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Vintage Props and Creepy Calculations

October's collections article.
October 1, 2019
Dr. M.M. Marbel’s Blood-Cell Calculators

Dr. M.M. Marbel’s Blood-Cell Calculator.

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Dr. Marbel’s cell calculator was found by our collections specialist during a visit to the Black Hole, a local surplus store known for its quirky assortment of recycled, Lab and science-themed gadgets and appliances.

Health research may not be the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Los Alamos. However, early concerns about worker safety during the Manhattan Project actually gave rise to ongoing, health-related research at the Lab. That early research deepened Lab scientists’ understanding of nuclear materials and contributed to the development of highly sophisticated imaging instrumentation used today in medical research, including ultrasound-computed tomography and radiograph scans used to detect cancers. 

While that early research led to many improvements in some instrumentation, some of the research tools used by Manhattan-era scientists haven’t changed much over the last seventy-five years. For instance, Dr. M.M. Marbel’s Blood-Cell Calculators, used by scientists in the 1940s to count subjects’ red or white blood cell levels, was pretty low-tech, but also extremely effective. Unlike rapidly evolving sensing or imaging tools which are designed to detect or expose, these cell calculators were designed to improve the manual efficiency and accuracy of the user. Much like a ten-key calculator, these blood cell calculators allowed users to quickly record data without having to constantly look back and forth between the source of that data (the ocular lens of a microscope) and the record they were creating. 

You may wonder how the Bradbury came to possess a Manhattan-era blood cell calculator and what its history may include. Well, not all the Museum’s artifacts come to us with exceptional provenance, and a few come with virtually none at all, but are valuable because they provide supplementary context and detail to exhibits centered around more significant artifacts. With no identifiable markers or documented history, this particular blood cell counter falls in the second category. 

Dr. Marbel’s cell calculator was found by our collections specialist during a visit to the Black Hole, a local surplus store known for its quirky assortment of recycled, Lab and science-themed gadgets and appliances. The store has since closed, making additional research into the calculator’s history next to impossible. So, we’re not entirely sure this particular instrument was used in Los Alamos, or what specific research it was used for. We do know that similar equipment was part of health-related research undertaken here by Manhattan Project scientists as they sought to better understand the properties of radioactive materials and how to best protect those working with radioactive materials. 

For more information on our collections, please visit the Bradbury Science Museum’s webpage.