BACK IN THE DAY:
sent imaginations into
space in the 1950s;
kids in 1965 still got
real chemistry sets
with burners and balances; Gilbert’s 1958
girls’ set was a nice
gesture but had no
chemicals; Lionel-Porter Chemcraft’s
beautiful sets ruled
Photography courtesy of Chemical Heritage Foundation (top left, bottom right); by Dustin Fenstermacher (top right, bottom left)
Great Balls of Fire!
Why old chemistry sets were better — and how to make your own today.
By Keith Hammond
It’s true: chemistry sets today don’t measure up
to the classic kits that once scorched Formica
kitchen tables across the nation. But you can
still find respectable kits if you know where to look.
More importantly, anyone can make their own flaming, fuming, booming DIY chemistry set as good as
those from the golden age — or better.
Danger Is My Middle Name
How good were the old sets? They were certainly
more exciting, stocked with iodine and nitrates
good for making unstable explosives or homemade
rocket motors. Chlorine and cyanide compounds
could emit deadly gases. A few chemicals turned
out to cause cancer.
Kits from the 1920s to the 60s might include
radioactive uranium, deadly sodium cyanide, or
pure magnesium foil that burns at 4,000°F, with
manuals that told how to mix up gunpowder or melt
sand red-hot to blow your own glass test tubes. The
Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments debuted in
1960, packed with risky experiments. Its 19th-century
predecessor, The Boy’s Own Book, had 20-plus
pages of chemistry and fireworks recipes.
People tolerated more risk back then, but in
exchange, generations of young experimenters were
rewarded with deeper discoveries, bigger thrills,
and the satisfaction of daring to achieve something
important for the future.
Rocketry, nuclear energy, plastics — new sciences
that were changing the world — were all highlighted
in popular chemistry sets of the mid-20th century.
Many of today’s scientists and engineers trace their
careers back to the excitement of that first set.
38 Make: Volume