Essay: Garage Chemistry and Do-It-Yourself Science Labs

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Garage Chemistry and Do-It-Yourself Science Labs

It is a litigious world humans have created, and the lawyers rule it. The history of almost all commercially available products can be traced from a distant heyday of free thought and free will -- a time when conservatives argued for smaller government and rugged individualism meant something in this country -- through a narrowing maze of lawsuits, sensational newspaper articles, and popular backlash, into the confines of today. The history of chemistry sets has been no different. First marketed in the 18th century "to facilitate and promote the Practice of Chemistry by putting a commodious Laboratory into the hands of Gentlemen" (Nicholls, 2007), chemistry sets did not grow into their own until the 1940s and 50s when they found their way into the hands of American children and teenagers across the country. Since then, through a serious of litigations, mishaps, and shifts in the industry, chemistry sets were regulated and reduced in scope until they fell drastically out of fashion by the 60s; the sets then produced were safety conscious to the point of obsession, and stifled any freedom of experimentation and thought by confining young chemists to the narrow scope of a guide book of reactions. Most any chemical perceived as dangerous was eliminated from sets, or provided in such small quantities as to preclude any true exploration. Chemistry sets are still available in this reduced scope -- though some industry experts predict a comeback -- and this essay will examine the products available today, in contrast to those available in the 40s and 50s.

Two particular corporations -- Porter Chemcraft and AC Gilbert -- were at the forefront of the market in the mid-20th century. Their products were marketed as career building tools, "Experimenter today… scientist tomorrow" (Cook, 2010), and later, as the atomic age dawned and the importance of chemistry and science to world leadership grew in popular awareness, were marketed as global leadership fundamentals. In general, freedom of exploration was encouraged; owners of sets were meant to deviate from the instructions and produce experiments of their own. Porter Chemcraft -- which maintained social networks, journals, and clubs for chemistry set owners -- later initiated a contest awarding prize money to the "boy chemist of the year" (Nicholls, 2007). The experimental possibilities of these early sets were vast and, admittedly, ill-regulated:

Brian Hartman's son once sprinkled nitrogen tri-iodide powder concocted from his chemistry set on the garage floor, causing every step his mom took to reverberate with a loud bang from contact with the noisy, but harmless, explosive.

Allentown mother Rae Klahr says her boys once used materials from their chemistry set to start a small fire in the backyard.

Roy Arlotto, now chairman of the chemistry department at a local high school, recalls sending a noxious sulfur odor through his parents' house from his attic chemistry lab. (Salter, 1987)

Yet it was precisely this vast and unregulated potential which captured the imagination of young Americans; chemistry seemed like -- and indeed was marketed as -- a form of true magic. And, as many prominent chemists of the later 20th century will attest, by capturing the imagination with wild and unexplored science, these chemistry sets did indeed lead to great careers and eventually great discoveries in chemistry.

The ensuing decades beyond the "chemistry set generation" (Nicholls, 2007) saw a marked decline in the popularity of chemistry sets as government regulation increasingly tightened controls on what was and was not appropriate for commercial marketing, especially towards children. The original Porter Chemcraft sets were equipped with a small supply of depleted uranium -- if fissionable material does not capture a child's imagination, certainly nothing will -- but this, among other chemicals was later banned. Beginning with the Federal Hazardous Substances Labeling Act of 1960, a series of laws severely limited the scope of chemistry sets and eventually drove both Porter Chemcraft and AC Gilbert out of business. Another factor was the growing public sentiment of science as a danger to mankind, personified by the wealth of technology-based environmental hazards coming into public awareness, such as acid rain and the proliferation of nuclear power plants. Thereafter,

Any material considered flammable, toxic, explosive, or caustic, or to be an irritant or a strong sensitizer required labeling. Gone were hydrochloric and sulfuric acids and alcohol lamps. (Cook, 2010)

The 21st century has seen a certain resurgence in chemistry sets, albeit carefully geared to tiptoe around regulations. Many sets proudly claim to contain no chemicals at all -- which seems completely counter to the idea of fostering interest in wild, unexplored science. Perhaps the best sets produced -- those that run closest to the 40s and 50s ideals -- are manufactured by Thames and Kosmos, a Rhode Island-based company, that "was founded in 2001 with the mission of improving informal science education by publishing high-quality science and technology related educational products for children of all ages" (Thames and Kosmos, 2010). Thames and Kosmos's feature product is the CHEM series of chemistry sets, ranging from the CHEM 500 -- intended for children ages 8 and up -- to the CHEM 3000, which as closely approaches the products available in the 40s and 50s as is legal today.

