Sunday, April 13, 2008

The home chemist...long gone

What has happened in the past six decades or so when it comes to inspiring youth to become involved in the sciences--especially chemistry. The hands on factor has drastically been diluted. Fierce micromanagement is the rule followed by contentions of legality and public safety. The home chemistry sets of A. C. Gilbert, Porter, Chemcraft, or Handy Andy are long gone and supplemented by super safe and wimpy chemistry sets. [And yes, I received acid burns and darkened fingers from silver nitrate and potassium permanganate.]

Here are some essays about the old days of the home chemist.

"Amateur Science, 1900-1950: A Historical Overview
(With Emphasis on Amateur Chemistry)"


Norm Stanley

July 12th, 2002

[The following article was written for presentation at the First Annual Citizen Science Conference in June 2002.]

Science, as we know it today, would not be what it is without the contributions of amateurs. In fact I think it not too brash a statement to assert that basic science and what we know as the scientific method was largely developed by amateurs. From alchemists in search of the Philosophers' Stone to monks investigating Nature in pea gardens to the gentlemen amateurs of the seventeenth century on, they were developing the experimental/observational/hypothetical approach of modern science. True, with the passage of time the role of the amateur, working independently, has diminished as experimental techniques became highly sophisticated and string and sealing wax no longer sufficed for doing cutting-edge science. Despite vicissitudes, amateur or recreational science remains healthy today, as witness the present gathering.

In Victorian times, and likely earlier, school boys (girls seem not to have been mentioned) studied the science of the day and often carried out their own "see for yourself" experiments. Thomas Hughes' classic novel of English Public School life, Tom Brown's School Days has an amusing episode involving a minor explosion set off by one of the lads. Better known is the story of William Henry Perkin who, at the age of eighteen, synthesized mauveine, the first synthetic dye, in his home laboratory (Never mind that he was trying to synthesize quinine. Ðan's achievement that was not realized until a century later). And we all know the story of young Thomas Edison and his laboratory in a railroad car. Also from this era I'd like to mention a quaintly illustrated British book entitled, as I recall, The Boys' Playbook of Science. This featured recipes for chemical demonstrations (some quite risky), telegraphy (the Brits used a system quite different from that of Morse), photography (no PolaroidTM back then), "Limelight" (then in use for stage illumination), along with advice for boys preparing for a military career on the proper sword to buy!

On this side of the pond, Scientific American, established in 1845, became a source of much practical scientific information for the tinkerer and aspiring inventor. Long before "The Backyard Astronomer", it frequently featured experiments that the amateur could perform. (One such was a demonstration that a rapidly rotating paper disk could saw a wooden pencil in half.) A page of classified advertisements served as a forum for cranks hawking pamphlets describing their paradigm-busting mathematical and scientific breakthroughs. Popular Mechanics and Popular Science offered similar editorial material. Following in this tradition, a latecomer, Modern Mechanics and Inventions (presently Modern Mechanix) appeared in the late twenties. Along about 1934 it published an article about a 14 year old electrical wizard named Franklin E. Lee and his garage laboratory which was protected by a network of electrically-charged wires to keep trespassers at bay. Over the years that name became well known as the founder of Morris and Lee, makers of low-cost scientific apparatus for the amateur. Around the turn of the century the accomplishments of Edison, Marconi, and Tesla inspired amateur electrical experimentation. In this area Harper's Electricity Book for Boys (1907) was a bible for the amateur. Undoubtedly the credit for being a sparkplug goes to Hugo Gernsback (1882-1967), a native of Lichtenstein. In his autobiography (Radio-Craft, March 1958) he claimed that at age 15 he designed and installed an elaborate electric bell system in a local convent (it required a dispensation from the Vatican to permit him entry!). At age 20 he emigrated to the United States and set up the Electro Importing Company in New York City. Relying on his European contacts he imported electrical apparatus not readily available in the States, offering this and items of his own design through his catalogs. Among the latter was a Marconi-type wireless transmitter and receiver, mounted (literally) on two breadboards. This invited a visit by the New York Police on the suspicion that he was perpetrating a fraud. Gernsback's real forte, however, was magazine publishing in the electrical and radio field, starting with Modern Electrics (1908). This became the legendary Electrical Experimenter (later, Science and Invention). In 1929 Gernsback lost control of his magazines through bankruptcy, but immediately bounced back with a new stable of publications, among them Radio-CraftPoptronics) and Everyday Mechanics, soon renamed Everyday Science and Mechanics. In the mid-thirties Gernsback sold this title, along with his science fiction magazines. Renamed again as Science and Mechanics, it featured little or no material for the experimenter. Joseph H. Kraus, former editor of Everyday Science and Mechanics, started a new publication, Mechanics and Handicrafts, which continued the hands-on editorial policy of the former.

