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Science Gifts: Chemistry Sets

I’ve decided this year that I’ll be posting some recommendations for science-themed gifts, since this is the season that people will be looking around for them. This article at Smithsonian has a look at the history of the good ol’ chemistry set. As I mentioned in this old post, I had one as a boy, augmented by a number of extra reagents, some of which (potassium permanganate!) were in rather too high an oxidation state for a ten-year-old. I can’t report that I did much in the way of systematic experiments with all my material, but I did have a good time with it. Once in a while some combination of reagents will remind me of the smell of those bottles, and I’m instantly transported back to the early 1970s, out in a corner of the shop building in back of our house. (Elemental sulfur is a component of that smell; the rest I’m not sure about).
The Smithsonian article mentions that Thames and Kosmos chemistry sets get good reviews from people who’ve seen them. So if you’re in the market for a gift for the kids, that might be a line to try! The potassium permanganate I’ll leave up to individual discretion. . .

26 comments on “Science Gifts: Chemistry Sets”

  1. Cato the Elder says:

    Try beaker shot glasses (if 21+ of course…)

  2. opsomath says:

    I wish they still sold the dangerous kind of chemistry sets. Nowadays my students come in convinced on some subconscious level that their materials can’t hurt them, which leads to them doing things like bringing fistfuls of potassium hydroxide pellets over to me in their bare hands. Professor, what should I do with these extra ones?
    My 11-12 year old self managed to escape with only minimal scarring from a home experiment setup including KNO3, 35% hydrogen peroxide, and KClO4. As oxidation state increases, so does awesome.

  3. FredB says:

    I had a Gilbert chemistry set, a blue enameled steel case with real chemicals. I was fascinated with plating. There are a number of nickel plated pennies and a lesser number of copper plated nickels loose in the world because of me.

  4. molecular architect says:

    Today’s chem sets are a joke, worthless for teaching or inspiring kids to enjoy chemistry. I had a couple of different Porter and Gilbert sets, both included real glassware and chemicals – KMnO4, Fe filings, conc ammonia, conc HCl, and many others. One even had a magnetic stirrer and a centrifuge. The stirrer used a small motor like those in model cars. The centrifuge was hand operated, similar to the spinning tops for young kids. In 1966, both seemed like high tech! I had a “laboratory” consisting of an old drop leaf table under the stairs in our basement. A few intentional and unintentional booms and small fires but nothing serious over the better part of my childhood. It helped that my uncle was a chemical engineer at the Navy’s China lake facility, where they study “energetic materials”. When he visited, we had some fun making small craters in the woods behind our house – using just the chemicals in my set and household chemicals. Kids today are too damn sheltered.

  5. LittleGreenPills says:

    It looks as though some of the high end sets from the above do have potassium permanganate.

  6. Gene says:

    I seem to remember the Gilbert one as well back in the 60s. I do know that when things started to get away from me, I would flush it down the toilet. After killing the septic tank I was informed that was a Bad Idea ™.
    And something got spilled one time that formed a permanent bond with the concrete basement floor. It was still there when we moved; and I have little doubt that that bump is still on that floor.

  7. newnickname says:

    There were a couple of hobby shops in the area in which I grew up. They had racks of 1 ounce jars (the stockroom) of replacement and “extra” chemicals (the ones that didn’t come in the standard chemistry sets): magnesium ribbon, strontium chloride …
    From chemistry books and reading labels, you could find out where to get “other” chemicals. Some coming to mind as I type this are MnO2 and a carbon electrode from alkaline batteries; conc HCl from the hardware store (muriatic acid); photographer’s “hypo” = sodium thiosulfate; Carbona spot remover = CCl4; and more.
    I used Pyrex bakeware (custard cups) as
    beakers and a propane torch (hardware store) to heat things when I lost patience with the alcohol lamp.
    Today, we’d all be sharing a jail cell with Leo Baekland, George Eastman, Ed Land, et al.

  8. Pig Farmer says:

    In the early 70s, my parents bought me a calor gas burner, some glassware and a collection of “Merit” chemicals. I had a copy of “Chemistry Experiments at Home for Boys and Girls” by H.L.Heys (MA). I carried out my experiments in our asbestos garage (which was later demolished (not by me!) and replaced by a brick one). Amongst my many happy memories are making a “chemical garden” with sodium silicate, cobalt plating pieces of scrap copper, making gunpowder following a recipe from the Oxford English Dictionary, and my proudest experiment: preparing concentrated nitric acid. I was able to buy 1kg of potassium nitrate from Boots the chemists. I ordered the necessary quickfit glassware from a chemist/pharmacist in Leicester, and prepared the concentrated sulphuric acid from the dilute stuff the same chemists was willing to sell me (they also sold me magnesium ribbon and sodium metal(!!), which my mother confiscated and returned once she saw what I was doing with it). I rigged up a water supply from our kitchen to the garage for the condensor.
    My parents got concerned when I made Nitrogen Tri-iodide and it blew up in my face. After that I was always careful to wear safety goggles. Fortunately I didn’t sustain any serious injuries (and neither did anyone else), and I had a great deal of fun. I still earn a living from chemistry, and I put this down to the many hours I spent in my garage as a 12-16 year old doing chemistry experiments. No way would I be able to do any of that today.

