Chemistry at Play

The BGL Chemical Set

The BGL Chemical Set. Image courtesy of CHF Collections.

In 2003, in The Chemcraft Story, author John Tyler claimed that today's chemists rated a battered and stained modern chemistry-set manual from their childhood more highly than one of the foundation stones of chemistry—Robert Boyle’s 17th-century Skeptical Chymist. How did a toy manual come to displace one of chemical history’s most important books in the minds of chemists?

Chemistry sets were never just toys. Over the years they have been tied to the status of science. Parents saw in them building blocks for a chemistry career, while post–World War II educators found a valuable cold war tool. Later, regulators worried about safety as society took note of the dangers posed by science. Chemistry sets showcased the high value attached to science and suffered when science fell from grace. Today science is once again in the public eye, and chemistry sets are back.

One of the first chemistry sets, or portable chemical chests, is mentioned in Johann Friedrich Göttling’s 1791 text, Description of a Portable Chest of Chemistry or a Complete Collection of Chemical Tests. Originally printed in German, the chests were for use by “Chemists, Physicians, Mineralogists, Metallurgists, Scientific Artists, Manufacturers, Farmers, and the Cultivators of Natural Philosophy.” The contents included glassware, reagents, and a blowpipe. The tests or experiments are basic and provided a firm foundation for those studying the science.

In 1797 James Woodhouse, a professor at what is now the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, wrote the Young Chemists Pocket Companion, his own volume of chemical experiments connected with a portable laboratory. The experiments in Göttling’s and Woodhouse’s works are similar, with a few slight variations in technique and approach. The audience, though, had changed; Woodhouse noted on his title page that he created his Companion and chest for the use of ladies and gentlemen, not just scientists.

Around the same time, chemist Friedrich Accum, best known for his battle against food adulteration, also described experiments for portable chemistry chests. His kits contained at least twice the number of experiments as did Woodhouse’s and Göttling’s and were arranged by the material being tested; all gas experiments in one section, all water experiments in another, and so forth. Accum intended his works only for chemistry students and professionals. Advertisements placed in the front of Accum’s books remind the reader to buy materials at his London shop. In a time of limited advertising, such notices were the only way—aside from word of mouth—companies and dealers could tell people about their products.

Göttling, Woodhouse, and Accum capitalized on the broad popularity science enjoyed by the beginning of the 19th century. Widely publicized public lectures and demonstrations attracted both the elite and the common. Some of the most prestigious scientists of the day, including Michael Faraday and Humphry Davy, became public figures in their own right and frequently gave public demonstrations of their research.

In part, chemistry’s widespread popularity during this time can be attributed to Jane Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry. First published in England in 1805 and in the United States in 1806, Conversations on Chemistry went through many editions. During the conversations Mrs. B, the main character, demonstrates concepts using simple terms and familiar everyday circumstances. Following Marcet’s lead, people like Mary Townsend, Elizabeth Cady Agassiz, and Reverend J. L. Blake all wrote hugely popular science texts in the same conversational format.