When poking around the Smithsonian Museum’s extensive collection of children’s chemistry sets, you’ll find an archive of toys that represents over a century of scientific discovery for aspiring young chemists. First adapted from the portable kits used by scientists and college students during the 18th and 19th centuries, the sets became a must-have in any American toy box by the 1920s.
Over the last hundred years the popularity of the chemistry set has paralleled the American public’s attitude towards science. Sales skyrocketed after World War II when nuclear warfare, DNA, and the space race became part of the national conversation. When 1960s attitudes shifted, bringing anti-nuclear sentiments and distrust of chemicals and pesticides, the chemistry set’s popularity took a nosedive. News in the 1980s of the ozone hole and Chernobyl saw chemistry set sales rise again, although much changed to reflect new safety standards – you won’t see sets today that include blowtorches or radioactive uranium ore, which were popular features in the 1950s.
A number of Nobel Prize winners credit chemistry sets for inspiring their careers in science, so the dwindling production of sets may represent a decline in the number of budding chemists. Fortunately for passionate young chemists, though, equipment, chemicals, and kid-oriented instructional manuals are easily accessible online, hopefully inspiring a generation of chemists who will be faced with a new century of global problems to solve.
Image: Chemical Heritage Foundation
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