Whatever Happened to Kids’ Chemistry Sets? in BBC News

August 1, 2012 - London, England

by Alex Hudson

The first chemistry sets for children included dangerous substances like uranium dust and sodium cyanide, but all that has changed.

Talk to people of a certain age about chemistry sets and a nostalgic glaze comes over their eyes.

Stories of creating explosions in garden sheds and burning holes in tables are told and childhood is remembered as a mischievous adventure.

Portable chemistry sets were first used in the 18th Century but it took more than 100 years before they became popular with children, partly prompted by a desire to recreate the coloured puffs of smoke used by conjurors.

“It was part of a craze for what we call stage magic,” says Salim Al-Gailani, historian of science at the University of Cambridge.

The early chemistry sets for children played on the idea of impressing school friends with a magic performance.

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.

Most will know cyanide as a deadly poison, but one of its main applications is in gold mining. It can make gold dissolve into water.

Some chemistry sets of bygone ages even offered instructions and materials to be able to blow glass at high temperatures.

“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.”

Many distinguished scientists talk of how much influence their childhood chemistry set had.

Prof Mario Molina was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for his work researching CFCs’ effect on the ozone layer.

“As a child I got fascinated with science,” says Molina, who now heads the Center for Strategic Studies in Energy and the Environment in Mexico.

“What really started making a difference was starting to do things on my own, away from school, with chemistry sets, toy microscopes.”

He then managed to turn a bathroom in his house into a chemical laboratory.

So what happened to the kits that were able to create the experiments that adults today so fondly remember? “Very often now, health and safety is used an excuse by schools, for example, not to do chemistry,” says chemist Prof Martyn Poliakoff, of the University of Nottingham.

“Not that it’s dangerous necessarily but it's cheaper not to do the experiments.”

Chemistry sets started a sales decline in the 1970s, both Al-Gailani and Cook note. By the 1980s they had lost their mainstream appeal. But is it really a case of health and safety gone mad? . . .

Link to BBC

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