The other day I ran across an article [Link] entitled “Whatever happened to kids’ chemistry sets?” in the BBC News Magazine. It’s rather a weepy, hands wringing type of do-gooder social engineering article that bemoans the dangers in old time (1949-1970 era) children’s chemistry sets. I was particularly taken by a couple of statements:
“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.”
‘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, not that it’s dangerous necessarily but it’s cheaper not to do the experiments.” ‘
But the real reason is social deterioration and economics. The corporate overlords who manufacture stuff don;t want the liability, or the risk of someone actually learning how to sabotage ‘Metropolis’. (Yes, that’s actually a movie reference.)
I have described previously the enormous impact that Professor George Toffel of the Campus of the Black Warrior had on the child nerds of Alibam. If ever there was a success story of public television, it was he. And while he was a chemist, his demonstrations definitely took on the aspect of conjuring. He was a master of the demonstration and it was not until years later that I realized how much the other faculty envied him his talents and made his life a bit difficult for it. Even professors occasionally visit the petty side of the force.
But I do not think the true nerds wanted chemistry sets to do demonstrations. Rather, I think we were influenced by the so-called science fiction movies of the day, mostly the atomic hysteria genre of the ’50′s, and, of course, the incomparable and unique Science Fiction Theater to want to do what we thought, from the videos, was science. Certainly that was my desire, not to blow things up or do tawdry tricks, but to actually do research. Never mind that the research had already been done and we would have realized this if the adults hadn’t kept us ignorant and unable to access such simple things as freshman chemistry textbooks that would have quickly destroyed our interest in the chemistry sets.
As much as the social engineers may decry the chemicals in those chemistry sets, they were collections of largely useless stuff. Even the uranium dust that is often denounced as the death powder of our generation was present in such a small quantity that it was less dangerous than the radium in the dials of our wrist watches. And if we had had access to the information in freshman chemistry texts we would have realized this and given the chemistry sets up as useless fakes.
I recall I spent long hours trying to find combinations of the contents of the little bottles that would do something. Not necessarily explode but at least change color or temperature, things that were readily observable. And they did not, beyond the tawdry examples in the neutered manuals.
If I can say anything about the chemistry set that I had to wait too long for because of my parents’ fears is that it taught me about frustration and failure, two things that it is good for a scientist to become comfortable with. So in that regard, it was a good educational device. What I am not sure of is whether that was the intent or not?
And dangerous it was only in the sense of cutting oneself on the poorly made aluminum case or burning oneself on the alcohol lamp, two dangers unmentioned by the social engineers. If anything, the really dangerous thing was the experiment kits of the American Basic Science Club, but not the radioactivity one. Again, it was less dangerous than a wrist watch.
But that’s another blot.