Monday, September 17, 2007

Chemistry for Dummies

Chemistry sets are lame. But it wasn't always that way.

Way back when, in the day when shampoo bottles were made of glass, pocketknives were considered an appropriate gift for boys, and people parked their babies outside the supermarket, chemistry sets were a popular toy for kids. In a novelty catalog I have that dates back to 1947, several chemistry and science sets were for sale, including the one pictured below.

Not only does it come with a nice enameled steel case, but glass beakers and tubes, a glass blowing device, metal scales, and more dangerous chemicals you can shake a bunsen burner at - well, at least the alcohol lamp that comes with the kit. All this, and only $15.

The new 2007 Smithsonian kit is on sale for $59. It claims it's the safest chemistry set made - in other words, disappointingly unfun.

First indication of an absence of fun - the first warning: This set contains chemicals (NO...!) and apparatus that may be harmful...Not to be used by children except under adult supervision. Hey, those kids on the box don't have a parent watching over them - lucky...

Second indication of no fun: two and a half pages of safety warnings - like:

1. Never eat the chemicals or eat an experiement (ok, if your little snowflake eats stuff like this, maybe chemistry isn't for him)

2. By using plasticware, minimal amounts of glass, eliminating use of burners, restricting the use of heat an additional safety factor is provided (What, no FIRE???? And you call yourself a chemistry set???)

3. Prior to the MicroChemistry approach, quantitative experiments by young scientists were not possible (LIARS!!! They were possible in 1947...) 'MicroChemistry', btw, is a buzz word for 'we only give you extremely tiny amounts of these chemicals so you can't really do anything really cool, like blow up your basement.'

4. Use chemistry set equipment for experiments in your chemistry lab manual only. Because we can't risk you actually EXPERIMENTING.....

Let's face it - we're all doomed. If they can dumb down a chemistry set, what's the point. Stupid people don't go into chemistry, but this chemistry set caters to the lowest common denominator. My son received a kit like this, and it was so disappointingly dull, we just stuck it away in the closet. Even my dad was disappointed, which was a surprise.

As a young man, circa 1945, my dad collected and kept piles of articles and experiments. These experiements were in Popular Science Magazine and were aimed at students. Everything you need to carry out these experiements is NOT included in any modern 'chemistry' set. Experiments such as 'Synthesizing rubber', 'Make a Tesla coil', 'Chemistry answers the fire alarm', and 'How strong is that acid' would make most helicopter parents faint dead away.

But they all sound terribly cool.

Kenneth Swezey wrote many of these articles (although, not the radioactivity article I have scanned, above). He was like many young people of the time - he quit school at a young age, and (horrors!) persued learning on his own. "...he enjoys preparing home-chemistry helps him to realize some of the unfulfilled dreams of his childood chemistry days, when money, chemicals and apparatus were all too scarce to satisfy his intellectual curiosity."

Interestingly, the Smithsonian acquired his collection after his death. I don't believe Swezey's collection came with any safety instructions.

If you are interested in making your own chemistry set, instead of blowing $59 on plastic and safety instructions, check out this, and this, and this. Have fun!

Warning: buying your own chemicals may prove hazardous to boredom.

1 comment:

Chemical Robotiks said...

thats crazy. we had that Smithsonian one in our basement for years. no one knew where it came from. i think the previous owners of the house had left it there. seeing that image made me laugh