Chemistry sets were the original hardware hacker’s cookbook, teaching kids about the modular nature of matter in ways that would be consistent with today’s homebrew projects and mashups. But safety has trumped intellectual curiosity in recent years, neutering chemistry sets in the process.
"Kids sit and are entertained by electronics rather than going out and doing something and building something themselves," Robert Bruce Thompson has said; he literally wrote the book on chemistry sets. "There are just so few kids that actually do hands-on stuff."
But a new Kickstarter project from Kansas City chemist and maker-store owner John Farrell Kuhns could help change that. The Heirloom Chemistry Set, as it’s called, is modeled after a classic A.C. Gilbert chemistry set Kuhns remembers from his own boyhood—but with a few modern twists.
The kits come packaged in plywood boxes individually hand-assembled by Kuhns, and each of the 56 chemicals included are precisely measured and bottled in his lab, he said. And each chemical’s bottle comes labeled with a scannable QR code linking to an online materials safety fact sheet. That means budding scientists can look up key data on their smartphones without having to laboriously dig through paper documents like in the old days, Kuhns says.
"That’s not exactly convenient when you have your gloves on, your goggles on, and you’re in the lab and you say, ‘I wonder what these are incompatible with,’" he says.
Before the Kickstarter began, Kuhns had already sold a few of the kits through his Parkville, Mo., store H.M.S. Beagle—named, of course, for the British Royal Navy ship that carried Charles Darwin to the Galapagos, where he made many of the observations that would inspire his theory of evolution.
"I have been able to build a few, but not enough to satisfy the demand and meet our mission to provide the sets to a larger audience," he writes on his Kickstarter page.
Kuhns believes every child should have a home laboratory by the age of 12, whether it’s specializing in chemistry or robotics, paleontology, or perfume-making.
"A kid can go and get away from everything—especially away from video games—and work on things of their own and still have the supervision of parents as appropriate and needed," he says.
H.M.S. Beagle offers training and supplies in all those fields and collaborates with Make: KC, a family-friendly venue and organization in Kansas City that’s part of the larger maker movement encouraging ordinary people to participate in do-it-yourself experiments, engineering, and crafts.
"We sell beginning soldering kits and beginning robotics kits, and I think it’s great the kids do that," Kuhns says. "Soldering and putting things together—that’s really the heart of the maker movement. You can go out and buy a robot, but why not learn how to build it yourself?"
The Kickstarter launched Nov. 11 and has already exceeded its funding goal of $30,000, but Kuhns said he doesn’t intend to set any limits on the number of donors to whom he’ll provide rewards, ranging from e-book editions of classic chemistry texts to the heirloom chemistry kit itself.
The chemistry include every chemical from the 1936 edition of chemistry set maker A.C. Gilbert’s book Chemistry for Boys, Kuhns says.
"There are chemicals in there that when I started doing this, I didn’t have access to," he says.
One example is a substance called red saunders.
"I had a vague idea of what it was, but I really didn’t pay much attention to it," he says.
It’s a type of wood also called red sandalwood, it turns out, and it’s included in the Gilbert book in an incense-making lab.
"You don’t get incense-making experiments in any of the kits today," Kuhns says.
Another chemical found in the Heirloom kit but not in many other home chemistry sets is ammonium dichromate, which produces an impressive volcano-style blaze when set on fire. That demonstration’s still done in schools, but at-home kits have recently preferred the tamer vinegar-and-baking-soda volcano due to concerns about ammonium dichromate, which can be toxic if ingested or handled improperly, Kuhns says.
But every chemical in the kit is safe if handled with proper care, Kuhns says. If parents are concerned about their children using particular substances, Kuhns is happy to suggest and substitute alternatives. The kits should only be used by children 9 and up who are able to read the instructions and have proper adult supervision, according to the Kickstarter page.
But providing chemicals and proper instructions and supervision is better than leaving kids with an interest in science to find chemicals and experiment on their own, he says.
"If they don’t know how to do it safely, if they have an interest, they’ll acquire the ingredients and possibly hurt themselves," he says.
Kits like Kuhns’ help make sure that talented, inquisitive students find their way into scientific fields, says Thompson. He markets his own kits and home science curricula aimed mostly at high-school-age students, including homeschoolers, under the brand name The Home Scientist.
"If we don’t encourage our really bright kids into these fields, we’re basically destroying our seed corn," Thompson says.
Magazines like Make, for which Thompson has written, and basic electronics kits serve the same purpose in other areas of science, he says.
"Before Make, kids did very little that didn’t involve passive use of electronics," Thompson says. "If you don’t give kids the opportunity, they’re never gonna do it."
And to have a real understanding of chemistry, up-and-coming scientists should have the basic understanding that comes from doing their own low-level experiments with a chemistry set, Kuhns says.
"If you can’t open it, you don’t own it," Kuhns says, quoting a maker-movement adage about modern consumer electronics built to be impenetrable to tinkerers. "The same thing with chemistry: If you don’t know how to make it, you don’t know how to do chemistry."