Such slogans weren’t simply clever marketing; the chemistry set was indeed inspiring a generation of great scientists. “When I was 9 years old, my parents gave me a chemistry set. Within a week, I had decided to become a chemist and never wavered from that choice,” recalled Robert F. Curl, Jr. in his Nobel Prize autobiography. Curl Jr. was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996 for the discovery of buckyballs and was one of many Nobel Prize winners who credit the kits for inspiring their career.
Most of the chemicals and equipment in these chemistry kits were harmless, but some would make even the most lenient modern parent worry: Sodium cyanide can dissolve gold in water, but it is also a deadly poison. “Atomic” chemistry sets of the 1950s included radioactive uranium ore. Glassblowing kits, which taught a skill still important in today’s chemistry labs, came with a blowtorch.
The safety-conscious 1960s brought a quick end to the chemistry set’s popularity. The Federal Hazardous Substances Labeling Act of 1960 required labels for toxic and dangerous substances, and chemistry set makers removed the alcohol lamps and acids from their kits. The Toy Safety Act of 1969 removed lead paint from toys but also took its toll on the sets. The creation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1972 and the passing of the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976 resulted in further limits on the contents of the kits. Newspapers that once broadcast the arrival of new kinds of chemistry sets soon warned of their dangers, recommending that they only be given to older children and kept locked up from their younger siblings. “The death of the chemistry set is almost an unintended consequence of the rise in consumer protection laws,” says Cook.
This era also saw a boost in environmental awareness and a distrust of chemistry and government-funded science. Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, warning of the deleterious effects of pesticides. The anti-nuclear movement was on the rise. The American people were becoming aware of the devastating effects of Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant used in Vietnam. And by the 1970s and 1980s, science had lost its magic, as had the chemistry set.
The last chemistry set that Seeger shows me dates to 1992—it’s a Smithsonian-branded kit developed under the guidance of her predecessor, John Eklund. “It’s completely different from the older sets,” Seeger notes, pointing out the safety goggles, the replacement of anything glass with plastic and warning labels that are larger than the names of the chemicals. The box boasts that it is “the safest chemistry set made.”
The 1980s brought a new set of societal problems—AIDS, Chernobyl, the ozone hole—but people now looked again to science for solutions. The chemistry set reemerged, though dramatically changed. There were fewer chemicals, or no chemicals, and safety was a priority.
Michelle Francl, a theoretical chemist at Bryn Mawr College, wonders whether that emphasis on safety may actually be making young scientists less safe. “I get students who I can’t get to wear eye protection in the lab or closed-toe shoes,” she says. “We let kids play soccer, play football, ride bikes, all of which are inherently more dangerous than most of the things they could do with a chemistry set.”
The worst that happened during Francl’s own young adventures in home chemistry was when her brother lost an eyebrow, and that wasn’t even related to a chemistry set experiment. “We had one very memorable explosion, which we managed to keep from my mother,” Francl recalls. The pair had scrounged the equipment to separate hydrogen and oxygen from water. Their instructions recommended testing for the presence of hydrogen with a glowing ember—luckily, they were working in a makeshift basement lab where there was nothing flammable. “It didn’t make a big mess. There was just a big poof,” she says.
In an era of helicopter parenting, risk aversion and litigation—not to mention the rise of meth labs across the country—it might seem that even the neutered chemistry set is doomed to another death.
But the 21st century has also seen a new host of problems for science to solve, including how to provide food, water and power to a global population that will pass ten billion by 2100. Government and business leaders are putting renewed emphasis on science education. And the chemistry set has seen a bit of a resurgence. Educational toy retailer Discover This reported strong sales of chemistry sets during last year’s Christmas season, anchored by a revamped line of traditional chemistry sets from Thames & Kosmos. Cook says that the sets are very similar to the Chemcraft and Gilbert sets of the early 20th century but may be even better for learning science. They are sold in four steps of kits of increasing difficulty that encourage learning the basics before moving on to harder tasks. Cook raved about the manuals: “Not only do they tell you what you’re learning and break it into types of experiments, [but also] they tell you the history behind the discovery,” as well as how to dispose of experiments, “which is really helpful today, because you can’t just dump things down the drain.”