Alex Hudson believes that something was lost when people started paying attention to the safety of home chemistry sets designed for kids: the fun. While the sets sold at the beginning of the 20th century included chemicals that can’t even be legally handled by adults these days, they also allowed users to create effects akin to magic and stir their fascination with science.
Although home chemistry sets have been on the market for since the end of the 19th century, it was the growing popularity of magic performances that made them appealing to kids. The early children’s set were mainly designed to allow young magic fans to recreate the colorful smoke and liquid effects used by stage performers.
By the 1920s and 30s children had access to substances which would raise eyebrows in today’s more safety-conscious times.
There were toxic ingredients in pesticides, as well as chemicals now used in bombs or considered likely to increase the risk of cancer. And most parents will not need to be told of the dangers of the sodium cyanide found in the interwar kits or the uranium dust present in the “nuclear” kits of the 1950s.
In addition to being a deadly poison, cyanide is one of the liquids that dissolves gold, making it a key ingredient for a young experimenter with alchemy. For those kids who liked their chemistry with a little extra dose of danger, some kits came with instructions on glass blowing in the comfort of your own home.
“You are letting a 12-year-old blow glass, there was uranium dust with a spinthariscope where you could see the radiation waves,” says Rosie Cook, assistant curator at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.
“By today’s standards, they’re terribly dangerous but they’re fascinating nonetheless.”
No one can argue with the danger these kinds of toys represented, but it’s hard to deny their influence on the foremost scientific minds when they themselves were just discovering science. Mario Molina, who was one of the winners of the Nobel Prize for his work in the harmful effect of CFC molecules on the ozone layer, said that his initial fascination with science was the result of playing with his toy microscope and his chemistry set. Like many of his scientifically minded peers, he also shared a story of re-purposing a space in his childhood home – in this case, the bathroom – into a laboratory that housed his early experiments.
The current generation of chemistry sets have shifted their focus from providing ingredients for impressive-looking chemical reactions to experiments that could be done with physical objects. Rosie Cook, the assistant curator at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, calls these kinds of kits “kitchen chemistry,” and she believes that their declining popularity has to do with the fact that they don’t allow kids to put together the same kind of an amazing-looking show. Cook also points out that the decline in sales of chemistry sets dovetails with the decline in the number of British students pursuing careers in science.