Chemistry at Play

The BGL Chemical Set

The BGL Chemical Set. Image courtesy of CHF Collections.

The Chemistry Set of the 21st Century

In the past few years the chemistry set has reemerged. Thames and Kosmos sets best resemble those from the 1950s and include a number of enticing features—most notably real glassware and many of the chemicals necessary to conduct the suggested experiments (minus a few items like hydrochloric and sulfuric acids). Its CHEM series chemistry sets range in size and sophistication, starting at the CHEM C500—“perfect for children ages 8 and up who want a fun, welcoming tour of the science but aren’t ready for a complete chemistry set”—and peaking with the CHEM C3000, whose 172-page manual contains 387 individual experiments.

In my opinion the most intriguing part of these sets is the manual. It not only details the experiments themselves but also a number of other features that improve on the 1950s’ manuals and help bring the sets into compliance with modern regulations. Six pages in the introduction are dedicated to warning parents and the experimenter of the dangers associated with the chemicals and experiments. Later, an entire section provides instructions on how to properly dispose of completed experiments.

Like others from the past, the Thames and Kosmos manuals are arranged by subject, with each section increasing in difficulty as it builds on previously learned techniques. However, unlike previous manuals, these experiments are presented in a more conversational manner, similar to the works of popular 19th-century author Jane Marcet, and seek to engage the experimenter in a form of dialogue. In the CHEM C1000 and C2000 sets a character named Professor Probenius serves as a guide. Throughout the manual the experimenter answers questions similar to those found at the end of textbook chapters. This arrangement of the sections, which fosters engagement with the subject, mirrors the formal teaching of chemistry and other sciences and prepares the experimenter for further encounters with chemistry.

Another positive addition to these modern manuals is the historical context behind the subjects and techniques discussed. For example, in the section titled “Atoms—the Chemist’s Building Blocks” the first part discusses the development of the atomic theory and introduces Democritus and John Dalton. Also mentioned are Antoine Lavoisier, Friedrich Wöhler, August Kekulé von Stradonitz, the Hindenburg disaster, and alchemy. Along with the high points of chemistry the manual also includes discussions of more sensitive topics, such as the environmental impact of acid rain, air and water pollution, toxic waste, and resource depletion, which are addressed in a scientific way. By including discussions of history and modern issues, the Thames and Kosmos manual provides the experimenter with a fair and balanced—although admittedly condensed—view of the “real” field of chemistry.

While the CHEM series chemistry sets are on the expensive side, with the C3000 topping out at $240, the advanced sets are worth the investment to encourage a child with a serious interest in chemistry. However, additional options from Thames and Kosmos and other manufacturers exist for those just developing an interest in science or who simply enjoy science for recreation. Available for $40 and under, these general sets usually focus on either a single theme within a science or provide an overview of a number of different sciences. For example, the Mega Science Lab from the Smithsonian ($29.95) includes in its six components a weather station, an eco-dome habitat, and a crystal-growing kit. Meant as a general introduction to all aspects of science, these broader-based kits, as well as those focusing on grossology, makeup, perfume, the kitchen, and similar themes, are wonderful options for encouraging an interest in science without overwhelming the user.

Rosie Cook is the registrar and assistant curator at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Her research focuses on the history, material culture, and iconography of chemistry sets as well as the general history of instrumentation.