Chemistry at Play

The BGL Chemical Set

The BGL Chemical Set. Image courtesy of CHF Collections.

With increasing regulation and the dilution of both chemicals and experiments, the popularity of chemistry sets faded. Experiment booklets diminished from more than 100 pages to 25 to 30 pages of simple, safe, and routine experiments. Both Porter and Gilbert went out of business—Gilbert in 1967 and Porter in 1984.

Another factor in the chemistry set’s decline was the changing public view of science, specifically chemistry. In 1962 Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring brought the prevalence and effects of pesticides to worldwide attention. Air pollution proved a potent source of concern in cities like Los Angeles and New York.

Devastating limb deformities caused by the anti–morning sickness drug Thalidomide further influenced public views of chemistry. As the word chemistry in chemistry sets shifted from positive to negative in the minds of parents and children, demand faded.

In the late 1980s, with a resurgence in public interest in science, these educational toys reemerged. Public opinion on science, specifically chemistry and physics, had changed dramatically. New challenges like AIDS, cancer, over-farming, and the need for new materials drove the renewed influence of science. And an increase in scientific literacy helped: most students in the United States had the opportunity to take both chemistry and physics.

With a few exceptions today’s sets are smaller, less flashy, and contain fewer chemicals. Many sets boast of no chemicals at all. But they do attract children to science in creative ways. Large institutions like National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution, and Cambridge University all either produce their own branded sets or endorse those produced by others. The draw of Harry Potter, kitchen chemistry, and “grossology” are undeniable from a marketing point of view. New computer and Web-based components create an interactive chemistry set suitable for children of the 21st century.

The 21st century, like the cold war, has its share of scientific challenges—global warming, alternative energy, health care, and the development of new drugs. Only through recreating the excitement present during the golden age of the chemistry set will we again find the enthusiasm children now often dedicate to computer games. As George Rathmann says of his early passion for chemistry sets, “Good lord! You’re suddenly catapulted into just the most exciting dimensions.”