“In their mid-20th century heyday, chemistry sets inspired kids to grow up to be scientists,” writes Wired. “Intel founder Gordon Moore, for example, credits a chemistry set with sparking his lifelong interest in science (not to mention some pretty neat explosions along the way).”
Vintage chemistry sets show how attitudes toward science have changed, says Kristen Frederick-Frost, a curator at the Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum in Philadelphia.
In the early to mid 1900s, there was growing optimism that science could solve many of the important problems facing the world, Frederick-Frost says. Chemistry kits reflected this enthusiasm, featuring what was new and exciting at the time: Plastics! Atomic Energy! Outer Space! It was common for the box of a kit to feature both an image of a young boy playing with the kit and an image of a scientist in his lab—the man the boy would grow up to be. “It’s about much more than chemistry, it’s about creating the ideal citizen through play,” she said.
Modern chemistry sets are obsessed with safety, writes Wired. “In one 1996 kit from the museum’s collection, the tiny vials of chemicals are just big enough to accommodate prominent warning labels.”
Another kit . . . boasts on the box that it includes no chemicals. One reviewer mocked it as an “astounding oxymoron of a product” (to be fair, it does use chemicals, just ones you acquire for yourself in the form of household materials like vinegar and baking powder).
Some are trying to bring back more exciting chemistry sets. A Kickstarter campaign is funding “heirloom chemistry sets” modeled on a kit sold in the 1920s through 1940s, reports Wired. “A competition sponsored in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation awarded $50,000 to a Stanford bioengineer who invented a a hand-crank chemistry kit.”
The Chemical Heritage Foundation has released a free iPad app called ChemCrafter that shows how to build a virtual chem lab and blow things up on screen.
It sounds . . . safe.