When we weren’t scared of chemistry

“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.

About Joanne


  1. Barry Garelick says:

    I had the Porter Chemcraft set. My brother had the Gilbert chemistry set. They were both incredibly good! Many of the chemicals were poisonous, but I don’t recall being tempted to eat them. My brother’s set had an experiment where you made sulfuric acid. It was not a safe experiment and could result in an explosion which happened when I tried it. (I inherited my brother’s set which I combined with mine). But I learned quite a bit and it prompted me to read on my own about chemistry.

  2. We got the Thames & Kosmos C3000 a couple of years ago, and that was pretty great. OK, there was no mercury or sodium (I wish!) but we had a great time with it and there was quite a reasonable array of chemicals. The handbook leads you through a few hundred experiments, and if you do it thoroughly it’s a decent practical chemistry course.

    I *love* the vintage box up there, “Featuring atomic energy!” Around here we often quote The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T– “Is is….atomic?!?”

  3. Jerry Doctor says:

    Mine was also a Gilbert. Big blue metal case that opened up like a book. I remember going to the drug store with mom to buy a pint of wood alcohol for the burner. Many years later I majored in Chemistry in college then taught it at the high school and college levels for a total of 40 years.

    It was the colors, smells (all bad) and occasional KA-BOOM that drew me to my life’s work. I don’t know what would attract kids to it today. If you have never dropped a piece of sodium in water (and I mean you dropped it, not you watched someone else do it on You Tube) and watched in amazement as it bounced across the surface of the water, Chemistry just becomes math and confusingly abstract theory.

    We graduate college majors with a B.S. in Chemistry that have never used a splint test to differentiate hydrogen from oxygen. Sad.

    • “We graduate college majors with a B.S. in Chemistry that have never used a splint test to differentiate hydrogen from oxygen.”

      Wait, really? How can that be?? My oldest is 13 and we’ve done it several times. (We have had a lot of fun making things go boom. I think she was about 5 the first time we mixed lye and Al and filled a balloon that we then exploded.) I don’t see how you could take even a basic chem course and never do a splint test.

      • Jerry Doctor says:

        After teaching high school chem for 32 years (and yes, my kids did all the old fashioned experiments including splint tests) I taught general and organic chemistry labs at the local university. Enrollment is about 15,000 and the chem dept has a very good reputation among the local med schools. The graduating chem majors have to take the ACS General Chemistry Exam and they kick butt on it – way above the national norms.

        When I started at the University I was shocked by the preparation freshman had received in high school chem classes. Their lab technique was dreadful. They were unaware of what I had considered to be fundamental chemical reactions. Nomenclature was a complete mystery. A very large percentage could not tell you what HNO3 or H2SO4 were. On the other hand they were great at making posters for Mole Day.

        In their freshman college chem labs they did a lot of lab work. They worked with really neat equipment like HPLC. But they did not do things like generate common gases. Part of the reason for that omission is that in the past the kids had already done that in high school. Unfortunately, part of the reason is that potassium chlorate and hydrogen generators are considered too dangerous for students to handle. If you actually let students react water and sodium (forget potassium – everyone would die!) the safety gurus would go crazy.

        So, as I said before, what is there to capture the interest of students anymore? Color changes? No, too many involve heavy metals. Smells? No, toxic gases. Explosions, even itty-bitty small explosions? You must be insane!

        CAUTION: When reading the above remember that as a child this person rode a bicycle without a helmet, most likely resulting in brain damage.