  9. David Formerly Known as a Chemist says:

    I don’t recall what type of chemistry set I had, but boy did I have one! The seminal experiment was when I mixed potassium nitrate (saltpeter), sulfur powder, and some carbon dust (a handful I rescued from the bottom of my dad’s bag of charcoal for the grill), and proceeded to light a pile of this mixture on fire on the desktop in my bedroom. Man, did that stuff burn, fizz and pop! My mother walked into my room a minute later, still full of smoke, and wasn’t too impressed with the large holes burned into my desktop. I told her I’d knocked my alcohol lamp over (imagine the response I would have received if I’d told her I’d been making a poor man’s version of gunpowder!) and I got away with a stern warning. Whew.

  10. dave w says:

    Ah, adolescent chemistry memories – I didn’t do anything too pyrotechnic, but I did stink up the house with H2S one time (somewhat to my mother’s displeasure) – bit of iron filings, bit of powdered sulfur, heat until they reacted and formed the sulfide, crunch it up in a mortar and pestle with some NAHSO4 and water… (Fortunately there was only about a ml or so of reaction mixture!)

  11. PFECambridge says:

    i’m looking for a kit where my 10 yr old can design the reaction and have it run overseas? any suggestions?

  12. JAB says:

    Adolescent mischief: potassium permanganate was used in my father’s photographic darkroom, and makes such pretty red-purple solutions at dilute concentrations…we snuck over to a neighbor’s pool at night, expecting to turn it red-purple with a few grams chucked in….oxidation chemistry happened and it turned the pool a nasty shade of brown which required serious cleaning. At least we didn’t get caught!

  13. Steve says:

    Not a chemist now but phenolphthalein solution seemed a key part of several chemistry-set experiments. I liked the name.
    Some coiled magnesium strips in a bottle that I’d take out and set on fire. Awesome.
    Once I wanted mercury for some electrical switch project, and the local hobby shop didn’t have any. The shop did have a small plastic maze that had a few drops of mercury you guided around. (That may date me.) I bought one and busted it open, rolling together all the droplets that dispersed on the dinner table. When I was done with my project, it was fun to roll it around in my hand, kind of like liquid silly putty.
    Kids, don’t try that at home.

  14. dorf says:

    Try here for current Chem sets;
    No relation or secret handshake, I just read his blog occasionally.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Back in the 50s at ten my mom thought I was responsible enough to not blow myself up or poison myself. At that age she let me buy my first chemistry set which I had been asking for several years prior. Of course what really fascinated me about chemistry was explosives, toxins and pyrotechnics all of which I tried to synthesized/prepare as soon as I could lay my hands on the starting chemicals. Playing with dangerous chemicals in my home lab was the best times I had as a chemist, all unsupervised by my parents. They had never studied chemistry when they grew up in the 30s.
    My father converted a small outdoor shed into a lab where every day (I lived in a warm climate) I was trying to make something. No hoods or any other safety features, and I never owned a pair of safety glasses. But real labware – beakers, a selection of different flasks, retorts, condensers, graduated cylinders – and chemicals were readily available at all the local hobbyshops. I was particularly interested in explosives and poisons. Over the next few years I would prepare many pyrotechnic mixtures, gun powder, nitroglycerin, gun cotton, dynamite, bromine, bromoacetone, iodoform, manganese heptoxide, nitrogen triiodide, silver and mercury fulminate, fulminating silver, lead, copper and silver azide, mixtures of potassium chlorate and red phosphorus, concentrated nitric acid, aqua regia, copper and silver acetylide, hydrogen, chlorine, mercury salts, acetylene-oxygen mixtures, and many more interesting compounds. Old books that I obtained at swap meets had lots of general information on all kinds of nifty stuff, plus there were actually books with experimental procedures for the amature chemist. Chemistry Magic was one of those best lab books.
    Even back then getting starting materials was tricky, so I would figure out a synthesis that took me back to some precursor material that I could get. For example I would get battery acid and boil it down to secure the maximum concentration sulfuric acid possible. I would use that to make nitric acid by adding potassium nitrate and distilling out nitric acid. I actually used an air cooled retort for this distillation. That retort was my prized piece of glassware and I still have it. I would make ethanol from corn mash and baker’s yeast which I would also distill using my retort. The alcohol was used to run my alcohol lamp and as a precursor material. I would dissolve a silver quarter in the nitric acid and add the ethanol. A subsequent vigorous gave off lots of poisonous acetaldehyde and nitric oxide into the lab. The highly sensitive explosive, silver fulminate, would precipitate out, and I would filter through newspaper and air dry. Subsequent fun was had by all. I was always making this stuff because it was so entertaining and I could use it to detonate more stable explosives. One time I concentrated my urine and added nitric acid which yielded crystals of the explosive urea nitrate which I detonated with some lead azide I had prepared. In those days you could get dangerous chemicals and pyrotechnic fuse sent to you in the US mail and I was able to get some sodium azide. I made my lead nitrate by dissolving lead with nitric acid.
    Unfortunately I could never live that life as a child today. Any number of police agencies would surely secure my place in some god foresaken jail house. What was Johnny just learning how to be a scientist in the 1950s is now just Johnny being a menace to Society.

