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Whatever happened to chemistry sets? They turned entire generations of children on to chemistry, and they also have their own illustrious history. Hank takes you through a tour of the chemistry set over time, and tells you how you can be part of the push to bring them back with their Science Play and Research Kit competition!

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Whatever happened to chemistry sets?  Nowadays you go into a toy store and you might see some boxes with pictures of kids mixing colored goo together.  They say things like "Make alien blood!" or "Create your own dinosaur barf!" or whatever.  Not only are you not making those things, obviously, you never even learn what those substances actually are or what the science behind the fake blood or dinosaur barf or zombie boogers actually is.  But real old-school chemistry sets turned entire generations of children onto chemistry and sciences and they have their own illustrious history.

According to the Chemistry Heritage Foundation, chemistry sets got their start from the shops of 18th century England and Germany, where the university students were dispatched to buy their supplies for the coming semester.  Kind of like, Diagon Alley happening here.

Back then, chemistry students were expected to find their own samples of acids and bases and metals and so on.  So, some entrepreneurial merchants started selling these materials along with test tubes and other wares together as kits.  And even back then there were people who would buy them just because they wanted to learn about the world, and not because they had an exam to pass.

So, the sets began selling more widely and came to be packaged for more younger and younger minds.  By the early 1900s this trend had come to the U.S. where chemical companies began making competing brands of sets.

Soon every middle class kid in the country had access to their own vials of interesting and mostly harmless compounds like sodium borate or borax and aluminum sulfate, also known as alum.  Plus, strips of litmus paper, pipettes, and instructions on simple and safe experiments you could do on your own.

As the Cold War, and later the Space Race, brought science into popular culture, sales of the sets started taking off and chemistry kits of the mid 20th century began to reflect the fascinations of the time.

By the late 1940s, you could tinker with your very own Chem Craft Atomic Energy kit featuring a real vial of radium.  A few years later, a miniature Atomic Energy game hit sales on the market with uranium ore, your very own Geiger counter and a primer on how to prospect for your uranium in your back yard.

Eventually, some buzz-killing but necessary government regulations were put into place regulating what kinds of chemicals could be sold and marketed to kids.  All but the weakest acids were removed from the sets, as were heat sources, but the decline of the chemistry set really began in the 1970s when the word "chemicals" started to become synonymous with "pollution" and "dangerous" and "synthetic."

Sets were further diluted during those years as anything that couldn't be safely ingested by the gallon was removed.  Now I'm all in favor of making sure there's no lead paint in childs' toys, but the consumer protection laws of the 60s and 70s watered down chemistry sets to the point where today, they are basically just water.

Chemistry sets weren't really toys.  They were learning tools, and for a generation of scientists they were a first step into a deeper understanding of the world and a lifetime of studies.  The question is:  What if we could bring them back?  SciShow was recently contacted by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation who, along with the Society for Science and the Public, are sponsoring a competition called Spark:  Science Play and Research Kit, which is dedicated to re-imagining the chemistry set for the 21st century.

The foundation sponsored this video through Subbable to help keep SciShow funded and to promote this project that, to be frank, we probably would have promoted for free.

The contest is underway now and runs until January 7th.  To learn how you can enter and how you can help chemistry gets its groove back, visit and be sure to keep us posted on your progress.

Thanks to the Moore Foundation for their support of SciShow and thank you for watching.  If you have any questions or comments or ideas we're on facebook and twitter and of course down in the comments below.  And if you want to keep getting smarter here with us on SciShow, you can go to and subscribe.

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