Whatever happened to kids' chemistry sets?

Royal Institution's Dave Porter tries experiments from sets past and present

The first chemistry sets for children included dangerous substances like uranium dust and sodium cyanide, but all that has changed.

Talk to people of a certain age about chemistry sets and a nostalgic glaze comes over their eyes.

Stories of creating explosions in garden sheds and burning holes in tables are told and childhood is remembered as a mischievous adventure.

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.

"It was part of a craze for what we call stage magic," says Salim Al-Gailani, historian of science at the University of Cambridge.

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Test tubes

Dr Kat Amey asks what happened to the chemistry set, Wednesday 1 August, 2100 BST on Radio 4

The early chemistry sets for children played on the idea of impressing school friends with a magic performance.

By the 1920s and 30s children had access to substances which would raise eyebrows in today's more safety-conscious times.

There were toxic ingredients in pesticides, as well as chemicals now used in bombs or considered likely to increase the risk of cancer. And most parents will not need to be told of the dangers of the sodium cyanide found in the interwar kits or the uranium dust present in the "nuclear" kits of the 1950s.

Most will know cyanide as a deadly poison, but one of its main applications is in gold mining. It can make gold dissolve into water.

Some chemistry sets of bygone ages even offered instructions and materials to be able to blow glass at high temperatures.

"You are letting a 12-year-old blow glass, there was uranium dust with a spinthariscope where you could see the radiation waves," says Rosie Cook, assistant curator at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

"By today's standards, they're terribly dangerous but they're fascinating nonetheless."

Many distinguished scientists talk of how much influence their childhood chemistry set had.

Prof Mario Molina was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for his work researching CFCs' effect on the ozone layer.

"As a child I got fascinated with science," says Molina, who now heads the Center for Strategic Studies in Energy and the Environment in Mexico.

"What really started making a difference was starting to do things on my own, away from school, with chemistry sets, toy microscopes."

Old chemistry sets

He then managed to turn a bathroom in his house into a chemical laboratory.

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," says chemist Prof Martyn Poliakoff, of the University of Nottingham.

"Not that it's dangerous necessarily but it's cheaper not to do the experiments."

Chemistry sets started a sales decline in the 1970s, both Al-Gailani and Cook note. By the 1980s they had lost their mainstream appeal. But is it really a case of health and safety gone mad?

Children in a chemistry lesson in 1955

In the 1950s, booklets offered lists of instructions like "how to make an explosive mixture". Now, even mildly explosive chemicals have been removed.

Used often to test the presence of starch, the iodine solution once seen in kits is now regulated as a list I chemical in the US because of its use in the manufacture of methamphetamine. It can also be lethal if more than 2g of pure iodine is consumed.

Today's chemistry kits have a different emphasis. Some of the bigger sellers recently have included one capable of making edible creations tied to film franchises and a perfume kit aimed at girls.

These kits are not capable of the experiments of old.

"What used to be in chemistry sets that are not in there anymore are actual chemicals," says Cook.

"Given the right instruction booklet, the older set would allow the user to create all sorts of experiments - blow things up, create smoke bombs, create stink bombs."

Chemistry sets of old

Chemical Why was it included? Dangers

Uranium dust

It was "unofficially encouraged by the government", said chemistry set creator AC Gilbert, to help public understanding of atomic energy

Radiation exposure is today strictly controlled due to wide range of damaging health effects including risk of cancer

Potassium nitrate

Combined with sulphur and charcoal to create gunpowder

Can be used to make a fertiliser bomb

Lead acetate

Used as a dyeing agent

Toxic when eaten, as are many other lead compounds. Blamed for death of Pope Clement II in 1047

Ammonium carbonate

Used in coloured fountain experiment where solution turned from red to blue

The main component of some smelling salts, it can be dangerous if used in high doses regularly

Sodium hydroxide

Used in colour-changing experiment

Burns skin on contact

Hiding away and experimenting is the thing that adults seem to remember most fondly about their childhood experiments.

"The nostalgia seems to be around the expectation of what could happen. The ability to use chemicals in free play meant going off recipe," says Cook.

"That has disappeared with the chemicals that have disappeared."

There's still excitement in some of today's kits. Potassium and sodium can be dropped in water to produce a violent reaction.

But in some, the emphasis is on everything from drinking straws and cardboard to ping-pong balls. Not quite the explosive mixture described 60 years ago.

"Most of them are what you could refer to as kitchen chemistry," says Cook. "Using things you can find in your kitchen - baking soda or vinegar."

Convincing children and parents that science is safe is a priority for health and safety executive chairwoman Judith Hackitt.

She showed, in an experiment for school children, that under very particular circumstances a fire could be lit and held in the hands. For science to move away from practical experiments because they are seen as dangerous, she believes, is a mistake.

health and safety executive chair Judith Hackitt demonstrates the flaming hands experiments Judith Hackitt with hands aflame

"Yes they are safe. Are there some hazards associated with them? Yes, but of a very minor nature. The whole idea of them is you learn from handling real materials," she says.

The decline in the sale of kids' chemistry set was mirrored by a shift away from science as a career. Parents instead pushed their children towards finance, the law and the like.

