Cyanide, Uranium, and Ammonium Nitrate: When Kids Really Had Fun With Science

July 20th, 2011

Here we are, in 2011, a.k.a. “The Future.” We’ve made leaps and bounds in science that we couldn’t even imagine 50 years ago. You’d think the science toys of our age would be mind-bending in their ability to awe and inspire young chemists and biologists. Instead, kids today are being protected within an inch of their lives, while adults apparently live in dread of unsupervised children running amuck with the powers of modern science at their tiny fingertips.

So how do these new educational toys compare to those made back in the days when science offered hope and inspiration for a better tomorrow? We take a look at a sampling of science toys vintage and new and—very unscientifically—decide who’s winning in each case, the past or the present.

Chemistry Sets

Most lovers of science are all too aware that chemistry sets have gone down the tubes, particularly in the last decade. Sites like the 12 Angry Men blog have bemoaned how modern chemistry sets expose kids to little more than low-energy experiments that produce changes in color. This spring, the JAYFK expressed outrage at what appeared to be the last straw: The Chemistry 60 set (photo via JAYFK below), whose packaging boasts “60 Fun Activities With No Chemicals.”

The irony is that these 60 activities—including growing crystals, growing plants, making bubbles, and creating “slime and gook”—do, in fact, require chemicals. What the makers mean is that their set has no dangerous chemicals. No acids, no explosives, no alcohol, no poisons.

The concept of a chemistry set can be traced to the Victorian Era, when scientists were discovering and expanding upon atomic theory: Boys (never girls) were encouraged to tinker with the known elements on the periodic table. In 1914, American chemist John J. Porter produced the first line of chemistry sets for boys called Chemcraft (see examples at top and above), which was purchased by Lionel Toy Corporation in 1961. His toy was such a smash, that a few years later, science fanatic A.C. Gilbert, maker of Erector Sets and, later, American Flyer model trains, put out his own. At the time, it was understood these kits were not just fun toys full of magic tricks but tools to groom young men for careers in science.

World War II revealed the endless, life-altering possibilities of chemistry, from the life-saving potential of new plastics to the apocalyptic power of the nuclear bomb. By the end of the 1950s, even young women were getting in on the act. While girls had been allowed sets like Chemcraft’s Sachetcraft that let them make their own perfumes and cosmetics, Gilbert put out its first “Laboratory Technician” set for girls in the late ’50s, which contained mostly a microscope and prepared slides.

Early chemistry sets had all sorts of dangerous substances, which for kids meant they were fun. Potassium nitrate, for example, is used in gunpowder, fireworks, and rocket fuel, while nitric acid (also used in rocket fuel) and sulfuric acid are highly corrosive. Sodium ferrocyanide, which reacts with iron ions to create a Prussian blue dye, is now classified as a poison (thanks to the “cyanide” part). Calcium hypochlorite could be mixed to create free chlorine gas, which wreaks havoc on the human respiratory system. Ten-year-olds could make things go boom, build their own batteries and engines, or bend glass with alcohol lamps. Having parents who would teach them lab safety was supposed to be an important part of the learning process.

However, in the ’60s, parents began to express their concern about the risks, as new laws required labeling for materials that are flammable, explosive, toxic, or caustic. Gilbert and Chemcraft began offering kits that offered only ”non-explosive” and “non-toxic” chemicals. These early regulations, while perfectly sensible, were the first steps toward the slippery slope that led to today’s “chemical-free” chemistry sets.

Understandably, most parents don’t want their children handling known carcinogens or, say, battery acid. That said, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme where kits no longer contain Bunsen burners, or even glass test tubes, beakers, or flasks. Why is that? We can thank three post-modern horrors: Meth labs, homegrown terrorism, and liability lawsuits. Litigation has made manufacturers reluctant to market anything remotely risky to children, even glass. Many metals in their elemental form—such as lithium, red phosphorus, sodium, and potassium—are highly regulated by the FBI, as they can be used to produce meth. And anything that could be used in a bomb, like ammonium nitrate (fertilizer), faces intense scrutiny by the Feds.

Hence, we get namby-pamby sets that have real chemists fretting that kids might just think science is a yawn. As an alternative, Make magazine and Wired Geek Dad encourage parents to use the Internet or pick up “Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments” by Robert Bruce Thompson to put together their own DIY chemistry sets for their budding mad geniuses.

Winner: Past

Atomic Energy Lab

While some substances banned from chemistry sets are not dangerous when handled properly, no one wants to go back to the days when kids were allowed to play with uranium. In 1951, Gilbert released an “Atomic Energy Lab,” which contained three “very low-level” radioactive sources (alpha, beta, and gamma particles), a U-239 Geiger counter, a Wilson cloud chamber, a spinthariscope, four samples of uranium-bearing ores, and an electroscope to measure radioactivity.

