Gilbert Chemistry Sets
Science

Gilbert Chemistry Sets (They Let Kids Play With These?!)

Anyone who grew up in the 50s or 60s probably has fond memories of chemistry sets. Back then, they came with rows of little chemical bottles filled with all sorts of exciting things. You could mix them up to create fantastic pyrotechnics. In comparison, the bit of fizzing some modern set produce seems rather… uninspiring. I certainly heard a lot of stories from my parents about them, along with a disdain for modern chemistry sets.

We’re going to look back at these old chemistry sets and see how they really measure up to modern ones.

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The Rise and Fall of Chemistry Sets

Chemistry sets have been around for longer than you might imagine. They first hit the market in the late 18th century as portable laboratories. These small sets were contained in small wooden boxes and were aimed at scientists and students alike. 

These early sets were mostly produced in England, with the chemicals coming from Germany. The rise of WWI brought an end to the production of these kits. The resources were all being diverted for the war effort.

Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

It was around the same time that an American chemistry company brought out the Erector set. Designed by Alfred Gilbert, the Erector set was a chemistry set truly aimed at young boys. These Chemcraft sets came with chemicals, glassware, a balance, and even an alcohol lamp. There were also a set of helpful instructions with suggested experiments for the boys to try.

It was from this start that the boom really began. As America was coming out of The Great Depression, parents were eager to find ways to propel their kids into high-paying careers. This was how chemistry sets were marketed at the time. 

With WWII and The Manhattan Project, science began to become part of America’s cultural identity. It was an exciting time for science with the space race, the discovery of the double helix of DNA, and the creation of the polio vaccine.

However, this enthusiasm for chemistry kits wasn’t set to last. Regulations removed many of the exciting components of the kits in the 60s and 70s. At the same time, there was a lot of news about chemical warfare during the Vietnam War. These two events coincided to make chemistry sets seem like a poor choice for young kids.

The Popularity of Gilbert Chemistry Sets

Porter Chemcraft Set
Science History Institute, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There were two big names in chemistry sets – Chemcraft and Gilbert. They both fought for their share of the market with rival campaigns. Most kids had one or the other, so it was a real fight for supremacy. 

There were all sorts of marketing stunts. For instance, in 1957, Topps baseball cards offered a Gilbert 12062 chemistry set as a prize in a competition. 

The combination of marketing to boys as well as their parents proved successful, and the name Gilbert continues to be associated with chemistry sets to this day.

The Infamous Atomic Energy Lab

Gilbert's Atomic Energy Lab
Atomicdragon136, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If you do any research into Gilbert Chemistry Kits, you can’t help but come across what is now probably the best-known vintage chemistry set. Parents in 1950 could buy their children the U-238 Atomic Energy Lab

At the time, this was one of the most elaborate chemistry sets you could find. This is saying a lot as this was in the heyday of home chemistry sets. With the kit, kids received 3 radioactive sources, some samples of uranium ore, a cloud chamber, a spinthariscope, an electroscope, and a Geiger counter. The majority of schools don’t have this sort of kit now.

As well as a 60-page booklet on how to mine uranium, there was also a manual that used a magician and some popular cartoon characters of the time to explain how to split the atom. Despite the odd decision to have a magician talking about science, the manual actually had some solid scientist behind it. It included a foreword from Leslie R. Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project. 

The kit had lots of great experiments and information in it. Its main aim was to educate kids about the benefits of radioactive materials. However, it was pulled from the market after only one year. Most likely due to the poor sales. It was expensive. In today’s money, it would have cost around $500. There were other kits on sale that contained radioactive sources that were as little as 20% of the price.

While the kit has since been referred to as “The most dangerous toy in the world,” it’s unlikely to have caused any ill effects. The samples included would have given a radiation dose similar to the one you might receive from the sun on a summer day.

What Did You Get In An Old Fashioned Chemistry Set?

Old chemistry sets came with all sorts of things that might shock modern parents. There were chemicals like potassium nitrate, which is a key ingredient in gunpowder. Nitric and sulfuric acid were common as well, in reasonably high concentrations. There were plenty of toxic and poisonous chemicals included in these sets.

Chemistry set with alcohol burner

Something that you would see in these older chemistry sets was the tools for glass blowing and molding. One of the key tools for doing this was an alcohol burner. Being able to make your own custom glassware is still a useful skill for modern chemists. But, you won’t find the tools for this in a modern chemistry set as it is considered rather dangerous these days.

All these exciting chemicals allowed kids to make big bangs and flashes, as well as produce some terrible smells. All very exciting for a young child. However, a lot of these chemicals often ended up going down the drain, which was not ideal and would certainly have contributed to some pollution in the local areas. 