  16. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    I had a chemistry set and a microscope in the basement back in the 1960s. Started a few small fires, all of which I was able to contain without letting any adults find out about them.
    I also learned a lot about electronics by fixing the TV set and the stereo, both of which had vacuum tubes. I would take all the tubes to a local shop where they had a transconductance tester and a little booklet listing what the readings should be for each type of tube. Then I would hand the bad tube(s) to the guy behind the counter, he would sell me replacements, and I would take them home. I dunno how kids learn the basics of electronics today when everything is (1) digital and (2) disposable. The simplicity of vacuum tube gear made it much easier to learn how it worked by fiddling with it.

  17. Esteban says:

    Contrary to opinions expressed here, today’s chemistry sets are quite dangerous – they could inspire someone to spend years getting a PhD in Chemistry!

  18. Anonymous says:

    The less said about the black stains on the basement walls growing up the better; I attributed it to the “burner”. I remember “catching” my mother coming home with a chemistry set for myself (just before Christmas; by the way, much more than the currently available sets). Had to source out replacement magnesium ribbon (which along with an electrical plug, makes a great fuse for model rocket engines… once you reset the household electrical fuses).
    All the personal caveats aside, my chemistry set allowed me the freedom to pursue my scientific interests; albeit they led to pharmacology (and with more than a few explosions). I will definitely encourage my children to explore in this manner (as safely as my wife will let me…).

  19. Nick K says:

    #11 PFECambridge: Wonderful, made my day!
    Some of my fondest childhood memories…. making nitrous oxide by heating ammonium nitrate over the gas cooker, and making copper acetylide. I even brought a sample of the latter to school to show my Chemistry teacher!

  20. Yazeran says:

    Ah Potassium permanganate, my (un)favorite in high school.
    I also did some chemistry experiment at home when in high school, although I didn’t have any proper ‘kits’ or similar, however with a few aquired glassware and some choice chemicals bought at the local pharmacy, I was good to go.
    I often used KMnO4 together with diluted hydrogen peroxide for creating pure oxygen gas (just remember to add some cotton or similar to the flask to delay the mixing!).
    However just one speck of that pesky KMnO4 on the vinyl tabletop left a nasty brown stain when it got wet and the stains took an hour to remove using sanding paper and finally oiling the whole table so my mom didn’t know what I was doing (At that time I didn’t know about the trick with acetic acid and I didn’t have any bisulfide which our chemistry book said would work…)
    So I cant remember how many hours I spent scrubbing the kitchen table in order to remove those permanganate stains…
    Good times though, and as others have pointed out, the higher the oxidation state the higher the coolness factor of the resulting reaction…
    (at least from the point of a teenager)

  21. Morten G says:

    To be honest I am a bit more excited by the Perfume Chemistry kit and the microscopes for my nieces and nephews. But I live to far from them to run through the chemistry experiments with them and don’t really trust my siblings to do a good job of it 😉

  22. Monte Davis says:

    Gilbert and “Things of Science” kits in my early teens, then access to more Good Stuff working at a science supply store on weekends. I’m surprised that no one has mentioned good old thermite, which I’d craved since reading about it as “rust and dust” in Not This August, a Red-Dawn-ish 1950s SF novel. Find an out-of-the-way corner of a vacant lot, run magnesium ribbon into a little nest of chlorate in the thermite, and be on your way before the fountaining sparks and the dazzle…

  23. noko marie says:

    My Dad worked at an oil refinery and used to bring me home chemicals to play with. I remember my hands being purple for about a month from some silver nitrate. My favorite was the alcohol lamp that I would rig up inside my pumpkin at Halloween to burn various salts in pretty colors.

  24. jim says:

    I had multiple chemistry sets supplemented with glassware etc that my father brought home from work (he was a chemist and made pesticides for a living).
    The odd thing was that the only three chemicals I ever combined (repeatedly, I might add) was sodium nitrate, carbon and sulfur. Oh yeah and later on some iron filings for effect.
    Many near disasters in my basement.

  25. Helical_Investor says:

    How long before our children are sequencing their own DNA with a home kit?

  26. Home Chemist says:

    Since my “retierment” I have had a great time reconnecting with the original love of chemistry that started everything off years ago. Actually, there are a a number of hobby science suppliers which sell small amounts of many chemicals which can be shipped without problems. Check out HMS Beagle and Elemental Scientific for example. It’s not hard (but not cheap) to do some reasonably sophisticated chemistry in a hobby environment.

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