2016).


Image titled Forest of Columns.  Photographed by Adrien Broom in Wentworth Woodhouse, the largest private residence in Britain.  

 Ms. Broom is a 36 year-old Connecticut photographer whose latest portfolio, Being includes images of a young girl wearing a dress that has 1,100 LED lights hand sewn by the photographer on it. The model is literally Wearing Luminosity -- SAFELY!

In horology, luminous refers to the "dial of a watch, clock or instrument in which figures or divisions  and the hands are rendered luminous by painting with a radium compound."

In 1903, Marie and Pierre Curry won the Nobel Prize for discovering radium. Marie Curie wrote that in the darkness, radium looked like "faint, fairy lights." So does the female figure in Ms. Broom's cavernous interior.

As is the case with many scientific discoveries, the use of radium compounds was quickly embraced by various European and American companies. It was incorporated into industrial and consumer products without the knowledge of its dangerous radioactive effects on and in the human body. It was considered miraculous and safe.  It found its way into cold medicines, toothpaste, cosmetics, water drinks, chocolate, cigarettes -- AND PAINT!

At the beginning of the 1920's U.S. and Canadian corporations had hired an estimated 4,000 workers to paint watch faces.  The primary paint they used was "UNDARK" produced by the U.S. Radium Corporation between 1917 and 1938.

 UNDARK was a glow-in-the dark radioactive paint containing one part radium to 30,000 or more parts zinc sulfide! And yet, even though extremely diluted it was deadly enough to change the course of US labor history and heighten awareness of occupational health and safety.

Advertisement featured in Allen Bellows post, UNDARK and the Radium Girls 

Magazine advertisement for UNDARK (1921). Advertisement in the Public Domain.


 The "Radium Girls" was a collective media moniker referring to the five female litigants led by plant worker, Grace Fryer in a case brought against the United States Radium Corporation in January 1928. They and many of their coworkers suffered deleterious health effects from radioactive poisoning. All five principles eventually died from their workplace radium exposure. The culprit was UNDARK, the paint they using to paint watch dial numerals and instrument dials.

Since their employment at the U.S. Radium Company's Orange, New Jersey plant in the early 1920's, they and hundreds of other women had been painting lines on up to 250 dials a day. The lines required the use of ultra-fine brushes consisting of just a few camel hairs. Plant management encouraged the women to keep the brush lines precise by twirling the brush tips between their lips (called by some "lip pointing").  In doing so, the women swallowed small amounts of radioactive radium.


Radium dial painters working in a factory, circa 1922. Photographer unknown.  http://www.libraries.rutgers.edu/history_of_medicine/manuscripts/us_radium_corporation, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34237494

 In Autumn 1928, the case was settled out of court. There was no trial by jury. Each of the Radium Girls received $10,000 (equivalent to $140,850 in 2016) and a $600 annual annuity (equivalent to $8,450 in 2016) for as long as they lived. The company also would pay for all their  medical and legal expenses.


The legacy of the Radium Girls' legal action has had an important impact on horology. Eventually, various radioactive compounds and then non-radioactive materials were found and regulated ensuring safer means of creating dial luminosity.

In an excellent Quill & Pad post in 2015, Elizabeth Doerr explains that radium mixed with zinc sulfide was used as a luminous substance on watch dials until the 1960s when it was replaced with Tritium (mixed with zinc sulfide). Watchmakers used this until 1998.  From 2000, the luminous material Super LuminNova which is not radioactive became prevalent in the watch making industry.

This post is dedicated to Remembering the Radium Girls, their productivity and sacrifices. Horology is indebted to them.

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Tell all the truth but tell it slant 

by Emily Dickinson
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —