The Dynamic History of the Toy Chemistry Set

The chemistry set is an icon in the toy world. It's ignited entire generations of aspiring scientists, and more than a few experiments gone awry, but it wasn't an instant classic. In its 100 years on the scene, the toy chemistry set has seen its share of ups and downs on the long journey into the hearts and gift boxes of consumers.

The toy actually has purely practical roots. In the 1800s, portable kits containing chemicals, glassware, and various tools were sold for use in the academic world. Stores steadily cranked out the kits for students and professors until the distribution was largely halted by the outbreak of World War I (the kits were mostly assembled in England with chemicals supplied by Germany).

Meanwhile, two American brothers found inspiration in the chemistry kits and the rising popularity of a brand new toy, the Erector Set, which made its debut in 1913. John J. and Harold Mitchell Porter, owners of The Porter Chemical Company in Maryland, took a cue from the DIY spirit of the Erector Set and began manufacturing Chemcraft sets, similar to the English chemistry kits (they contained chemicals, a gas lamp, labware, and instructions), but marketed as a toy. Soon after the Porter Chemcraft set hit store shelves, the company found its first competitor. Alfred Carlton Gilbert, inventor of the Erector Set, caught wind of the brothers’ idea and, in 1920, decided to debut a chemistry set of his own.

By the '30s, chemistry sets were being sold at major retailers like Woolworths, with advertisements emblazoned with “How to be a Boy Chemist!” and “Master the Mysteries of Modern Chemistry!” encouraging kids—mostly  boys—to explore the exciting world of science. Parents were on board, too. These chemistry sets were one of the first widely distributed toys whose advertisements appealed to fresh-from-the-Depression parents, playing on the belief that a chemistry set was not merely a toy, but a valuable first step toward a career in science.

Rosie Cook of the Chemical Heritage Foundation told Smithsonian magazine: “Coming out of the Depression, that was a message that would resonate with a lot of parents who wanted their children to not only have a job that would make them money but to have a career that was stable. And if they could make the world a better place along the way, then even better."

Chemistry sets remained popular throughout the following decades, as new editions were released often to adapt to the changing attitudes toward different scientific disciplines. With the dawn of television came an entertainment-focused set that included a guide to putting on a magic show with chemistry. After World War II and the Manhattan Project, many new chemistry sets had a nuclear tilt. With the Space Race and moon landing around the corner, scientists were becoming a kind of superstar. The field of science was experiencing an unprecedented bump in coolness, and chemistry sets—finally giving kids access to science, actual science—became all the rage.

But the sets weren’t necessarily aimed at making science accessible for everyone—they were largely marketed toward white males. From advertisements to their packaging, the target market was clear.

Kristin Frederick-Frost, curator and collections manager at the Chemical Heritage Museum told WIRED, "The typical historical narrative goes that after the war and after Sputnik there’s this huge push to get more scientists in the field. If it was purely about mobilizing as many scientists as possible, the sets would have been made to be attractive to far more flavors of people than just white boys."

A rare set marketed toward girls from the 1950s. Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

It wasn't just a narrow focus when it came to the intended user, the intended field was also zeroed in on defense and industrial use. Still, the kits did influence the lives of many. Robert F. Curl, Jr., recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, wrote in his Nobel autobiography: “When I was 9 years old, my parents gave me a chemistry set. Within a week, I had decided to become a chemist and never wavered from that choice.”

That golden era gave way to the '70s and '80s, when the public developed a growing mistrust of chemistry and its industries. In the years of Agent Orange, Three Mile Island, and Silent Spring, the American public’s shiny, futuristic perception of science was replaced with suspicion and a fear that chemistry could not only win wars for America, but wage war on its own citizens. Science was no longer exciting and cool, but scary, and chemistry sets declined in popularity. Chemistry sets now came with an emphasis on safety and many changes were inarguably for the better, as the kits of old were fraught with potential dangers. For example, glassblowing kits supplied children with a blowtorch, and some nuclear-focused kits of the '50s contained radioactive uranium ore. A string of consumer protection laws in the 1970s did away with acid in chemistry sets, among several other limitations in the sets’ contents. Chemistry sets never quite reclaimed their mojo—for the most part, today’s sets are tamer, containing smaller amounts of chemicals, and, in some cases, none at all.