Amateur biology got a boost in the early thirties when Bausch & Lomb marketed a high quality but low cost microscope for the student or amateur. Microscopy flourished as a hobby, apparently inspired to some extent by this. Gernsback capitalized on this with a digest-sized magazine, Practical Microscopy.

Although these magazines were oriented more toward electrical and mechanical tinkerers than to chemists, they did publish some chemical articles. Most notable was a series of articles by Raymond B. Wailes, a prolific writer for the science magazines. These appeared monthly in Popular Science for several years during the 1930s. This material was later adapted for a book, The Home Chemist, by Wailes. There were, however, two letter-press chemistry magazines that I know of. Popular Chemistry was published throughout the 1920s. The other was The Home Laboratory Journal, a slim pamphlet sponsored by A. Daigger & Co., a Chicago laboratory supply house. This was published from 1933 to 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, and presumably was intended to drum up business for Daigger. Edited by M. Woldenberg, Ph.D., it published some excellent material, some quite sophisticated (preparing diethyl zinc, for example). The company is still in business and run by the Woldenberg family. The American Chemical Society's Journal of Chemical Education carried articles on chemical demonstrations and the like of interest to advanced amateurs.

In addition to Wailes, two other writers provided guides for the amateur chemist. Raymond Francis Yates authored a handbook, How to Make and Use a Home Chemical Laboratory. A. Frederick Collins was a prolific author of popular books on a variety of scientific subjects. One of these was Experimental Chemistry.

Chemistry sets were (and I suspect still are) a common means of entry for the budding chemist to get involved in "doing chemistry". Chemist John J. Porter founded Porter Chemical Company of Hagerstown, Maryland in 1914 to make chemistry sets under the trade name "Chemcraft". The company regularly ran advertisements in American Boy and elsewhere offering a sure 'nuf ChemcraftTM chemistry set by mail order for 25 cents. For this sum what you got was a small box containing envelopes of chemicals bearing awesome names such as "sodium ferrocyanide" and "ferric ammonium sulphate", along with a tiny measuring spoon and a brief manual describing how to turn water into wine, make your own writing ink, and the like. Best of all, though, was the Porter catalog offering larger sets as well as individual chemicals and labware items and tutorial information on elementary chemistry. To promote the sets, Porter sponsored Chemcraft Chemists Clubs with a slim magazine featuring club news, fiction, experiments, and Porter ads. Typically, the implicit assumption was that boys were the market for chemistry sets; for the girls Porter offered "Sachetcraft" for the amateur perfumer (not to denigrate the highly technical art of perfumery). In 1961 Porter was sold to Lionel Toy Corporation. By that time it had sold an estimated one million Chemcraft sets. Many professional chemists have testified that their childhood experiences with these and the Gilbert sets provided the motivation to choose a chemical career.

A. C. Gilbert of "Erector Set" fame also had a line of chemistry sets, with the reagents neatly packaged in turned wooden boxes. I also recall as a kid having seen a Gilbert Hydraulic Engineering set in a store window, and priced beyond my meager allowance. And let's not forget the battery-powered Gilbert Electric Motor, used to power Erector Set models. Its open-frame construction was designed to allow it to be easily taken apart and reassembled. When removed, the field assembly served as a powerful electromagnet. As a 10 year old kid I was baffled for quite some time as to how to make the motor reversible.

Kem-Kit Chemical Corporation put out a set which differed from the others in that the reagents were solutions put up in 2-oz. glass bottles. The manual was directed more to experiments in chemical analysis than to the magic tricks of the more popular sets. Kem-Kit also sold a kit of glassware for the organic laboratory, as well as a comprehensive line of apparatus and reagents. A search of the Internet revealed that the Kem-Kit name is still attached to kits supplied to organic chemistry students, although the original company seems to be long gone.

