Lamenting the loss of children's chemistry kits

A New York Times piece on post-9/11 chemistry sets, modified for the age of lawsuits and terror-noia: “Basically, you have to be able to eat everything in the science kit,” says Jim Becker, president of SmartLab Toys, "who recalled learning the names of chemicals from his childhood chemistry set, which contained substances that have long since been banned from toys." It's a good piece, though Steve Silberman pretty much wrote the same piece back in 2006 for Wired Magazine.

If you're into this as nostalgia, there are lots of cool vintage sets routinely available on eBay. Here's a neat midcentury specimen.


  1. What everyone forgets about these kits is that you could also buy all kinds of replacement chemicals at the local department or hobby store. They just sold jars of chemicals. 

    1. That fact might get less remembering because if you already know what you want the internet has done very helpful things for the supply of most materials that aren’t actively controlled in some way or other.

      The death of the decent chemistry set as something J Random Child is likely to receive in the first place has been fairly brutal in terms of ‘friendly first access if you didn’t know you were interested’ and that isn’t so much something that improved non-retail distribution mechanisms have helped with. There are a few things that team Drug War has gone after, and access to those really hasn’t improved; but the harshest reductions have been in the chemistry-sets-that-might-actually-interest-somebody-in-chemistry segment, even more so at retail.

      1. But yknow, it’s more than just that.  We didn’t just have chemistry sets.  We had electronics sets and computer sets and geology sets.  Now, most of us just install Windows and hope for the best.  It’s a black box.  And the satellite radio is a black box.  And whatever keeps the Twinkies fresh for a long long time is a black box, except it’s a chemical.  People today aren’t really supposed to know how /anything/ works.

        Some of that is complexity.  The computer I built was a four-bit model, and the radio was AM only.  But still.

        1. Well, to be fair, AM radio has become much more toxic in the last 20 years – I wouldn’t want to expose children to it either.

        2. Oh, I entirely agree about the ‘black-boxification’ of things across product categories. The barrier to entry(both in terms of absolute access to things like chemistry sets and electronics kits, especially in places where casual shoppers might find them, and in the delta between anything you can kit-build and the shiny-cryptographically-sealed-and-no-part-bigger-than-some-BGA-mystery-the-size-of-your-fingernail consumer devices) does seem to have grown substantially.

          I further agree that this very likely has serious consequences for the number of people who get drawn into understanding these fields. My point was mere that, if you already know that you want something, your access to it has largely improved, so long as you don’t mind waiting for Fedex. Retail availability has gone to hell, though, and the increased sophistication and staggeringly low prices of the black boxes has upped the competition significantly(you can still build a 4-bit computer if you want one, and m68k or 8086 pulls have never been cheaper, it’s just that the commercial competition that you can actually afford has advanced a few orders of magnitude over the years…) No longer is caring about this sort of thing even remotely the default option.

    2. Yep… back in the ’60s, when I was 10 or so, those racks were near the comics (12 cents) at the local drug store! Litmus paper, Cobalt Chloride, thistle tubes… all sorts of great stuff. When I saw this article, it took me back to the *lethal* chemistry set I had amassed. I loved it so.

  2. went through at least half a dozen of these things in my boyhood years (the 60’s). Whatever chem set I had, along with my beloved VacuForm, were my fav toys. How many lawsuits would that Vacuform generate today? Hi-temp injection molding, sold as a toy. Still remember the smell that thing made, superheated liquid plastic…

  3. When I was 4 (this was around 1950) I did all the experiments in my brother’s chemistry set, unsupervised. They were ok, but I got bored because I didn’t learn the first fact about chemistry. A few years later, age 8, I got a library card and started trying to learn how a battery worked. I spent weeks poking through magazines and inspecting books at the library, and could not find anything to answer my question. (ANSWER: Any two different metals and an electrolyte, such as fruit juice or vegetable juice, make a battery.) I got into ham radio because I could at least find information about that. The worst part of my story is that every adult I encountered laughed at my efforts to learn something. Teachers didn’t want to be bothered. The message was “We’re not studying that. Don’t disrupt the class.”

  4. my 6 year old received THREE different “modern” sets this holiday season.    as a parent?  I can tell you they are all safe.  as a wanna-be rocket scientist?  I can tell you they are all crap.    ABSOLUTELY no inspiration,  no danger, no risk-reward.     just pablum.      who wants to make a watermelon flavored soda?  really?  water, sugar, citric acid, baking soda and some flavoring.   thrilling as watching paint dry.    Gilbert had it right,  inspire the next generation to learn.      Unless we mass-market science and learning to kids?  we are all fucked. 

      1. That does sound more plausible. I just wish I had actually used my set to learn something rather just mixing random chemicals and pretending. Uh, now I also remember being left science class in something like 4th grade in the back room. With all the equipment and chemicals. I was presumed to know a lot and therefore had special dispensation. And I’m back there going, “Ooooh! Mercury!! Neato!!!”. I still  worry about that :)

        1. When I went back there to the chemistry stockroom in the 9th grade, I was specifically looking for Lithium, which can burn and cause huge explosions just by exposure to air or water.  Didn’t see any, though.  Just a bunch of Urea, which I knew had something to do with piss.

    1. I am pretty sure it was something like Potassium Ferrocyanide, a cyanide iron complex salt. It is pretty spectecular in such kits, since it’s a common ingredient for the Prussian Blue reaction, which yields a pretty blue solution, and produces light when mixed with hydrogen peroxyde and luminol – something which gets exploited in finding blood traces, as we all know from the horrible CSI rendition. The ferrocyanide complex is rather stable, so there is little risk of coming up with anything spys can bite in order to secure their secrets…

      I think I remember this from my own chemistry kits…

  5. “post-9/11 chemistry sets”?  I thought those kinds of chemistry sets went away long before 9/11.