The CHEM 3000 is a full feature chemistry set guiding young people across 360 experiments of increasing complexity.

Build a mini fire extinguisher and float a soap-powered boat. Write with invisible ink and test colored markers on the chromatography racetrack. Entertain your friends with "magic" tricks, and then enlighten them with the scientific explanations behind the magic. Make dazzling colors in flame tests and produce electricity in a test tube. You will learn how to use the alcohol burner and perform experiments that require heat. Separate mixtures, add carbon dioxide to water and produce oxygen gas from hydrogen peroxide. Experiment with fuels and combustion. Make your own hydrochloric acid (Thames and Kosmos, 2010).

The set includes an alcohol burner, an essential item omitted from the heavily litigation-conscious chemistry sets of the late 20th century. The CHEM series thereby re-introduces a complex of endothermic reactions, which tend to result in some of the more spectacular and imagination-catching experiments. Furthermore, the set incorporates a number of chemicals previously considered unsafe for marketing towards children: hexamethylenetetramine, more commonly hexamine, is included, which, when combined with trioxin produces a clean-burning combustible. No trioxin is included with the set. Other chemicals included are known toxins or irritants, or can be combined to form powerful toxins and irritants, such as copper (II) sulfate, potassium ferricyanide -- which in combination with acids, can evolve hydrogen cyanide gas -- and others. While these chemicals pose a risk, they also open avenues to a variety of more interesting experiments. Also notable is the ability of the set to produce hydrochloric acid, an experiment presented in the instruction book, and a specified flask is included to contain and label any acid thus produced. Nonetheless, the full breadth of possibilities available in the 40s and 50s remains merely history; certainly do not expect to see depleted uranium powder in a Thames and Kosmos set any time soon.

"In my opinion the most intriguing part of these sets is the manual" (Cook, 2010). To supplement the loss of experimental breadth, Thames and Kosmos has vastly revised the scope of the manuals included with their products. These manuals take users through experiments in a much more informative, educational manner, including expansive digressions in regards to chemical principles, modern chemical issues such as pollution, and even the history of chemistry. Users are encouraged to engage with the manual which is a redacted form of a full-scale college chemistry course. Certainly Neils Bohr will never capture the imagination the same way tri-iodide powder can, but beggars should not be choosers.

Though the CHEM 3000 represents the pinnacle of the industry today, other chemistry sets are also available which allow a more limited exploration, usually within more narrow subject matters. Kitchen chemistry sets have become popular, essentially operating in the area of the science of baking; crystal growing kits have bored children senseless for generations; and a line known as Inquiries in Science -- manufactured by a company called Carolina -- produces small-scale specific kits each pertinent to a narrow area of study such as thermochemistry, voltaic and electrolytic cells, gas laws, and hydrocarbons, to name a few.

Another option which aspiring chemists might explore is the purchase of wholesale chemicals via a variety of sources. While this option precludes the structured learning methods applied by the CHEM 3000, it does open a wider range of possibilities, as evidenced by the proliferation of illegal methamphetamine laboratories throughout the United States today. The Carolina Company, from its website, offers a variety of lab chemicals for sale and ostensibly asks for no credentials or permissions. Potassium nitrate is available there -- ACS, laboratory, or reagent grade with prices ranging from $5.95 to $22.95 -- and would be useful in reproducing a certain instructor's childhood gunpowder experiments. (Sulfur and… [END OF PREVIEW]

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