Chemistry sets are still sold in toy stores, but the experiments that can be done with them are pretty tame compared to what could be done with the old-time sets. Apparently their makers are fearful of damage suits arising from misuse of their products.

The depression years of the 1930s spawned an interesting social development among amateur chemists: Dissatisfied with the meager amount of chemistry appearing in the newsstand magazines, they started publishing their own. A certain parallel exists here with the science fiction fans of the day who, not getting an adequate "fix" for their craving from the pros, started their own journals of fiction and commentary. The hektograph and mimeograph provided inexpensive ways to get into print.

The motivations behind these amateur chemistry sheets and their readers were complex. Beyond the basic desire to communicate with others of like mind, some saw home study and experimentation as a way to improve one's financial lot in those difficult times, or even to attain fame and fortune as inventors. In at least two poignant instances that I know of journals were published by individuals who had lost loved ones to cancer, and hoped that amateur research might contribute in some way to the conquest of this and other dread diseases. The readers and contributors to these journals ranged from youngsters just graduated from chemistry sets, to skilled hobbyists, to graduate chemists unable to find employment in a severely depressed job market, to cranks unable to get a hearing in the professional community.

The American Amateur Chemists Society was founded in 1931 by Fred Allen Lankton, a man in his late twenties and a graduate of Michigan State University. In the editorial for the first issue of its pubication, Chemical Digest, Lankton wrote:

THE CHEMICAL DIGEST is not being published for vercenary [sic] reasons but has been placed into circulation because the Editor is intensely interested in chemistry and believes that there are hundreds of others who desire to know more about this subject but can not obtain the desired information from technical journals or books. The amateur chemist must content himself with a few articles picked up here and there in various mediums and trade magazines, many of which are of a technical nature; consequently very little information can be gained from their pages.

"This small medium does not wish to be of a technical nature, but wishes to conform to a strictly 'amateur policy', to create a desire for creative arguments, for general discussion, delving into amateur theories and hypothesis's [sic], promotion of amateur ability into the commercial field and in general, 'an amateur journal for amateurs."

Initially a weekly journal, it featured meaty issues of ten or more mimeographed pages in mid-1932 Chemical Digest (The Journal of the American Amateur Chemists Association). This was done to avoid confusion with a publication of the same name, published by Foster Dee Snell's chemical consulting firm. Lankton also published magazines aimed at the younger amateurs; Home Chemist and The Junior Chemist; these were sponsored by A.C. Gilbert who placed full-page advertisements in each issue. With the passage of years publication became more sporadic. In an open letter to AACS members in October 1940, Lankton described his tribulations in trying to keep the publication going and in fruitless efforts to obtain outside support from foundations and chemical manufacturers. The AACS and its journal appears to have gone out of existence shortly thereafter.

Other organizations that were around during this period included the Organic Chemists' Correspondence Club (OCCC) and American Amateur Scientists League (AASL). OCCC appears to have been an informal network of skilled amateur "organikers" . It published a journal, The OCCC Monograph during the mid-thirties. AASL published The Amateur Scientist. By the late thirties a younger group of amateur chemists began to publish journals. A teen-aged Iowan, William Louden, founded Retort. At first a hektographed sheet, it soon became a neatly edited and mimeographed publication. The Louden family were manufacturers of farm equipment, and it appears that young Bill drafted the office secretary to type and mimeograph Retort and other related booklets, including a thick (physically, that is) vade mecum of inorganic preparations and laboratory techniques. Publication ceased in 1939 when Bill moved east to attend MIT. Issues of Retort carried the proceedings of yet another amateur chemists' society, The Twentieth Century Alchemists of America.

Shortly before the demise of Retort, another amateur journal, Crucible, was launched by John Samida, Jr., a 20 year old New Yorker. Neat mimeography on 24-lb. yellow "goldenrod" stock lent it an elegant appearance. Excellent articles by some of John's former classmates at New York's DeWitt Clinton High School plus regulars from AACS and Retort made it a "class act". Subscribers were automatically considered to be members of the "Benzene Ring", an informal group with no activities beyond being readers and contributors. As is frequently the case with amateur publishers, the time required to prepare and mail out their papers quickly becomes burdensome. Such was the case with John Samida, and in mid-1940 publication was suspended.

