I 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.