They don’t make science kits like they used to

Remember science kits? From 1951-52, the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab was sold for $50:

The set came with four types of uranium ore, a beta-alpha source (Pb-210), a pure beta source (Ru-106), a gamma source (Zn-65?), a spinthariscope, a cloud chamber with its own short-lived alpha source (Po-210), an electroscope, a geiger counter, a manual, a comic book and a government manual ‘Prospecting for Uranium.'”

The comic book was titled “Dagwood Splits the Atom.”

The kit’s high price and complexity made it a failure on the market.

At Trying to Grok, Sarah finds hope for the future through science kits.

Yesterday I had to work at a demonstration of various science kits you can buy at the store. I was kinda dreading it because it was going to be a huge mess, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. Most kids just wanted to get their hands dirty and sticky. But one family made it totally worthwhile.

A mother and two sons showed up specifically for the science demonstration. I was just getting to the end of mixing “quicksand”: cornstarch and water. I filled the pan and showed the older boy (probably 9 years old) how your hand sinks in and it’s hard to pull out. The boy looked at me and said, “Well, that’s neat, but what’s the science behind it?” Awesome. So I pulled out the paperwork that came with the kit, and we had a discussion of non-Newtonian fluids and the Law of Viscosity. And then we demonstrated together how the viscosity could be changed by applying pressure. He learned some science, and heck, so did I!

My husband was into Heathkit.  When his father refused to spring for a color TV, John built one himself. Even as a graduate student in electrical engineering, John patronized the Heathkit store.

My first husband designed an atomic bomb for a fifth grade science project. But he didn’t try to build it. His parents were too cheap to spring for the Gilbert U-238.

About Joanne


  1. Fifth grade is a bit early for designing atomic bombs. I didn’t figure it out until grade 7.

  2. It’s probably just as well he didn’t try to build the bomb. That U-238 would’ve been a disappointment since it’s U-235 that’s the stuff you need for bombs.

  3. Hunter McDaniel says:

    $50 would have been an astronomical price for a toy (albeit educational) in that era. No wonder they didn’t sell too many.

  4. Andy Freeman says:

    Science kits are nice, but there’s a lot of technology in trash and everyday artifacts.

    Most kids have used a small magnifying glass to set a piece of paper on fire. Projection TVs contain a magnifying “glass” (actually large plastic fresnel lens) that is capable of melting a coin….

  5. Hunter,

    $50 was indeed a lot of money in the era of the ten-cent comic book. According to, $50 in 1951 is equivalent to $395 in 2007.

    This lab shows what was on people’s minds at the time. Here’s a kit that represents the current zeitgeist:

    It’s out of stock until July 2009. Demand might be high. It costs $32.95 which would be about $4 in 1951.

  6. Barry Garelick says:

    My brother had an A.C. Gilbert chemistry set, ca 1955. Chemistry sets back then had chemcials that were fairly dangerous. His set had potassium nitrate, which as every boy knows is a key ingredient to gunpowder. Today’s chemistry sets are lawsuit proof and the most exotic chemical is maybe sodium bicarbonate, if you’re. Otherwise, it’s sodium chloride (table salt).

    I remember the experiments in the manual that came with my brother’s set, which included how to make sulfuric acid. It entailed heating potassium nitrate with sulfur to make sulfur trioxide which was bubbled into water via gas delivery tube. The problem was that heating ptoassium nitrate and sulfur is tricky business. When I did it, it exploded. There were a lot fewer lawyers around in those days, I think.

  7. John Drake says:

    Is this the kit you can use to make the Illudium Pu-36 Explosive Space Modulator?

  8. Robert Wright says:

    Oh gosh. When it was time for me to get my son the kind of science kit I used to have in the early 60’s, they were nowhere to be found.

    I think everything in today’s kits are edible.

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