The Crucible and Benzene Ring names were taken over by Lawrence J. Lange, a part-time student at the University of Chicago and an amateur organic chemist of considerable skill. Lange had ambitious plans to expand the scope of Crucible to encompass an "Organic Chemicals Depot" for the bulk purchase of reagents, and a series of "Benzene Ring Monographs". The Benzene Ring was to become established as an active society, an amateur counterpart to the American Chemical Society. He even proposed awarding amateur "degrees". I dissuaded him from that, pointing out that one thing amateur chemistry didn't need was to be identified with diploma mills.

Lange was greatly disappointed when only a handful of Samida's subscribers responded to his offerings. However by 1940 the social climate of the country had changed. More young people were entering the defense industry or the armed forces; gone were some of the motivations that were behind Lankton's AACS. Although a few of the more active amateurs, including Roland Schmitt (another name later to become well known), expressed interest in writing Monographs, only one, "The Benzoin Condensation", by Lange himself, ever saw print.

Yet another journal, modestly titled Journal of Advanced Chemistry, made its debut in July 1940. Founded in West Virginia by Donald Kulick, Jr. and taken over a year later by Marvin R. Peterson of Chicago, it was more of a success that its predecessors, continuing to appear monthly up to 1942 and boasting a quite respectable circulation of 800. At that time the name was changed to the less grandiose Popular Chemistry. (Peterson was unaware of the previous use of that title.) By then the country was at war, and shortages and restrictions on chemicals and laboratory supplies severely limited the amateur chemist's activities. Publication of Popular Chemistry was suspended "for the duration."

Nevertheless amateur science continued to be done even under wartime conditions. A number of transitory organizations came and went, among them Amateur Scientists of America (ASA). Its publication, Amateur Scientists' Magazine debuted in 1943. This journal was published by Carlo Sellari, a family man in his mid-thirties. Despite the fact that his formal education ended after the seventh grade, Carlo had largely educated himself by reading and experimenting in the sciences. The magazine was edited initially by Ms. P. M. Mezey, a writer for the New York Times. Following some turmoil in the ASA, the organization was dissolved and its resources devoted to publication of the magazine. It was published quite regularly throughout 1944 and 1945 under the editorship of James A. Moser a former contributer to Peterson's magazine. 1946 saw the magazine's name change to Science Quest with Sellari in the editor's seat. Publication continued until 1950, although at the end the magazine had diminished to a four-page leaflet.

Unlike Lankton, who endeavored to make a career out of his publishing, Louden and the others published as a means of expression and to communicate with other amateurs. There was no rivalry; the appearance of a new journal was always welcomed. Their editors somehow found time for voluminous correspondence with each other and their subscribers.

To end this history on a more upbeat note, much credit should be given to Gernsback Publications and Scientific American for continuing to publish material for experimenters during and following the war. The late forties saw the appearance of huge quantities of surplus war materials on the market. A number of companies sprang up to deal in this electronic and mechanical gear. This was a gold mine for the experimenter, though not so much for the chemistry enthusiast. Heath Company, originally a manufacturer of light airplanes in kit form, started to produce electronic instruments in kit form. Its initial offering, the HeathkitTM oscilloscope, was constructed from surplus components. I still recall the thrill on turning it on and seeing that thin, slightly wobbly, green line appear on the face of the cathode ray tube. And, not least, "Red" Stong's amateur scientist columns, started to appear in Scientific American. But that's another story and another era.

"Yesterday's Toy Becomes Tomorrow's Trade"

James M. Schmidt

A chemistry set has often crystallized a science career.

Accidents will happen, and chemistry sets have undoubtedly caused their share in kitchen, bedroom, and basement “laboratories” over the years. It is no accident, however, that these same outfits inspired John Brodemus and countless other young people to pursue careers in science. Since the early 1900s, chemistry sets have entertained and educated millions of American boys and girls, giving many an appetite that could only be satisfied by choosing chemistry as their profession. Even for those who chose other careers, fond memories of this favorite "toy" have made the sets treasured and often valuable collectibles.

