In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Radiumaton
  • Rachel Brittain

It wasn't until the first men started dying that people really took note. I'd been following the story for years, putting together the pieces, newspaper clipping by newspaper clipping. But not until the death of a man and the appearance of the automatons, like something out of a storefront nickelodeon, did my editors want anything to do with the story.

This was long after news had come out about Madam Curie's scandalous affair, after her second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry—nearly two decades in all. Already, she had coined the term "radioactivity" to describe the effects of the new element she had discovered alongside her late husband.

This was a time when radium was the miracle additive, you understand. It could be found in nearly everything: milk and lingerie, toothpaste that guaranteed a brighter smile with every brush. Dangerous in high doses, but weren't all medicines, really?

A playboy died of acute radiation poisoning, the FTC citing Radithor to blame. And then there were the local stories nobody else was reporting, clippings my mother sent from The Orange Chronicle and The East Orange Gazette that I collated and collected. The factory girls walked the streets of Orange, photoluminescent dresses glowing at the seams. Ghost girls, they called them, with their eerie ever-present shine.

But the newspapers were full of quiet obituaries, too. Girls glowed, and girls died. That was the story nobody was telling. Certainly not me, and certainly not my editors.

And all the while, the companies maintained their innocence.

This was before humans were banned from working in the factories altogether, mind, when painters still worked alongside the automata on the factory floor. The headlines were quick to take note of that: Metal Workers To Take Over Factory Jobs. The less pessimistic called it the "metallic wave of the future."

How many girls had died by then, do you think?

Radium has a chemical makeup most similar to calcium, to human bone, not metal. You see where this is going? The body mistakes the radium for calcium, depositing the radioactive isotope in bone and marrow, where it slowly begins to decay the skeleton from the inside out.

A girl by the name of Mollie Maggia was one of the first to die, after a dentist pulled that tooth and her mouth filled with pus that wouldn't stop coming. Not until the first male employee died in 1925 did any of the higher-ups really stop to listen, though all this time they'd been wearing their lead aprons and taking care not to touch the paint. [End Page 106]

This was not the story my editors wanted me to cover. A manager in a smart suit waited on my arrival. I introduced myself. "Vera Blake from the Daily Times," I said boldly, holding out a hand. He glanced at it, finally deciding to give it a meager shake.

"You're the newspaper lady?"

"Reporter," I supplied. He didn't seem to care one way or the other.

"Let's get on with it then."

We bypassed the floor full of workbenches, girls and automata working side by side. He gestured down at it, nothing more than a footnote as he explained the new safety measures—a phalanx of metal workers with brass bodies less susceptible to the radiation, and inhuman besides; the new lead panels affixed to the factory walls in bleak contrast to the large, paned windows filtering in emerald-tinted sunlight through the trees. Though that commentary was mine, not his.

Still, no point in asking point blank what all these measures were for if not to protect from the deadly effects of radium. The rumble was they knew—that they had known for longer than anyone was comfortable admitting—which was why the human girls were being slowly replaced.

The explanation was simple enough: automation was the way of the future. The question was whether to grant them any credence.

I was led to a coatroom that glowed eerie green until the electric lights switched on, obscuring the deadly residue of radioluminescence. An automaton was escorted in by a factory girl in a drop...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 106-113
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.