Fortunately, this expensive kit—in today’s dollars, it would cost the equivalent of $350—was not a big hit for Christmas that year, and production ended in 1952. Back in the day, some may have naively believed radiation to be harmless or beneficial, but we now know exposure to the U-238 isotope is linked to cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, and even Gulf War syndrome. Those are experiences with science no one would wish on a child.

Winner: Present

Ant Farm

Up until 1956, hand-made “formicariums,” or ant habitats, could only be found in classrooms and natural history museums. The man who made the “ant farm” a household object was not a scientist. A sergeant of an engineering platoon in World War II, “Uncle” Milton Levine returned home and founded a mail-order novelty company with his brother-in-law, Joe Cossman. Their earliest products included animal balloons, plastic shrunken heads, and dwarf tree kits. They sold plastic toy soldiers and potato guns advertised on the back of comic books.

Then, at a 1956 Fourth of July barbecue, Milt noticed ants scurrying in and out of a crack in a swimming pool, and remembered how ants had captivated his imagination as a kid. His company’s first mail-order ant farm kits were just a plastic box, a bag of sand, and a vial of live ants. Right away, Milt and Joe were swamped with so many orders, they realized they’d have to hire “ant pickers.”  They replaced the sand with volcanic gravel and developed a standard plastic habitat with an above-ground farm scene carved by an engraver. When ant farms were offered in stores, Uncle Milt had to figure out how to make sure the ants that came with them were still alive. Hence, the slogan, “You Take the Farm, We Mail the Ants.”

While getting living creatures in the mail is always cool (think Sea Monkeys), in 2003, ant farms went to the next level. That year, NASA developed a special semi-transparent gel (available in neon blue, red, or green) that contains all the nutrients ants need to survive, so astronauts could study the critters in space. These AntWorks art farms are lit from below with LEDs, making the formicarium look more like a decorative panel at a trendy space-age dance club, and completely unlike any place animals naturally live.

In 2006, though, old-school gravel ant farms made a comeback as Uncle Milton revived the vintage look for its 50-year anniversary. Just this year, the beloved innovator passed away.

So which is better, studying the habits of ants in old-fashioned sandy barnyard charm or trippy, otherworldly goo? Tough call.

Winner: Draw

Visible Man (and Woman)

What could be more fun than poking around in someone’s (or thing’s) internal organs? Whether you’re the sort of person who called in sick on dissection day, or the kid who eagerly sliced that frog open, you have to admit Visible Man is cool. Let’s start with the fact he doesn’t smell like formaldehyde—always a bonus. The first one appeared in 1958, when a company named Renwal introduced a 16-inch clear plastic model of a human man that came with a full skeleton and a set of internal organs. Children were encouraged to paint the model’s guts and assemble it his or her self.

Naturally, Visible Man had many imitators, but he was the original, and his molds are still in circulation, used by Revell in the ’70s, and Skilcraft starting in the ’90s. In fact, Visible Man was so popular, he had many spinoffs, including Visible Woman, Visible Horse, Visible V8 engine, Visible Chassis, and Visible Wankel engine.

visible_woman_retro

Visible Man and Woman made quite a pair. Visible Man, like his less transparent brethren, the Ken doll, lacked external genitalia. Visible Woman, on the other hand, was quite sexy on the Renwal box, with perky breasts and her eyebrow coyly arched. Still, her uterus was completely optional. The copy on the box did quite a bit of linguistic gymnastics to avoid and apologize for any connection to sex; in the ’50s, it was still verboten to let children know exactly how babies are made. It reads, “Optional Feature: The Miracle of Creation. Understanding female biology requires observation of these parts relating to gestation. Included therefore is a separate group of components representing this phenomenon. Assembly is optional; the model can be completed without incorporating these elements.”

Nostalgia buffs rejoice: Skilcraft is still producing these toys using the exact same molds, sans external genitals. But the sales pitch on the box is less coy about the whole bun-in-the-oven thing. Visible Woman today looks less like a pin-up and more like a haunted house skeleton—as she should—and the box plainly states, “Optional Parts to Simulate Pregnancy.” Even though the old and new toys are basically the same, I’m going with the miracle of modern sex education.

Winner: Present

Forensics kits

Sure, our grandparents may have been cool with their kids creating explosions in the garage, fiddling with uranium, and studying the squishy insides of the human body, but somehow I doubt they’d want their children going over the details of a grisly crime scene. So what if our “chemistry sets” have lost their edge: Thanks to popular TV shows like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “NCIS,” “Bones,” and “Law & Order,” preteens these days are well-versed in the intricacies of forensic crime labs. Why not let them have a go at sleuthing through science?