The heritage of the modern chemistry set is centuries old. William Jensen, Oesper Professor in the History of Chemistry and Chemical Education at the University of Cincinnati, points to books on "natural magick" containing chemical magic tricks and scientific puzzles dating from 17th-century Europe as the progenitors of the chemistry set. Actual chemistry sets, designed for druggists, for medical students, or for the amusement and edification of the upper classes, appeared in the late 18th century. The era of World War I, which hastened the growth of America’s nascent chemical industry, also catalyzed a rebirth of the chemistry set. The two eminent manufacturers of chemistry sets, the Porter family and A. C. Gilbert, helped foster an enhanced awareness of chemistry and chemists during this period, especially among young people. These efforts corresponded to similar educational efforts made by the American Chemical Society and some of the larger chemical companies.

Porter Chemical:

John J. Porter was already an established chemist and successful businessman when he founded the Porter Chemical Company in 1914. He earned his B.S. degree in chemistry from the University of Cincinnati in 1908. While an assistant professor at the university, Porter flourished in his part-time consulting business, earning a good reputation for his work in the field and in the laboratory, as well as for writing technical reports. In 1914, he became president and operations manager of a cement company in Hagerstown, MD.

When he moved to Hagerstown, Porter decided to act on his plan to start a company to package and market branded chemical products, such as mothballs. John persuaded his brother, Harold Mitchell Porter, to leave the University of Cincinnati, where he had just finished his third year studying chemistry, to manage the business. They started the Porter Chemical Company in 1914 with Harold as president and operating head. John served as vice president and consultant.

John and Harold had both experimented with chemicals in their youth. They recognized that many experiments producing color changes and other visual effects could be performed with chemicals that were relatively harmless, and with minimal apparatus. Soon after starting the Porter Chemical Company, they began to produce their first chemistry sets. John did most of the research for the experiments, while Harold wrote the first manuals. Harold also emerged as the first salesman; his earliest customers were the fashionable department stores in the Washington, DC, area.

Using the "Chemcraft" trademark, the Porters commenced business in 1914 with two "chemical magic" sets, both selling for less than a dollar. By the early 1920s, the company offered a line of sets in six different sizes, retailing for prices from 50 cents to $25. Beginning in the 1930s, the company began to broaden its scope, manufacturing microscopes, biology and atomic energy sets, and other scientific toys. From its start in the early 1900s, until the Lionel Toy Corporation acquired it in 1961, Porter Chemical sold well over a million Chemcraft sets. Indeed, at one point the company was the world’s largest single consumer of test tubes!

Chemistry and science were truly family vocations for the Porters. John and Harold’s father, Jermain G. Porter, was an astronomer with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey and a professor at the University of Cincinnati while John studied chemistry. John’s son, Jermain D. Porter, was also a chemist. He obtained his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1932 from Cornell University. While in college, he authored two of the Porter chemistry set manuals. He then held teaching posts in physical and theoretical chemistry until retiring in 1964 to teach chemistry in Laos as part of the International Voluntary Services program. John’s wife, Edith, assisted in manufacturing sets during the company’s earliest years.

"Gilbert the Great":

The Porters’ main competition in the "instructional toy" business was famed inventor and toymaker Alfred Carlton Gilbert. Born in Salem, OR, Gilbert was a talented athlete from an early age, excelling in gymnastics, wrestling, boxing, football, and especially track and field. In 1908, he won the gold medal in pole vaulting at the London Olympic Games. Gilbert’s second great love, after sports, was magic. Gilbert practiced and perfected tricks at every opportunity, earning as much as $100 a night performing shows as "Gilbert the Great", while a medical student at Yale. Upon earning his M.D. in 1909, Gilbert and his friend John Petrie formed the Mysto Manufacturing Company, producing boxed magic sets for sale in department stores and their own retail shops.

Gilbert’s true success came a few years later, when he introduced the "Erector Set" in 1913. The famous toy was inspired by the construction work he witnessed on train trips as he made sales calls up and down the East Coast. Within a short time, the newly named "A. C. Gilbert Company" was a huge success, selling tens of millions of Erector Sets in 20 years. In 1917, with the Erector Set firmly established, the company brought out several new products. In his autobiography, Gilbert recalled: "the most important of these was our chemistry set, which has throughout the years been one of our best items. It was perfectly safe, and yet a boy could do hundreds of interesting experiments with it. I worked hard on the manual that went with it, making sure that it would be fun. It was chock-full of fascinating experiments and tricks, so boys liked it and learned a lot from it."

