I’m sure you remember the scene in Dr. No, the first outing on the big screen for Sean Connery’s James Bond.
007 is off to search Crab Key, the island lair of the titular villain, to investigate the origin of a number of radioactive rock samples. Like any conscientious civil servant, Bond tests his Geiger counter before setting off, running it across the dial of his ref. 6538 Rolex Submariner. The familiar clicking sound generated by the machine confirms all is in working order, picking up the ionizing radiation emitted from the radium on the watch’s luminescent hands and hour markers.
The movie was actually shot in 1962, the same year Rolex made the switchover to the far safer tritium. The change was a long time coming, with the harmful effects of radium being known for some years—although unfortunately, that knowledge came far too late for a great many people.
What is Radium?
Discovered on 21stDecember 1898 by Marie Curie and her husband Pierre, radium is a chemical element in the group known as the alkaline earth metals.
It is an extremely rare substance, making up only around one part per trillion of the Earth’s crust and is found in trace amounts in uranium ore. It is so scarce in fact, that it takes about seven tons of the ore to produce just one gram of radium.
It is also the most radioactive natural element on Earth, about one million times more so than the uranium itself. Marie Curie’s notebooks from over a century ago are still considered too dangerous to handle—and will be for another 1,500 years. Contaminated with radium 226, they are stored in lead-lined boxes in the Bibliotheque National in Paris. Curie herself, the first woman to win a Nobel prize, the only woman to win two and the only scientist in history to be conferred with the award in two different scientific fields, is buried in a coffin covered with an inch of lead.
That colossal radioactivity causes radium to emit a pale blue glow as it decays, a quality that brought it to the attention of a number of commercial operations.
The novelty of the luminescent metal led to it being marketed as something of a panacea, with early 20thcentury doctors, or quacks who adopted the title, using it as a cure for everything from rheumatism to impotence, and wrinkles to cancer.
Radium would be added to ‘therapeutic’ waters in health spas, toothpastes, heating pads and (it-doesn’t-bare-thinking-about), suppositories.
You could buy radium-infused chocolate, cosmetics (‘Science has created THO-RADIA to beautify women! Who wants to remain ugly!’) and even children’s toys.
But one of the largest uses for the miracle element came from the horology industry, and brought about possibly its biggest tragedy.
The Radium Girls
Between 1917 and 1926, some 4,000 workers, mainly young women, were employed in several dial painting factories across America by U.S. Radium Corp.
Founded in 1914 in New York and with workshops in Newark, Jersey City and Orange, the company was originally only concerned with the production of uranium from carnotite ore obtained from mines in Colorado and Utah, before quickly moving onto the business of luminescent paint. Laced with radium, they dubbed it ’Undark.’
In the 1920s, the usefulness of radiant dials became apparent in both military and civilian applications. Clocks and watches started appearing with glowing numerals, as well as cockpit instruments in aircraft.
U.S. Radium won the contract to supply the military and they soon employed scores of women to painstakingly color the tiny details by hand.
They would later become known as the Radium Girls.
To ensure their paintbrushes were kept fine enough to coat the miniscule numbers, the women were taught ‘lip pointing’, where they would lick the tip of their brush after every application to sharpen it. Paid just 1.5 cents for each one, they could complete up to 200 dials a day, with 12 digits apiece—and a little radium ingested after each brushstroke.
Although the substance was still being touted strongly to the general public for its health benefits (so much so that many of the girls thought it a real perk to be working with it), a number of scientists were starting to vocalize some of the risks of excessive exposure. Yet the girls were never told of the harmful effects, and some would even take to coating their nails and even their teeth in the paint.
But in one of the worst cases of profit-making duplicity ever, the scientists and management of U.S. Radium did all they could to avoid contact with the radium, always wearing masks and using lead screens to shield themselves whenever working with it.
Before long, the women started being afflicted with serious medical issues. In 1925, Frances Splettstocher, who had worked at the Waterbury Clock Company in Connecticut, visited her dentist complaining of jaw and tooth pain. In the process of removing one of the affected teeth, part of her jaw also came away and in the days that followed, her gums and cheek
started to rot. A month later she was dead.
In U.S. Radium’s Orange, New Jersey factory, a very similar fate had befallen four other girls and now many more were seriously ill with almost identical symptoms.
The long and extremely drawn-out process of bringing the dangers of radium to light started with Grace Fryer who, in 1922, also started experiencing her teeth loosening and eventually falling out.
An X-ray revealed her jawbone was perforated with dozens of tiny holes, the result of the radium binding to her bones much like its sister element calcium.
After being examined by a succession of doctors, who were seeing the strange ailments in a number of young women in the area, it was discovered all their patients had once or were still working at the town’s dial painting factory.
Yet, when she was referred to a specialist, Dr. Frederick Flynn and his colleague, Fryer was assured she was in perfect health. However, it was soon discovered that Dr. Flynn was not a practicing doctor at all, but a toxicologist secretly working for U.S. Radium. And his colleague was one of the company’s vice-presidents.
The appalling tactics employed by the firm didn’t stop there. Several other physicians and dentists were bought off, paid large sums to attribute the girls’ cause of death to syphilis rather than to anything caused by exposure to radium. It not only worked to keep the media at bay, it also did serious damage to the reputation of the girls. Any doctors not willing to lie were simply paid to not talk about the cases to anyone.