Did Vintage Chemistry Sets Inspire Any Famous Scientists?

There is no doubt that some Nobel-winning chemists have attributed their success to the chemistry set they received as a child. Famously, Robert F Curl Junior, the scientist who discovered buckyballs, has spoken about his childhood experience. He said that within a week of getting a chemistry set, he knew he was going to be a chemist. 

So it is safe to say the chemistry sets of yore were certainly responsible for, at least in part, inspiring a generation of scientists.

Did the Rise of Product Safety Laws Inadvertently Undermine Science Toys?

From the 1960s, legislation began to be passed that limited what could be used in all sorts of household items, not just toys. The 1969 Child Protection and Toy Safety Act put toymakers on notice that they would need to be more circumspect in the products they made. For chemistry sets, the biggest blow came in 1979 when the Toxic Substances Control Act outright banned many of the chemicals that these sets relied on. 

There is no denying that the introduction of these laws had a significant and immediate effect on toys like chemistry sets. The kits were simplified and made much smaller. Instead of coming with a thick manual filled with exciting experiments, they instead had short pamphlets with a few suggested experiments. 

However, these laws have protected kids from being exposed to all sorts of toxic chemicals. Even as recently as 2007, a forensic kit was recalled when it was found that the fingerprint powder was up to 5% asbestos. 

Are Modern Chemistry Sets Any Good?

Modern chemistry set

For anyone who lived through the shift from ‘fun’ chemistry sets to stripped-down dull ones, it’s easy to have the opinion that modern chemistry sets are no good. But I’m not sure that’s really the case any longer.

The sudden changes in the rules around toy safety blindsided manufacturers. Their first reaction was to just get rid of everything that was banned and sell what was left., which wasn’t a lot. Since then, with time and innovation, there are now some pretty amazing chemistry kits out there. 

We’ve looked at a lot of chemistry sets. Honestly, there are some out there that are a bit unimpressive. But there are also some truly awesome ones. When looking for the best chemistry sets for kids, we discovered ones that let your kids safely carry out experiments with fire. The kind of experiment that you might have thought wasn’t possible anymore. 

Modern chemistry sets are also a lot more diverse than they used to be. You can find ones to match specific areas of interest or to match what your kids are learning at school. You can even find ones aimed at preschoolers

But if you’re craving the varied and extravagant experiments that you could carry out with a vintage chemistry set, then you should look at MEL chemistry. These carefully curated experiments land on your doorstep each month. The experiments are exciting and engaging and really make your kids, and you feel like ‘proper’ scientists. What’s more, these kits come with something you’d never find in a chemistry set from the 1960s. They have VR lessons included. 

Were ‘Traditional’ Chemistry Sets Really Better Than Modern Ones?

A room filled with traditional chemistry tools

I think that if you compare the chemistry sets from the 1950s and 1960s to modern-day ones, you’ll find that they do have some differences. The traditional sets tended to be a lot more open-ended and did a great job of encouraging experimentation. More modern chemistry sets can be a little more prescriptive. But they also tend to focus more on teaching kids skills and the science behind what they’re doing. 

However, if you put a modern chemistry set from Thames and Kosmos next to a traditional Chemcraft or Gilbert set, you’d see a lot of similarities. I think it’s safe to say that chemistry sets haven’t died. They’ve just evolved into something better.

With all these things, there’s an element of nostalgia that gives ‘traditional’ chemistry sets a perhaps undeserved status. Science has come a long way since then, and a lot of new materials are being used to create fun and interesting science kits. Admittedly you can’t do everything that you could with an old chemistry set. There are plenty more things that a modern chemistry set can do that an old one never could.

Frequently Asked Questions

Banning toys with dangerous acids was a good idea, but was the price a couple generations of scientists?

It’s probably unfair to blame safety regulations alone for the dip in popularity of chemistry sets. There was a lot going on in the world that was causing America to fall out of love with science. Some kids might have missed out on being inspired by a home chemistry set, but they might also have heard a lot about the horrors of Agent Orange, which might have turned them away from chemistry even if they’d had an amazing chemistry set to play with.

What comes in a chemistry set?

The contents of a chemistry set vary depending on its theme and complexity. However, you can expect to find some labware, which may be made of either glass or plastic. There are often at least some of the required chemicals included. However, with many sets, you may need to add items from your store cupboards. All chemistry sets these days come with instruction booklets that guide you through the experiments and usually the science behind them as well.

What is the best chemistry set?

It really depends on the age of your child and what you’re hoping to get out of the chemistry set. If you’re looking for guidance, check out our guide to the best chemistry sets for kids

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