But sales of kits are increasing again. Internet retailer Discover This reported strong sales for chemistry sets and microscopes in 2011. It said that parents were looking for toys with an educational value. Television shows focused on cool science - like US forensic science shows NCIS and CSI - have also had an effect.

At the same time, university application service Ucas has reported a 40% increase in the number of acceptances to chemistry courses at UK universities from 2003 to 2010.

And, with a little advice and supervision, the chemists of the future can play in relative safety.

"Don't lick it, don't eat it, don't sniff it, they are pretty good rules to live by in general," says Cook.

Below is a selection of your comments.

It wasn't just chemistry sets. In the 50s my school happily taught us how to make thermite bombs, contact explosives and delayed action poisonous gas generators. Combined with a cavalier attitude towards ether and concentrated acids, I am amazed I can remember no injuries, worse than a little burned hair.

Mike Adams, Windham, CT, USA

As a science-mad kid in the 1970s I was presented with a chemistry set, complete with a spirit burner and an array of reasonably-safe chemicals. Once I'd learned to keep my mother away (she was very good at melting the bottom off test tubes!), I settled down to explore a particular interest - the chemistry of fireworks. Memorable successes included a sparkler enhanced with magnesium ribbon and a multi-stage rocket which achieved separation by means of a carefully-located banger!

Megan, Cheshire, UK

In the 1950s I had a small commercial chemistry set, a friendly chemist who would get me almost any chemical and a very good and enthusiastic chemistry master at school. I learned how to handle some of the most dangerous chemicals in this way. I then worked for ICI Pharmaceuticals, studied chemistry to BSc level and then did a PhD in organic chemistry at Leeds. The school days chemistry, some of it done in a shed in the garden, led to a career in chemistry. Many times I also got a good telling off from my mother for holes burned in clothes and the smells I made!

Dr John Stewart, Kirkbymoorside, N Yorkshire

I got interested as a kid as my dad had a chemistry phd. Have fond memories of getting a slippering for burning holes in my bed and clothes with acid, making gunpowder etc. This sort of innocent mischief gets kids interested in science. The chemistry sets these days are sterile and uninspiring.

Jon Griffey, Haverhill, Suffolk, UK

In the 1950s I was playing about with a whole range of chemicals some from friends chemistry sets others from the local chemist. Having actually blown things up , made terrible stinks and generally been a danger to everyone my late mother went round all the chemists saying they must not supply me. I am glad my own children were not as dangerous as I was. Bt of course so much was easily obtainable in those days. Nowadays people who do home curing have difficulty obtaining saltpetre because it is an ingredient of gunpowder.

Alan Marr, Brecon, Wales

I think I had several chemistry sets. I augmented them, however, by purchasing other reagents from my local friendly pharmacist. He knew I was interested in chemistry and bent the rules somewhat of what could be supplied to a boy of 12/13 yrs old. I frequently went "off recipe", at one time burning a hole in my bedroom windowsill with an incendiary mix of I know not what! My best were the bombs I made in the back garden and set off by electricity - batteries and a substance called eureka wire, which glowed red-hot with applied DC current. by the way I qualified in BSc. Chemistry at university (1968), so the interest remained with me into my career.

David Walker, Stirling, Scotland

My father had an incredible chemistry set in the 1930s . His attempt to make some fireworks in the (forbidden) best room of the family home resulted in an explosion which blew the front of the house out. The equivalent of the bomb squad were called and my father and his little sister ended up in Westminster Hospital for the removal of glass fragments from their faces. My father's hand was badly cut and he had physiotherapy after the wound healed at Great Ormond Street. The bill for that treatment is around somewhere. My grandmother was particularly annoyed at the mess, blood included, in her parlour which had just been redecorated with fancy flock wallpaper. The incident was the front page lead in the Westminster and Pimlico Gazette. Unbelievably, my father asked the firemen if he could have his chemistry set back.

Jane Brown, Rickmansworth, UK

In 1968, when I was 11, my father brought home a chemistry set for me that definitely had instructions for blowing glass. My complaint at the time was that the provided alcohol lamp was not hot enough to do a decent job of it. That kit had many lethal chemicals, but our parents and society in general trusted that 11-year olds of normal intelligence would read the labels and not eat anything marked harmful. I feel sorry for the kids of today and our stupid litigious society that has removed all risk from their lives along with any potential for adventure.

David Roberts, Puyallup, WA, USA

One Christmas, many years ago, my brother had a chemistry set as one of his presents. It included a methylated spirit burner for some of the experiments. We children inevitably ended up spilling a lot of methylated spirit trying to fill it. People find it odd when I tell them that it is the smell of meths that always reminds me of family Christmases.

Len Tyler, London

Having a chemistry set at home in 1973 I decided to burn sulphur in my tiny bedroom, with the resultant sulphur dioxide almost giving me a trip to hospital. Perhaps worse though was being let loose with a friend in the school chemistry lab as we were the "good and clever" kids, so we made enough chlorine gas to send down the corridors and almost get the school evacuated. Health and safety indeed.

Chris, Upminster, Essex

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