From the Cold War vantage point of the early 1960s, the immediate future appeared to be one of impending nuclear annihilation. The savvy homeowner built a bomb shelter for family safety, but how to know when to come out after the big one fell? You couldn't see, feel, hear, taste or smell radiation. That's where a home fallout meter came in handy. Luckily, Popular Science was there to help the consumer understand how they worked and which one to buy.
In the pages of Popular Science, the post-nuke scenario sounded less like the potential end of life as we know it than an opportunity for plucky do-it-yourselfers to explore the exciting world of atomic science. Understanding the two types of fallout meters was as easy as a leisurely drive in the family car. Ratemeters measured how fast you soaked up radiation in roentgens per hour, "just as a speedometer on a car measures how fast you are piling up mileage." Dosimeters measured one's total exposure to radiation in straight roentgens, "the way the mileage counter on a car tells how far you have traveled."
A high reading on the ratemeter warns of immediate danger but not necessarily irreparable harm—like seeing the needle touch 95 in a car. A high reading on the dosimeter means you've had it—like seeing 95,000 on the odometer of a jalopy.
After the bomb dropped and the family ran to safety, they'd use the meter (either type would do) to survey the fallout shelter itself for leaks (Popular Science didn't say what to do if you found one—at least in this article) and keep individual dose records. "Gingerly poking the meter out the shelter door—and later outside the house door—would reveal when it was safe to leave . . . and for how long."
Popular Science then explained the "stiff" requirements set by the U.S. Office of Civil Defense:
A civilian meter must be small, light, almost unbreakable, simple enough for your wife to use and your TV man to repair, and fairly accurate (plus or minus about 25 percent) even after you have fished it out of a puddle.
Prices ranged from $100 for a remote control meter that allowed the user to remain in the shelter while taking readings outside, to $3.98 "gadget" that the OCD considered "dangerously inadequate." Maybe it was too difficult for the little lady to operate.