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Gilbert offered his entire manufacturing facility to the government for war work. To meet this obligation they stopped making all Erector Sets, model trains, and other toys that required critical metals. Even so, they continued to make chemistry sets throughout the entire war! Yale Professor Robert Treat Johnson insisted that it was Gilbert’s duty to continue producing them. After polling his students, Johnson identified chemistry sets as a factor in the great increase in the number of chemistry majors at Yale. Government authorities were aware of the professor’s endorsement and encouraged the company to continue producing the sets. Johnson later helped redesign the entire line of Gilbert chemistry sets and wrote several Gilbert manuals.

Anatomy of a Chemistry Set:

The pieces in James Dyer’s gift were typical of basic chemistry sets at midcentury. For example, the "Chemcraft Junior Chemistry Outfit No. 411" included a metal rack with test tubes, glass tubing, litmus paper, stirring rods, a spatula, and glass jars of phenolphthalein, ammonium chloride, sodium carbonate, sodium ferrocyanide, cobalt chloride, calcium oxide, ferric ammonium sulfate, and tannic acid. The manual began with hints for putting on a "chemical magic" show for friends and family, including publicity, costume, and sound-effect suggestions, and instructions for about 50 demonstrations of chemical "mysteries".

The balance of the book included instructions for another 250 experiments under the headings "What Things Are Made Of", "Our Chemical World", and "Chemistry in Our Homes and Industries". An appendix listed more than 60 chemicals and a variety of apparatus to be ordered directly from the Porters at a nominal cost of 10-90 cents. The Chemcraft manuals were well regarded by educators for their range of experiments, safety precautions, and systematic introduction to the principles of chemistry. Indeed, the 1935 edition of the manual received a detailed and favorable review in the Journal of Chemical Education (1938, 15, 100).

The largest Chemcraft and Gilbert sets contained many dozens of chemicals and additional equipment such as balances, alcohol lamps, and torches for glassblowing. Although the most familiar, Porter and Gilbert were by no means the only manufacturers. Chemistry sets were also sold under such names as Handy Handy (by Skil Craft) and Chem-Pak (Chicago Apparatus Company).

A dedicated cadre of collectors scours flea markets, antique toy dealers, and auctions for vintage sets. Rare chemistry sets in mint condition have recently fetched hundreds of dollars in online auctions. Members of organizations such as the A. C. Gilbert Heritage Society specialize in collecting scientific toys. As part of its Gilbert Project, The Eli Whitney Museum in Hamden, CT, has a permanent Gilbert Collection, including several vintage chemistry sets.

Winning Hearts and Minds:

The adage "they don’t make them like they used to" may be as true for chemistry sets as it has become for other elements of American life. Indeed, the reality is that they hardly are being made at all. A recent trek to a local hobby store revealed only a few sets to choose from-a far cry from the plethora available in the chemistry set heyday of the 1940s and 1950s. Liability concerns have forced most of what was "dangerous" out of the sets, no doubt also forcing out some of their mystery and appeal. A veterinarian confessed to the author that he buys vintage chemistry sets to satisfy his teenaged son’s interest in chemistry, as they were both disappointed in the choices now available.

There are any number of reasons why young men and women choose to pursue a career in science. The fun and learning of having had a chemistry set is only one of many. One hopes that the 21st century will find its own "natural magick" to keep the heritage of chemistry sets alive.


I must acknowledge the invaluable cooperation of William Jensen, Darryl Brock, the Crystal Lake (IL) Public Library, the chemical professionals who replied to my queries on ProfNet and the CHEM-HIST newsgroup, and several collectors of vintage chemistry sets.

Further Reading:

Gilbert, A. C.; McClintock, M. The Man Who Lives in Paradise: The Autobiography of A. C. Gilbert; Rinehart: New York, 1954.

Kauffman, G. B. The Power of a Chemistry Set. CHEMTECH 1987, 17, 712-713.

Copyright American Chemical Society

"The Chemistry Set: From Toy to Icon"


Rosie DiVernieri

Chemical Heritage Foundation

Spring 2006, Volume 24, Number 1

Almost every profession has an icon; most have three or four. If you asked those working with chemistry to name icons of their profession, you would get a variety of answers-molecular structures, emblematic glassware, analytical apparatus-but one item would appear on almost every list: the chemistry set.

