What better way to kindle a passion for science than by treating your children to their very own chemistry set?

We recently explored on this very blog various ways in which we might get kids interested in science.

With a chemistry set, a child has all the tools they need to satisfy their curiosity while getting used to the idea that the world is there to be explored and understood. It’s a chance for them to ask their own questions, conduct their own experiments and make their own invisible ink.

Maybe you had a chemistry set when you were a child? Maybe you hold it responsible for your current passion for science?

In this special festive post, we’ll take a look at the history of the chemistry set – their early beginnings, their harrowing prime, their slow decline and their potential return.

Science for Gentlemen and Chemical Magic – The Early Days of Chemistry Sets

The first chemistry sets were developed in England and Germany, and were mainly used for teaching science students. These ornate and expensive ‘chemistry chests’ were highly respectable pieces of kit for highly respectable people. One set from 1730 claimed to “facilitate and promote the Practice of Chemistry by putting a commodious Laboratory into the hands of Gentlemen.”

But it wasn’t until the 1830s that chemistry sets were developed specifically with children in mind. And by the dawn of the 20th century, people had already started to think of them as toys. The aim wasn’t so much to teach chemistry to children, but to make chemistry fun.

Indeed, early chemistry sets cast science in the best possible light through drawing strong parallels between chemistry and magic. An 1881 copy of Boy’s Own Paper, for example, declared that “most so-called magical illusions are chemistry experiments.” As such, early chemistry sets tended to have a focus on producing reactions that result in flashes and bangs – the sort of stuff that delighted Victorian children in music hall magic tricks.

Gilbert Chemistry Set

Explosions, Poison and Radioactive Materials – The Golden Age of Chemistry Sets

The period spanning from 1920 to 1960 might be described as the golden age of chemistry sets. This was a time when manufacturers boasted that a chemistry set could be found in every house and on every street in America – and many of them were packaged with shockingly hazardous chemicals.

No longer was the emphasis on linking chemistry and magic. Chemistry sets were now designed to prime kids for a career in science. During the time of the Great Depression, and throughout the difficult interwar years, the idea that a bit of tinkering with chemicals might ultimately result in a stable and lucrative career was highly appealing for many parents.

But prepping kids for a scientific career often meant exposing them to the sort of materials and processes that scientists only ever handle with heavy-duty personal protection equipment.

The list of dangerous items that were once found in children’s chemistry sets includes blowtorches, glass-blowing equipment, hot plates, cyanide and even radioactive uranium ore. One set featured copper sulphate, which came packaged in a container featuring a skull and crossbones and the words “Caution: Poison”.

The Inevitable Decline – or, Maybe It’s Not a Good Idea to Sell Poison to Children

Yes, when you look at the sort of experiments kids were encouraged to try and the sort of materials they were encouraged to work with, it should be obvious why chemistry sets eventually fell out of favour.

And it wasn’t just health and safety fears that lead to their decline, either. Some chemistry sets featured iodine solution, which was ostensibly intended to allow for children to test for the presence of starch. But with a bit of lateral thinking, this chemical could easily be adapted to help manufacture methamphetamine. So these sets weren’t so much priming kids for a career in chemistry, as they were a career in Breaking Bad.

By the 1980s and 1990s, it was still possible to buy chemistry sets for children. They simply weren’t very exciting. Gone were the flashes, bangs and dodgy experiments of the golden age. In their place were a series of simple experiments, many of which involved the use of household chemicals such as vinegar, baking soda and table salt.

Late 20th century chemistry sets might have been safer, but they were so uninspiring that some have suggested that they’ve robbed us of a couple of generations of scientists. The decline of children’s chemistry sets saw a corresponding decline in young people choosing a career in science. Parents instead pushed their children towards less explosive and seemingly more secure careers, in law and finance.

Chemistry set c3000

The Future of Chemistry Sets – or, Only You Can Save Mankind

But as more and more people realise that science can find solutions to major problems – from global warming to world hunger – perhaps we’re on the verge of a second golden age of chemistry sets. As more parents come to understand that the future needs scientists, perhaps more parents will realise the importance of nurturing their children’s innate curiosity.

If you’ve got kids and you’re looking for unique and memorable Christmas present ideas, why not be a trailblazer? Why not be one of the forward-thinking modern parents responsible for the resurgence of chemistry sets and for the creation of a whole new generation of scientists?

The question is, though, where to start? Luckily, there’s a wealth of resources online.

The Best Chemistry Sets for Tomorrow’s Scientists

This article from About Education tells you everything you need to know about choosing a chemistry set for your child. It offers advice on how to gauge your child’s level of interest, on how much you might expect to pay and it even reviews of couple of the more popular sets available. So long as you can ignore the irritating and unrelated videos that start autoplaying the moment you scroll down the page, this is a truly invaluable resource.

Then check this Top Ten Reviews page that compares 10 different chemistry sets, rating each one individually on a number of factors to help you make a more informed decision. You can even compare different sets based on the specific areas they explore. So if, for example, you want to raise an organic chemist rather than an environmental chemist, you’ll know precisely which set to choose.

We wish you the best of luck in exploring the world of science and chemistry with your children.

All that remains is for us to wish you and yours a very merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!