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Science, Art. Physics, Spinthariscope, George F. Morrell, Original Illustration, 1923


George F. Morrell (d. 1962)
The Way to the Wealth in the Atom
British: December 29, 1923
Pen and ink with wash and white gouache on illustration board
Signed lower right “G.F.M.” date stamped verso
6.5 x 13.25 inches, overall

Original illustration art of a spinthariscope, a scientific instrument for observing the fluorescence that alpha rays from radium produce on a zinc sulfide screen. Two illustrations flank the white hand-lettered title “The Way to the Wealth in the Atom.” On the right is a cross section illustration of a “Section of Spinthariscope showing particles being expelled.” Within the apparatus are two lenses on the right end, a small white dot at the top of a needle labeled “Radium” and a spherical form labeled “Atoms striking Zinc-Sulphide disc.” On the left is an illustration of the patterns of light to be observed with the device, captioned, “Alpha particle being expelled from Atom.” The illustrations and lettering are within a solid black rectangle. Given the overall shape, this artwork was probably drawn as the heading of a poster or magazine article. A pencil notation lower margin indicates that the illustration was to be reproduced at 9 inches wide by 3 inches.

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The spinthariscope was invented by William Crookes in England in 1903, and is constructed just as the Morrell’s diagram indicates — housed within a brass tube with a viewing hole at one end and a zinc sulfide screen inside the closed end of the tube at the other. The position of the needle holding the radium is adjusted via a thumbscrew. When the radium moves close enough to the zinc sulfide screen, it throws off alpha ray particles that appear as discrete flashes of light, magnified by the lenses to be visible. The device gained popularity as a novelty item and children’s toy, but also had a more scientific application. Using a spinthariscope, the physicists Ernest Rutherford and Hans Geiger were able to measure the charge on an alpha particle and provide evidence that the alpha particle was identical to a helium nucleus. They were also able to make other important calculations that led Rutherford to propose a new model of an atom as a charged nucleus surrounded by orbiting electrons. A short video on YouTube posted by Popular Science shows the view through a spinthariscope (see References below).

George F. Morrell was an illustrator and writer and combined these talents as a pioneer of visual educational materials, active for over 50 years. He was a regular contributor to the British periodical The Children’s Newspaper from its first issue in 1919 until shortly before his death in 1962, including a regular column on astronomy.

Condition: Generally good with the usual overall toning and wear. White lettering partially rubbed and abraded. Scattered light scratches in black background. Pencil notations for original publication lower margin. Scattered foxing, particularly in margins, can be matted out, though notations would then be matted out, too.


“Crooke’s Spinthariscope (ca. 1920s).” Oak Ridge Associated Universities. 10 May 2011. (4 September 2013).

Frame, William. “William Crookes and the Turbulent Luminous Sea.” Oak Ridge Associated Universities. (4 September 2013).

“History of The Children’s Newspaper.” Look and Learn. 2005-2011. (18 July 2011).

“Spinthariscope.” Popular Science Channel, YouTube. 17 May 2007. (4 September 2013).

Additional information


20th Century