Science

chm_soares_117editI spent most of my life as a scientist and engineer.  How did this happen?  I was in the 6th grade  the Russians launched Sputnik sending the US into a paranoid frenzy.  At about same time I got caught trying to set off a homemade bomb in the school playground.  They were so desperate that rather than seeing a budding anarchist they saw a budding scientist.  It may have all started earlier with my first chemistry set.

In their mid-20th century heyday, chemistry sets inspired kids to grow up to be scientists. Intel founder Gordon Moore, for example, credits a chemistry set with sparking his lifelong interest in science (not to mention some pretty neat explosions along the way).

Chemistry sets seem to have fallen out of favor in recent years, but there’s a movement to bring them back—or at least recapture some of the unstructured experimentation the old sets encouraged. In this gallery, we take a look at some vintage sets from the collection of the Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum in Philadelphia. They provide an interesting perspective on how public attitudes towards science shifted over the course of the 20th century, says Kristen Frederick-Frost, the museum’s curator of artifacts and collections manager.

In the early to mid 1900s, there was growing optimism that science could solve many of the important problems facing the world, Frederick-Frost says. Chemistry kits reflected this enthusiasm, featuring what was new and exciting at the time: Plastics! Atomic Energy! Outer Space! It was common for the box of a kit to feature both an image of a young boy playing with the kit and an image of a scientist in his lab—the man the boy would grow up to be. “It’s about much more than chemistry, it’s about creating the ideal citizen through play,” she said.

As for the engineering part there was first the Erector Set.  Latter it was Heath Kits, building my own electronics.  I don’t think either of my sons ever had an Erector Set or a chemistry set and with the introduction of surface mount technology Heath Kits became impractical.  At the very best bright young people largely spend their time learning to be computer hackers.

 

Author: RON BEASLEY

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16 Comments

  1. Ha! An Erector Set and a Chemistry Set … those were my basement play stations in the 60s.

    Great road trip, Ron.

  2. Heathkit, Boy I miss that company. My first ham radio was a Heathkit HW-8. I reached Italy on 3.5 watts of power on 40 meters. I got the QSL card the day my father died. Miss him too.

  3. Kevin and Heinrich, glad I was able to bring back some pleasant memories.

  4. BTW, my sons may not have had Erector Sets but they did have Lego. I spent hours with them engineering with Lego. In addition when we went to the beach on the Pacific Ocean we played a game we called Army Corps of Engineers where we would change the flow of small streams flowing into the ocean.

  5. Me: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

    Ron: Yes, sir.

    Me: Are you listening?

    Ron: Yes, I am.

    Me: Robotics

    The local high school here in Northern Virginia has several active robotics clubs (including one that is all-female). One of the things they’ve worked on is a small robot intended to fly around inside and outside the ISS doing little bits of work. (Note that this was an independent robot, self-guided, not what’s sometimes called a robot — a remotely-piloted vehicle or drone). Putting together sensors, effectors, servos, motors, and microprocessors covers a great deal of current technology; I’m quite certain that if I were 50 years younger and in high school (OK, 53 years younger), that’s what I’d be doing.

  6. Bob, I realize there are exceptions but as Kevin eloquently stated above erector sets and chemistry sets were the play-stations when we were growing up.

  7. LOL..I guess maybe that’s why I chose a career in science too. I played with erector sets, ( which by the way could do a lot of damage), home laboratories of every kind…chemistry sets, biology sets ( pinning insects to Styrofoam) geology sets ( collecting rocks , identifying them and then leaving them all over the house for your parents to find)..and of course,,Robbie the Robot , who finally ended his days when my brother and I made him walk the plank out his bedroom window.
    Ah..science. Good times. ! :)

  8. erector sets and chemistry sets were the play-stations when we were growing up.

    I had a patchboard electricity set, with batteries, switches, relays, pots, bulbs, motors, buzzers, and wires to interconnect them. That would have been around 1955-56.

    However, my point was that Kids These Days can do more than computer hacking. They can build flying robots, and they do.

    I’m Robbie the Robot,

    Mechanical Man.

    Drive me and steer me

    Wherever you can.

    My Robbie was connected to the hand controller by a Derailleur-type cable to turn his wheels. He wouldn’t have gone out a window. Unless he was pushed…

  9. I played with erector sets, ( which by the way could do a lot of damage), home laboratories of every kind…chemistry sets, biology sets ( pinning insects to Styrofoam) geology sets ( collecting rocks , identifying them and then leaving them all over the house for your parents to find)…. Ah..science. Good times. !

    Sweet. I could have written this. I also collected insects, and rocks of all kinds with the help of an uncle who was a geologist. My petrified wood collection was killer.

    My favorite collection was Native American arrow heads decorative pieces. I hope someone still has them.

    If only my mom hadn’t cleaned the garage of those things (and my coin collection) while I was at university :)

    It’s fun to see some of us have so much in common.

  10. Science is great, and we need more scientists.

    I’m only in my early 30s, but I had parents whose views on video games were more like their parents would have been. I sincerely hope that chemistry sets, erector sets, etc., all of them start making a comeback.

    Even if kids don’t enjoy science, science teaches ways of thinking that we as a nation need more of.

    Actually, we have lost sight of the goal of education. Education is not supposed to be a means to a job, it is supposed to be a means to learning how to think. Computer games are well and good, in moderation, but they hardly teach kids to think. Chemistry sets, erector sets, etc., all of them teach kids creative thinking, and scientific thinking. I hope these toys make a comeback.

  11. I could probably get another SKILCRAFT microscope lab set on ebay or something. Probably even a 1961 lab set!

  12. Education is not supposed to be a means to a job, it is supposed to be a means to learning how to think.

    .
    Amen PBJ. In today’s culture, thinking is rapidly approaching the status of a lost art.

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