The CSI Crime Scene Forensic Lab by Planet Toys, for example, lets young ones analyze blood and hair samples, study paper chromatography, and take fingerprints. The CSI DNA Lab even comes with a working centrifuge, an electrophoresis chamber, and a three-speed motorized lab for studying the double helix. My personal favorite of the CSI line is the Forensic Facial Reconstruction Kit, which combines the the concept of Visible Man with the modern-day forensics craze. It’s creepy. It’s scientific. It’s artistic. You can make all sorts of disturbing-looking people, perhaps even someone you know.

Other toys let kids made impressions in clay, dust for fingerprints, and collect material in “evidence bags.” John Adams in England, for example, offers the New Scotland Yard series. Nonetheless, forensics toys are ghoulish enough to make science fun again. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

Winner: Present

What do you think? Are science toys better or worse now?

29 comments so far

  1. Conan Neutron Says:

    The forensics kit is my favorite, heck… I think i’d mess around with that as an adult!

    That said the “chemical less” chemistry set is a sad statement on our times.
    At least American Science and Surplus is alive and kicking:
    http://www.sciplus.com/

  2. Lisa Says:

    I can’t wait until my nieces and nephews get old enough. We are going to bust some crimes wide open!

  3. mrbadhabits Says:

    learning to work with things that might go boom was at one time part of both the education and practice of chemistry. hell, edison was injured in his own garage lab as a teenager due to an unexpected explosion. now everybody seems to think all you need to do is simulate reasction on a computer. maybe so – chemistry is something of a dead science today, a language necessary to work in newer technologies. but there’s risk anytime you work with powerful materials, and with the us running short on such things maybe it’s okay this way.

  4. tea Says:

    It’s a bit ridiculous to have chemical free chemistry sets! American Science & Surplus is a Very Good Thing, indeed, but I hope that toy and game innovators keep trying – we have a space program to revitalize and many strides in the sciences and medicine to push forward – we need kids who aren’t afraid of things blowing up or going wrong, which is what fiddling with science teaches you…

  5. RaulJones Says:

    I’m still glad to have grown up in a time when playing actually involved some level of risk. If you didn’t draw blood, you weren’t playing hard enough.

  6. Timothy Wade Says:

    Not to toot my own horn, but you’re sadly mistaken that kits today don’t come with bunsen burners, flasks, or even EGADS chemicals!

    Check out:

    http://thamesandkosmos.com/products/chem/chem2.html

    And be prepared to buy that chemistry set that you’ve been waiting for!

  7. Steve Says:

    Sort of creepy (or sad) that it isn’t enough that anatomy is interesting enough on its own merits, now it has to have a crime aspect to it to make it appealing. America is obsessed with crime.

    One crime I’d support though is the destruction of liability lawyers.

  8. Laurel Says:

    Actually, chemistry is still very requierd. Plastics is chemistry. Pharmacology is chemistry. Large parts of manufacturing are chemistry. If we want to best use what we have left, we need LOTS of chemistry.

  9. Cary Says:

    The new kits are better, since they stimulate kids’ creativity in how to make them dangerous, explosive, etc. It was just too easy to make a stinking, caustic mess with those old chem kits.

  10. Fredric L. Rice Says:

    Also look for “The Dangerous Book for Boys.”

  11. Hally Says:

    When I was a kid, I had the visible man, and I was NEVER able to put it back together properly. Maybe it was missing parts? It was a hand-me-down after all. My son fell in love with the Uncle Milty’s Ant Farm. We had those ants for YEARS! They were so cool. They had little chambers they buried their dead, separate chambers for various kinds of food, and separate sleeping chambers. I liked it as much as my son! Now he is grown, but you gave me a great idea for my grandson! Thanks!

  12. LISA Says:

    STILL SEXIST TODAY==CHECK OUT THE LOCAL TOY STORE.
    That said, we learned more chem in one week of high school chem , then in all
    the gilbert/porter chem kits. They were pure garbage.

    1930′s popular science mag had excellent chem/microscopy articles and experiments.

  13. doug linman Says:

    I became a scientist and engineer in the 70′s because of the the Porter Chemcraft sets I played with in the 1950′s and watching Mr. Wizzard.

  14. Noumenon Says:

    Visible Man is awesome and I had a great time sticking it together with my five year old. Learned a lot myself about where the liver sits and how all the tubes in the intestine fit together.

  15. Office_Tramp Says:

    I want a go on the forensics kit and I’m 34!