In the 1940s companies began selling chemistry laboratories, kits, and sets in department and toy stores as educational items aimed mainly at young boys. Billed as the perfect birthday or Christmas gift, a chemistry set promised magic for its user and, at least in the minds of his parents, a potential career. Staring out from the covers of attention-getting bright red, blue, and yellow boxes were smart-looking, welldressed young boys, exuding the confidence that the field of chemistry was feeling at the time. By the mid-1950s-the height of chemistry sets' popularity-there was hardly a boy in the United States who did not own or want one. Later, female faces would sometimes grace the covers, and there were even kits made especially for girls (though, as CHF's traveling exhibit Her Lab in Your Life reminds us, some were labeled for "lab technicians").

Most chemists today remember their first chemistry set, even the manufacturer's name-Gilbert, Porter Chemcraft, Lionel, Skil Craft, Merit, or Lott’s-and what the box looked like. They talk about doing experiments in the living room and catching the rug on fire with an alcohol lamp, or about making their sister’s room smell like rotten eggs. They recall waiting anxiously for the mail, expecting not a decoder ring but the newest copy of the Chemcraft Magazine or Science Club Newsletter. One retired chemist even told me about how he “borrowed” some calcium carbide from a nearby railroad to see what he could do with it.

Many credit these toys with starting and fueling their interest in chemistry. In 2003 CHF had around 10 complete chemistry sets in its collection. Today CHF holds one of the best public collections of chemistry sets, with approximately 90 sets from a variety of manufacturers in the United States, England, and Australia, dating from the early 1910s to the 1970s. This growth shows the dedication of CHF and its collections staff to preserving all aspects of the history of chemistry, including its popular culture.

The chemistry set is an important icon for the chemical field because for many chemists it represents the genesis of their interest in chemistry. It is also a reminder in the age of computerized interactive “learning aids” that sometimes the best way to learn is to hold that glass test tube with one hand and put in the chemical with the other, just to see what might happen-all while wearing safety glasses and gloves, of course.

©2006 Chemical Heritage Foundation

The Chemcraft Story: The Legacy of Harold Porter by, John Tyler

ISBN 1878282271


Like most children of my generation who were interested in science, I had a chemistry set. Mine was a Gilbert, but as I learned from this new book, A. C. Gilbert only added chemistry sets to his line of scientific toys in 1922 after noting the success of the Chemcraft kits marketed by the Porter Chemical Company. (Gilbert was known for the Erector construction sets; I had one of those, too.) Harold Porter, in partnership with his brother John, began manufacturing chemical kits in Hagerstown, MD, in 1916. Their first kits cost $0.75 for the smaller set and $1 for the larger. Since the average weekly salary at the time was only about $10, the Porters took a large risk in trying to market such an expensive and unusual toy. Woodward and Lothrop, the venerable Washington, DC department store, was willing to take a chance on something new, and before long Chemcraft chemistry sets were on the shelves of stores all over the country. The Porters eventually expanded their line to include other scientific toys-microscopes, mineralogy kits, electro-physics outfits, botany kits, model airplanes, and telescopes. By the 1970s, however, safety concerns and new fashions in toys dealt a death blow to the chemistry set. In 1984 the Porter Chemical plant in Hagerstown closed its doors.

This book concisely recounts the story of Harold Porter and the Chemcraft and related Sciencecraft toys that he developed. It is copiously illustrated with photos as well as reproductions of advertisements for the various Porter products. Appendices contain both the complete text of the 1937 Chemcraft Chemical Magic instruction book and the July 1939 issue of the Chemcraft Science Magazine that the company published for members of the Chemcraft Science Clubs. Not only does this book help document the role of chemistry sets in American culture in the 20th century, it also brings back fond memories to those of us whose interest in science was stimulated by these delightful toys.

Jeffrey Kovac. Journal of Chemical Education

Paranoia, injury, responsibility--false or real--have been the death knell of current [2007] chemistry sets.

"The Grinch Who Stole the Chemistry Set"


Donna Fuscaldo

December 11th, 2007

With concerns over terrorism, drugs and general safety, kids wanting chemistry sets this Christmas may want to scream, "Bah Humbug."

