Science toys the ‘in’ thing at Christmas

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 16, 2013

We recently received a shipment of supplies for the gift shop of the science museum where I work. It contained many of the items usually seen in a science-oriented gift shop — e.g., fossil shark teeth, rocks, freeze-dried astronaut ice cream and stuffed dinosaurs. (I always tell the school kids to say “taxidermied” instead of “stuffed” in reference to our mounted polar bear, jaguar, etc, but when it comes to dinosaurs, there is no such thing as a “taxidermied” one.) While looking through the magnifier-lid of a “bug jar,” I thought about some of the science toys which I longed for and received as a child on Christmas day.
When I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, science toys were the “in” thing, inspired, of course, by “Sputnik fear.” That national wake-up call echoed into every aspect of our lives, including TV. Before there was Bill Nye the Science Guy, there was Mr. Wizard, also a “science guy.”
Next to my back-pocket Golden Nature Guides, I sometimes placed the similarly sized catalog of the Edmund Scientific Company. Crafting a science catalog small enough to go into a little boy’s back pocket may have been something akin to the grocery store’s lower-shelf stocking of candy bars.
Binoculars, telescopes, and microscopes especially fascinated me, with their ability to bring distant things closer, and make the extremely small seem great. Even when not in actual use, just the pristine look of their lenses (when I kept them clean) was eye-catching.
I started looking through such lenses several years before later receiving that more intimate pair of lenses which would become perched atop my nose. In addition to the wonder of what I had seen, deep down I must have also had a yearning to see clearly. Prior to receiving glasses, my vision was in focus only when looking at such things as amoebas and the moon.
In the daytime, I used my optics to observe birds and examine the detail of distant trees adjacent Mr. W.A. Cline’s cow pasture. Under certain power, the magnified image of his gravel pile became a bouldered “mountain,” filling my telescope’s field of view.
In the old black-and-white photograph accompanying this week’s column, I’m enjoying another one of my favorite Christmas present preferences, a chemistry set. In it, I appear to be totally camera-focused instead of paying attention to what I’m pouring from one test tube to the other; but since this was just a childhood “photo-op,” I’m probably pouring nothing. They say that the events of every single day are stored in the brain, but just as with other PCs, my knowledge of any possible contents of that test tube won’t “load” just now.
When speaking of the chemistry sets of those days, the immediate word associations are: Gilbert, Porter, Skil-Craft, Chemcraft, and sometimes Handy Andy. As I remember, even the beginner’s versions had at least 20 or so little bottles of chemicals, along with test tubes, test paper and a little alcohol burner. The alcohol burner consisted of a little glass bottle, alcohol within, and a wick threaded through a hole in the cap which was screwed to the top of the little bottle. The bottle wasn’t too much larger than one of those little airline bottles of whiskey, but this alcohol wasn’t drinkable (neither is “Everclear” unless it is mixed with something, and in its undiluted state can also fuel a flame). There was a little scale, but I think it came with the more advanced sets.
The chemistry kit’s container opened up in book fashion, mine opening into two sections, like a book. There were advanced versions which expanded (in sort of transformer fashion) into several square cases resembling an extensive library of little glass “volumes” with tightly screwed lids.
Just a few of the recalled names on those little bottles include: cobalt chloride, potassium carbonate, coal, for making “coke” (this one, neither delicious, nor refreshing) sodium busulphite and sulphur (also sometimes referred to by Saint Paul’s Pastor Floyd W. Bost as “brimstone”). Gum Arabic was an exotic-sounding one (when the most exotic “gum” yet experienced by me to that date was “Teaberry”). When I think of “gum Arabic” now, its name evokes T.E. Lawrence, Peter O’Toole, and Omar Sharif. (Those of you who knew me when we were together at East Rowan had probably already figured that it would only be a matter of time before I worked “Omar” in somewhere.) A particular smelly chemical was “salts of ammonia” (the same thing called for by Melanie Hamilton’s Aunt Pitty-Pat whenever she felt herself in danger of passing out from the news of Scarlett’s latest example of scandalous behavior).
An experiment booklet was included in the chemistry set, with express instructions for each experiment, stating the exact measured amounts of chemicals and what was to be done with them. I tried to follow the “rules,” but would sometimes mix up varied things, heating them over the alcohol burner “just to see” (if done on a nationwide basis back then, this is probably why today’s chemistry sets are so tame (lame), due to litigational angst).
One of my favorite experiments (the instructions of which I did follow to the letter), was the one involving the making of a “weather predictor” — in effect, a sort of barometer involving a cobalt chloride solution being absorbed into a piece of test paper. After the paper dried, it could then be hung out on the front porch. The paper would be blue as long as the sky remained blue; and if it started to turn pink, that meant rain was on the way. I remember it as being pretty reliable, always turning pink just before storm clouds rose over the western trees and Mr. Cline’s gravel pile.
A friend told me the other day that bunsen burners are no longer allowed in the chemistry lab of the local high school. He said that they have been replaced with the safer hotplates. Upon hearing the word “hotplate,” I immediately thought of the old ceramic cup with built-in heating element, taken by me to Appalachian in 1969 in order to heat soup in Bowie Dorm on cold, snowy days.
Among that recent shipment of potential Christmas gift items to our museum shop were several boxes of things masquerading as chemistry sets. They bore no resemblance at all to that with which I grew up, containing only a few of the most non-volatile substances on the face of the earth.
I read the little instruction book which accompanied them, soon discovering that those experiments were about as tame (dull) as stirring cream and sugar into a cup of coffee, and lukewarm coffee at that.