  16. Kimberly Gerson Says:

    Great post! I think part of the the demise of Chemistry Kits has come with the idea that the kit has to “make” something. Make Soap! Make Bouncy Balls! Make Perfume! Make Slime! These kits are the equivalent of a cake mix — several ingredients, just add water, ta daa! It’s slime! I’ve owned these kits and the “hours of fun” usually translates to about 20 minutes of following a recipe and a bowl of slime that sits in the fridge until I throw it away.
    Now look at the old kits: The message is “Experiment” – In other words, here are a bunch of chemicals and information about their properties, now go see what you can make. That “stinky caustic mess” was part of the learning. Today if you get a stinky caustic mess, you did it wrong. You clearly didn’t follow instructions. You messed up. How does that encourage experimentation and a love of chemistry?

    @Timothy Wade: Looks like you’re doing it right.

    See my take on the chemical-free kit here: For the Love of Chemicals http://bit.ly/nxeXBV

  17. body butter shea Says:

    Really good article, it opend my eyes, many thanks!

  18. Chris Says:

    I teach high school chemistry and it’s shocking what was available in chemistry sets back then. No doubt lots of fun to be had if you know what you’re doing.

    I definitely enjoyed Capsela, Tinkertoys, and Lincoln Logs growing up. Certainly less dangerous, but equally fun.

  19. Bill Says:

    You’re afraid of low levels of radiation? And you like science?

    Thanks for contributing to our ongoing cultural scientific illiteracy!

    As Fukushima showed us, people will panic if exposed to even a single microrem of radiation.

  20. Matt Says:

    Eh. I’ll disagree mildly about the ant farms (the new ones are definitely an improvement, although the old ones were cool for the time) and strongly about the radiation kits (how can the person writing _this_ article, of all articles about the history of kids’ science toys, seriously take the position that the world is better off _without_ those???!!!???).

    Other than that, right on, brother. :)

  21. Jess Gulbranson Says:

    I have to say, risk of leukemia aside, to wake up Christmas morning and unwrap a MOTHERLOVIN’ CLOUD CHAMBER would be awesome. I’m sure there’d be a way you could make it relatively safe- you know, have the sources sealed in failsafe little metal capsules. Or something.

  22. NFL Coach Says:

    Note too, that with advent of chemical-less chemistry sets. So too, the end of America’s Space Age.

  23. Meg Quinette Says:

    Great article. Wish I still had my chemistry set. Too bad we spent so many years patting ourselves on the back for the industrial revolution and the World Wide Web…we need these children of the future to learn new ways and new things. Always looking for the good of man. Food & Shelter 1st needs we will ALWAYS have. My grandson wants to know why we do not use Magnum energy to supply all our needs. No way they would ever allow chemicals, building, of any type other than games or just figuring out how and why someone or something is different. Sciene in our country is a subject many Children just are not encouraged in, unless it is Medically related. Living in Florida, my parents made sure we NEVER missed an Appollo Liftoff. Now the Space Center is a very poor version of a deserted Disney World. What a sad way to move into the future, but alas, someone wanted the space industry in Texas.

  24. Matt Ammo Says:

    I used to love trying to re-assemble the ‘Visible Man’ when I was a kid. I could never get it quite right.

    -Matt

  25. Glenn Murray Says:

    It’s not just chemistry sets. Adults have a hard, if not impossible time getting lab grade chemicals. While I understand the need to restrict what can be used to make explosives or drugs, the fear of liability has chemical supply companies restricting sales to companies and schools – no exceptions. I’ve been trying to do some histology work – I cannot even buy n-propyl alcohol (similar to isopropyl you get in pharmacies).

  26. Kato Says:

    Gosh I wish I lived in such a day and age of chemistry kits. All I got was a easy-bake oven, then again it was just as dangerous!

    :P

  27. Carrie r stewart Says:

    I loved all these “adult” toys as a kid but needed help with most of them. Without parents, teachers or other older guidance these toys do not get used near enough. Remember that when you hand over an educational toy!

  28. BEN Says:

    Back in about 1945 my father gave me for Christmas a Gilbert Chemistry Set. It was huge. It had about 48 different chemicals and I could order larger quantities if I wanted. It showed how to make black powder, flash powder, sensitive explosives,( Iodine crystals and ammonia), glow in the dark powder, invisible ink, Glass blowing, colored fireworks, sparklers, firecrackers. I never had any accidents or injuries. The large handbook was very precise in how to do these safely.
    This set would probably be considered a dangerous to life hazard or terrorist kit today. I learned much about chemistry a a very early age.
    P.S. Our chemistry teacher in high school chemistry class let everyone play with the large supply of liquid mercury. Any that was spilled was considered lost. He did show us a large bottle of RED MERCURY powder and instructed us that it was very deadly. DO NOT EVEN OPEN IT.
    Everyone survived.

  29. Blake Says:

    HMS Beagle sells the old school style chemistry sets with all the chemicals


Leave a Comment or Ask a Question

If you want to identify an item, try posting it in our Show & Tell gallery.