Check Out “Science at Play”

Exhibit traces development and historical context of chemistry sets

By Mark Rosenzweig, Editor in Chief

Admit it, you wish you still had the chemistry set you played with while growing up. For many chemical engineers and chemists, the sets piqued interest in the field in which they would pursue careers. Indeed, that’s how some makers marketed their chemistry sets. For instance, a Skil-Craft box proclaimed: “Develop Today’s Young Scientists for Tomorrow’s Future.” Even if you never had a chemistry set, I bet you’ll enjoy a free exhibit called Science at Play that opened in early October at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF),, in Philadelphia; it will run until September 2016.

Many early chemistry sets undoubtedly would be banned today.

“Science at Play is the first major museum exhibit to explore the many facets of these miniature laboratories for children. Drawing from the CHF’s own collection of more than 250 science sets and related objects, it lifts the lid to reveal hidden stories of enterprise, aspiration, discovery, magic and mayhem,” says the organization.

“The exhibit showcases 32 sets and related objects that span nearly 170 years, from a box for a 1830s portable laboratory to a Harry Potter ‘spells and potions’ set from 2001. Six thematic sections explore the historical context of science play, beginning with its popularity during the 19th century and the origins of 20th-century chemistry sets in magic tricks. Other sections examine the all-important issue of safety, the gender divide in science toys, and why claiming to build careers was such a successful marketing strategy,” explains the CHF.

The exhibit also features a display wall with 21 sets related to other areas of science, a table where visitors of all ages can play with current science toys, and audio recordings of five people talking about what they learned from their sets.

The chemistry sets on display include a “Griffin Portable Chemical Cabinet,” a mahogany box that contained more than 30 chemicals and glassware, produced around 1850 by John J. Griffin and Sons, Ltd. in the U.K.; a “Chemcraft Chemical Outfit No. 1” from about 1917 from Porter Chemical Co. that focused on magic-like disappearing inks; a 1930s-era “Chemcraft: An Introduction to the Wonders of Modern Chemistry” set made by Porter; a 1943 “Gilbert Chemistry Outfit for Boys” from the A. C. Gilbert Co.; “The Practical Chemist for Boys and Girls No. 1,” a set from around 1947 from Science Creations, Inc.; a 1955 “Handy Andy Junior Chemistry Lab” by Skil-Craft Corp.; a “Gilbert Lab Technician Set for Girls” from 1958; an early 1960s “Merit Chemistry Set” made by J. and L. Randall Ltd. in the U.K.; and a 1996 Smithsonian MicroChemistry Set XM5000 from Natural Science Industries.

The contents of the sets clearly illustrate how times have changed — both in what’s acceptable for children to play with and the warnings needed. Some of the earlier sets in particular undoubtedly would be banned today because they contain chemicals that are hazardous on their own or that could react to form dangerous materials.

By the way, the A. C. Gilbert Company made many science-related items besides chemistry sets (see: “We Need Another A.C. Gilbert”). For instance, many future engineers, myself included, happily spent countless childhood hours constructing contraptions with Gilbert Erector sets; these contained metal girders, panels and other parts that you fastened together with screws and nuts. Erector sets still are available but now are made by France’s Meccano. The sets can play a useful role in promoting interest in science and technology. Indeed, that was a motivation for “The Big Bridge Build.” In mid-September, civil engineering students and faculty from the Queen’s University, Belfast, U.K., unveiled a bridge made of Meccano that spans 106 feet across Belfast’s Clarendon Dock, weighs more than 1,300 lb, contains 11,000 pieces of Meccano (not counting screws and nuts), and was constructed with the help of local school children. The bridge has earned a place in “Guinness World Records” as the largest Meccano structure ever. For more details, see:

rosenzweigweb.jpgMARK ROSENZWEIG is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief. He is a fan of chemistry sets, typewriters and Studebakers. You can email him at