    Must you people blame poor 9/11 for everything?  Sometimes 9/11 was off minding its own business.

  6. Scrolling down the bOINGbOING Web page I recalled the smell of my chemistry set as I first saw the headline. Thanks!

  7. Of course if you want to put together a decent chemistry set, you still have options, like the H.M.S. Beagle in Parkville, MO (google em) — great selection of chemicals, labware and more.  Granted, it’s not at Woolworths, but not much is these days.

  8. My bookshelf still contains that cube of text, CRC’s Handbook of Chemistry and Physics (33rd ed. 1951). I remember making hideously bad smells with my set in 1960. Soon after discovered that the local pharmacy sold similar size glass bottles of chemicals at 12 year old’s prices. Glass work with an alcohol lamp and blowpipe. Today having test tubes, beakers, graduated cylinders and erlenmeyer flasks would get you in trouble. 

      1. It includes Erlenmyer flasks, transformers and round bottom flasks as labware that you need permission to buy. Utterly ridiculous. If I want to buy a pyrex baking dish I wouldn’t have to fill out a form like that. Totally bogus, and won’t stop anyone from buying labware except the people law enforcement doesn’t have to worry about anyway.

  9. I had a blast in high school chem. I had a rock collection when I was a kid in the 90s, and I inherited a 1960s microscope from my uncle, but it didn’t have any non-mounted slides, and nobody in the family knew about stains or sample prep.

    My folks encouraged me to study science, but none of them have more than “some college” (mom with half an AA in english and creative writing). My dad’s an electrician, but the kind of knowledge he has is of no use for hobby electronics.

    They did the best they could, and how can I blame them for what they didn’t know?

    Eventually we got a family computer (around 1996) after much pleading and offers of chores. That computer was what gave me a shot at research for fun.

    Sorry for the tangent. What I’m trying to say is that, while I never got a kit, I managed to have a blast in chemistry classes, did well, and got to play with some dangerous stuff. My teacher was great. He even demonstrated the reactive metals dropping them into water where they went off like M80s.

  10. I heard that Sputnik inspired a whole generation to learn stuff, to know stuff, and to teach it as well. But now the government is deeply suspicious of anyone who might learn enough to do something antisocial. Knowing and learning and teaching these days just means you’re not on board with what’s already been planned for us all.

    It’s time to give that narrative a short sharp shock.

    1.  Bought and skimmed  through looks perfect! In the WIRED article that wouldn’t be the same Bob Lazar that claimed to be at Area 51 by any chance?

  11. It’s a bit of red herring to say that science toys today are lame because of product liability and government crackdowns — the venerable A.C. Gilbert Co. went bankrupt in 1967 primarily because of poor management and changing tastes of American consumers.  The science kits that the company made for years had fallen out of fashion, and Gilbert tried to save itself with modernizing its toy line with, of all things, action figures. At that time, Americans started to acquire a new skepticism of where science and technology was taking them.  True, we landed on the Moon in 1969, but we also started reading a lot more about pollution, Agent Orange and Thaildomide.  In the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, scientists and engineers were seen as wizards who could solve the world’s problems with better technology.  That changed in the ’60s.

    There are a number of fine science and engineers toys today. Legos beat the pants of Tinkertoys and Erector sets in terms of what you can do with them.  You can even find the old Kenner hydrodynamic set at Bridge Street Toys.  But like many things today, you find them through internet searches. As for modern chemistry sets, yes, they suck. But you’ll also get a real chuckle from reading science books for kids in the 30s and 40s that talk about experiments with phosphorus and sodium metal.  It seems that we should be able to strike a balance somewhere.  

    1. “It seems that we should be able to strike a balance somewhere.”

      Which is the point of the Wired article.  A balance has NOT been struck.  We have evolved (devolved) into an overprotective nanny state where SWAT teams with M16s show up at harmless science businesses like the one described in the Wired article and any chemical in a chemistry set must be edible for liability reasons.  On that liability thing, there’s a recent Ford commercial that shows a car driving over a cliff and then flying that has a disclaimer at the bottom of the screen that says something to the effect, “Do not attempt.  Cars cannot fly.”  No kidding?  And if you don’t include that disclaimer, some idiot will sue you after he tries it (assuming he survives).  THAT descibes the society we live in.  Everyone is so stupid and so likely to sue that disclaimers and a nanny state must protect us from everything.

  12.  “Steve Silberman pretty much wrote the same piece back in 2006 for Wired Magazine.”

    Same topic, but VASTLY better.  The NYT article took the typically politically correct, nanny state “well, nothing is lost and the stuff available today is EVEN BETTER” while the Wired article told the truth (much is lost) in great detail with many anecdotes.

  13. It’s not just a post-9/11 thing. Chemistry sets had been going downhill for a long time before that. Mostly I expect just our ever-decreasing tolerance for risk, though liability laws and the drug war play into it too. The chemistry set I had in the mid 1970s still had ammonium chloride, cobalt chloride, and potassium ferrocyanide (also an alcohol burner and blowpipe) but no strong acids or nitrates, for example. Used to be you could actually get various chemicals at the local drugstore, too, though that was before even my time.
    Gordon Moore supposedly made and set off homemade dynamite at the age of 11 (would have been in 1940 I guess). Wonder how that would go over today?

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