Reminiscing On Chemistry Sets | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 92 Issue 26 | p. 2 | Letters
Issue Date: June 30, 2014

Reminiscing On Chemistry Sets

Department: Letters

“The 21st-Century Chemistry Set” reminded me of the time in the late 1930s when I was in the seventh and eighth grade and had a Gilbert chemistry set (C&EN, April 14, page 29). When the chemical supply ran low, I resorted to the kitchen pantry for baking soda, vinegar, salt, and sugar; to under the sink for ammonia and lye; and to the garage for dusting sulfur. (Fortunately, there was no Paris Green in the garage.)

I usually did my experiments when my parents were gone and I had free access to the kitchen sink and stove. On more than one occasion, my parents came home to the strong odor of rotten eggs. Later I learned that that odor was hydrogen sulfide gas, and it could kill me.

I went on to earn a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and spent the rest of my 40-plus years of work life in various lab situations. I survived the home lab and the work lab even though conditions were not always safe. I did learn that there’s nothing better than working safely.

Martin VanDyke

Robert Bruce Thompson, author of the “Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments,” is quoted in “The 21st-Century Chemistry Set” as follows: “I doubt you could interview a chemist between the ages of 50 and 80 today who didn’t get started with a chemistry set. Maybe there are exceptions, but I can’t think of any.”

For me, the opposite was true. My older brother had the largest chemistry set available in the 1940s—costing about $25 or $35 as I recall. He was always calling me over to witness the results of his experiments—“milk,” “invisible ink,” “black gunk,” etc. Not seeing the point of all this, I developed no desire to play with a chemistry set myself.

Having enjoyed both high school biology and physics, I became a biophysics major in college and, as such, finally took an introductory chemistry course as a sophomore. There I was turned on as much by the glassware and equipment as by the chemistry itself. By the end of my junior year, I concluded there were more job opportunities in chemistry than in biophysics or biology and changed my major. I took three chemistry courses with labs each semester of my senior year. After graduation, I was hired by Ford Motor Co. and given responsibility for solving real problems in various manufacturing plants, meeting occasionally with plant managers, and so on. This heady experience led me to claim that “I didn’t know I wanted to be a chemist until I was one.”

Subsequently, as a Ph.D. student at Purdue University, I was exposed to the challenge of fundamental research, which led me to a 43-year career in research and teaching at Wayne State University. I encountered many students who became enthusiastic about chemistry during their undergraduate years, particularly those who engaged in real research projects. For me, an ideal 21st-century chemistry set would provide materials that students can apply to their everyday environment. Even the best-designed canned experiments will not always excite an inquiring mind.

David Rorabacher
Traverse City, Mich.

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