For the last few years government regulations have wreaked havoc on the toy chemistry set by banning potentially hazardous chemicals that could explode or are flammable. It’s even spread to seemingly innocuous things like Bunsen burners, beakers, and flasks.

Some chemistry set supporters said the restrictions on these products aid in hurting the country’s ability to recruit the scientists of tomorrow. After all, most scientists and technologists can trace their love of science back at least partially to a childhood chemistry set. Even Gordon Moore, founder of semiconductor giant Intel...was known to blow up a thing or two back in the day, said industry watchers.

Chemistry sets continue to be made "even more bland and ineffectual and uninteresting," said Shawn Crawlson, executive director of the SciTech Hands On Science Museum in Aurora, Ill.. "They're completely ineffective in terms of helping kids get excited about science." Crawlson founded Labrats Science Education Program, a non-profit that will create communities of kids ages 11 through 18 who meet weekly at community centers around the country to explore science activities.

There are chemistry sets on the market, but Crawlson said most are micro-chemistry sets where you would have to use a microscope to see the impact of the chemicals reacting together. Others use substitutions for the more dangerous chemicals and remove anything that would cause a flame.

"The educators, of course, will say you observe the same reaction…but where’s the fun in that," said Crawlson.

Government concerns over chemistry sets and other chemical materials stems in part from an increase in the number of home-grown methamphetamine labs across the country. Just last week a high school teacher in Bakersfield, Calif., was charged with making methamphetamine in the school’s lab.

It also comes at a time when parents want to shelter children from all of the harms out there and people are afraid terrorists could use the stuff for nefarious purposes. Officials at the Consumer Product Safety Commission didn’t return repeated calls and emails for comment.

The American Academy of Pediatrics urges parents on its website not to give chemistry sets to children younger than 12 years old and for parents to provide supervision for older children using the kits. An official at the American Chemical Society said the group is in favor of anything that helps protect children.

"Many people who are not scientists have a hard time believing the idea that there are pretty reasonable reasons you want to have beakers and Bunsen burners," said Theodore Gray, a contributing editor at Popular Science.... "It's hard to argue in favor of selling kids dangerous chemicals, but on the other hand you can go down to the local sporting store and buy a gun and buckets full of ammunition with no questions asked, depending on what state you live in."

The concern over experiments that go boom has even spread into the classroom. Some high school science teachers aren’t allowed to conduct experiments that could blow up. Instead, simulations on the computer are used to demonstrate chemical reactions in many cases.

"Learning follows interest and interest follows fun," said Crawlson. "The U.S. is way behind the rest of the world in the quality of science education and science literacy and part of it is because we are not doing anything to get kids excited."

According to Crawlson, children need to be taught personal responsibility when it comes to science. He said the sheltering is actually harming kids because they don’t learn to be responsible for their actions. He sees nothing wrong with giving kids' access to chemicals in a controlled environment as long as the teachers or parents insist the child behaves responsibly.

"The movement to keep kids safer is going in exactly the opposite direction," said Crawlson. "What we’re doing is making things bland and keeping the lawyers happy."

Chemical Heritage Website

A recent Wired Science offering from PBS... "Dangerous Science" .

Physics Set Brings Nearly $8,000 At An Auction


Chemistry sets miscellaneous

Gilbert chemistry sets

Microscope sets

Physics sets

Science books

Science sets miscellaneous

Time: October 1958
Event: The purchase from Joe Falk Toys the best superdooper chemistry set that the A. C. Gilbert Company marketed.
Cost: $15.00...3 months of mowing yards.

Like many other individuals my contact with the products of the A. C. Gilbert Company was extensive: Erector sets, microscopes, magic, model trains, physics and chemistry sets. Gilbert started in 1909 with the Mysto Manufacturing Co. and his magic sets; erector sets in 1913; chemistry sets in 1922; microscope sets in 1935; S gauge model trains [American Flyer Manufacturing Co.] in 1946; atomic energy sets in 1951. One wonders how many professions were started by the influence of these products. The company is gone now, but the baton of the concepts of these items continues by many companies and oddly enough all of these products are highly collectible and quite valuable.

Inventor of the Week

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