But perhaps most heinous of all was the treatment of the report by Harvard physiologist Cecil Drinker. He had been hired by U.S. Radium itself in 1924 to write up a report on their working conditions and the health of their employees.
Unable to be bought, he had produced a damning account stating just about every inch of the factory was heavily contaminated and virtually all the workers displayed unusual blood work. He also included a list of suggestions for safeguarding the health of the girls.
The report was sent, via U.S. Radium, to the New Jersey Department of Labor. But while it still listed Drinker as the author, it had been extensively rewritten by the management to claim ‘every girl is in perfect condition’. To compound it all, Drinker’s safety guidelines were also ignored.
When the doctor discovered what the company had done, he submitted his unedited version for publication, despite threats of lawsuits from U.S. Radium.
U.S. Radium in Court
In 1925, Grace Fryer decided to prosecute U.S. Radium. Sadly, with the corporation holding a major defense contract, as well as being connected in the highest levels of government, she faced a mammoth uphill struggle from the beginning. It would take her two years before she was even able to find a lawyer willing to take on the might of the organization. Her condition, of course, continued to deteriorate the whole time.
In 1927, attorney Raymond Berry filed a $250,000 suit against U.S. Radium on behalf of Fryer and four other women. But still the company used every weapon in their arsenal to fight proceedings.
Realizing the frailty of the girls’ health, they sought to delay hearings at every turn, in the hope the plaintiffs would simply die while still waiting.
It would take until 1928 before the women got their day in court, by which time not one of them was strong enough to so much as raise their arm to take the oath. Two were bedridden and Grace herself could only sit up by using a back brace.
But still U.S. Radium called for a postponement, stating that many of their expert witnesses were on holiday and would be for ‘several months’. They were, incredibly, granted another adjournment, something described by journalists at the time as ‘one of the most damnable travesties of justice’ they had ever witnessed.
Eventually, their health and finances completely spent, the girls were forced to settle out of court. Almost unbelievably, it was a U.S. Radium stockholder, District Court Judge William Clark, who was brought in to mediate. In return for agreeing not to hold the company responsible for their condition, each Radium Girl would receive $10,000; about $135,000 in today’s money. On top of that, they agreed to cover all medical and legal bills, as well as $600 a year for as long as the girls lived. That last didn’t leave them much out of pocket. By the mid-1930s, all five of the women had succumbed to their illness.
Rolex and Radium
If there is any positive to be taken from the U.S. Radium debacle, it is to be found in the vastly improved working conditions of not just dial painters, but in industrial safety standards in general.
Those working with radium-laced paint were now strictly forbidden from ‘lip-pointing’ and other procedures were put in place in order to minimize employees contact with the harmful substance.
What’s more, the Radium Girls case acted as a precedent for workers to be able to sue employers for labor abuses and was also used to pass a Congressional bill allowing for compensation to be paid in the event of an occupationally acquired disease.
As for Rolex? With the new safety laws implemented, radium was still the luminescent material of choice for all watchmakers, Rolex included, until the early 1960s.
Conditions in the factories had improved so much it was considered no danger to those working with the substance. Yet, what about those wearing the watches?
The metal case back and glass cover over the dial were found to afford the wearer a certain amount of protection, although radiation levels were still higher than to be completely safe. But in 1954, Rolex launched the first of the GMT-Master references, the ref. 6542.
The now legendary aviator’s watch was originally released with a Bakelite bezel, complete with luminescent numerals, all the better for seeing in the dark of a long-haul overnight flight. To illuminate the numbers, Rolex used another radioactive isotope, Strontium 90. Although it had a half-life only a fraction that of radium (28.8 years as opposed to 1,602 years) it was still a definite hazard.
In 1959, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) demanded Rolex issue a recall of all 605 GMT-Masters that had been imported into the U.S., after testing the bezels and finding dangerously high levels of radioactivity. The brand complied immediately, retrofitting an aluminum replacement at the cost to the company, but in one instance the damage had already been done.
38-year old Naval lieutenant commander Willard M Mound, who purchased his ref. 6542 in Hong Kong, sued Rolex USA for $5.6 million (about $42 million today). The case, filed in 1961, claimed radiation from the watch had caused the officer to develop skin lesions and damage his eyesight. He was also claiming on behalf of his wife and five children.
The outcome of the suit is not actually known but it is interesting to learn that Mound’s GMT resurfaced in 2015, having been in the possession of his son (who had kept it in a lead box since 1960) all that time.
But the recall and the lawsuit ended Rolex’s relationship with radium forever. In 1962, the brand made the switch to tritium, which emitted a very low beta radiation too weak to penetrate the skin.
Radium Watches Today
With our knowledge of the effects of radium now much greater, some collectors don’t consider vintage watch’s to pose too great a hazard to health, not unless they were to pry the crystal off and breathe in the fumes.
However, a new study by the University of Northampton in the U.K. suggests the way these watches are stored in very important.
As radium decays, it gives off radon gas—also radioactive and responsible for some 21,000 cancer deaths in the U.S. annually.
The study stockpiled 30 watches with radium dials into a small, poorly ventilated room, where they found the amount of the gas given off by them was well over 100 times the recommended safe level. While it has been suspected for a while, this was the first time it had been tested under scientific conditions.
So, while it may be perfectly safe to wear your vintage piece, it certainly pays to take care where you keep your collection.
— Featured Photo Credit: Custom BKT Mashup based on Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.