Andrew Talkov, vice president for programs at the Virginia Historical Society, launches into the story of a midcentury toy with a Richmond connection.

Alpha-1 Ballistic Missile toy 

(introduced in 1958)

Americans lived with an underlying sense of fear in the late 1950s. We were locked in a political, economic and military struggle against the spread of communism, and the Soviet Union was winning the race into space – and in the production of rockets that could deliver nuclear payloads to U.S. targets.

Jerry Burke, a scientist at rocket company Texaco Experiment Inc. in Richmond, believed he could encourage a love of rocketry that would inspire a new generation of rocketeers – if he could create a safe fuel that children could use.

Based on the Cricket rocket, which was designed at Texaco and was used to study wind patterns, Burke developed the Alpha-1 Ballistic Missile plastic toy. For fuel, he didn't use flammable liquids. Instead, he relied on pressurized carbon dioxide gas, made by combining sodium bicarbonate and citric acid with water. Like Alka-Seltzer, it was safe and very fizzy.

The Alpha-1 kit originally sold for about $5. The rocket boasted a trajectory of 100 to 200 feet, which could make the 10-inch plastic projectile extremely dangerous as it plummeted back to earth. The rubber nose cone came in handy when the Alpha-1 landed on a paved surface, but when landing nose first in the grass, the rocket might be embedded up to its fins.

Burke realized that users would test the limits of the toy by using more fuel to boost altitude, so he made the launch pad's support pin a bit smaller than the nozzle outlet, and he used a rubber O-ring seal. Anyone attempting to overload the rocket would see the O-ring seal fail, and the fizz would blow by.

Toys such as the Alpha-1 frequently reflect the events of their era, and with the Soviet launch of Sputnik in late 1957, space became a more common theme. Today, toys are still used to encourage children to excel in science, technology, engineering and math – and help promote American competitiveness in an ever-changing world.

An Alpha-1 rocket is included in the Virginia Historical Society exhibit "Toys of the '50s, '60s and '70s," which runs through Sept. 4. (vahistorical.org)

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