Some people are still championing the chemistry set’s cause, however. A recent Kickstarter campaign aimed at assembling and distributing old-school chemistry sets racked up more than 500 backers and nearly $150,000. The set is designed to match the one sold by the A.C. Gilbert company from the '20s through the '40s, chemicals and all. Taking a more futuristic approach, the Chemical Heritage Foundation released a free app called ChemCrafter, which enables iPad users to “create surprising color changes, encounter fire and smoke, release various gases, and shatter equipment,” all from the safety of the screen. It might not compare to the real thing, but these efforts might just be priming the old-school chemistry set for a comeback. 

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How Long to Steep Your Tea, According to Science
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The tea in your cabinet likely has vague instructions about how long to steep the leaves. Bigelow, for instance, suggests two to four minutes for black tea, and one to three minutes for green tea. According to Lipton, you should "try singing the National Anthem" while waiting for black tea leaves to infuse.

But while it's true that tea brewed for 30 seconds is technically just as drinkable as a forgotten mug of tea that's been steeping for 30 minutes, drinkable shouldn't be your goal. Taste and—depending on the tea you're drinking—antioxidant and caffeine levels all depend on the amount of time the leaves are in contact with the water. So how early is too early to pluck out a tea bag, and how long can you leave it in before passing the point of no return?

THE SCIENCE OF STEEPING

To achieve the perfect timing, you first need to understand the chemical process at work when you pour hot water over tea leaves. Black, green, white, and oolong tea all come from the leaves and buds of the same plant, Camellia sinensis. (Herbal teas aren't considered "true teas" because they don't come from C. sinensis.) The teas are processed differently: Green and white tea leaves are heated to dry them, limiting the amount of oxidation they get, while black and oolong tea leaves are exposed to oxygen before they're dried, creating the chemical reactions that give the tea its distinct color and flavor. Damaging the tea leaves—by macerating them, rolling them gently, or something in between—helps expose the chemicals inside their cells to varying levels of oxygen.

Both green and black teas contain a lot of the same chemical compounds that contribute to their flavor profiles and nutritional content. When the leaves are submerged in hot water, these compounds leach into the liquid through a process called osmotic diffusion, which occurs when there's fluid on both sides of a selectively permeable membrane—in this case, the tea leaf. Compounds on the surface of the leaf and in the interior cells damaged by processing will diffuse into the surrounding liquid until the compounds in both the leaf and the water reach equilibrium. In other words, if given enough time to steep, the liquid in your mug will become just as concentrated with tea compounds as the liquid in your tea leaves, and the ratio will stay that way.

Osmotic diffusion doesn't happen all at once—different compounds enter the water at different rates based on their molecular weight. The light, volatile chemicals that contribute to tea's aroma and flavor profile dissolve the fastest, which is why the smell from a bag of tea leaves becomes more potent the moment you dunk it in water. The next group of compounds to infuse with the water includes the micronutrients flavanols and polyphenols, which are antioxidants, and caffeine. They're followed by heavier flavanols and polyphenols such as tannins, which are the compounds responsible for tea's bitter flavor. (They're also what make your mouth feel dry after drinking a glass of wine.) Tea also has amino acids like theanine, which can offset the sharpness of tannins.

Water temperature is another factor to take into consideration when steeping your tea. High water temperature creates more kinetic energy, which encourages the compounds to dissolve. "The heat helps you to extract the compounds out of the tea leaves," Shengmin Sang, a North Carolina A&T State University researcher who studies the chemistry of tea, tells Mental Floss. "If you put it into cold water or low-temperature water, the efficiency to extract these compounds out of the leaves will be much lower." But not all water is equal: Bigelow Tea recommends using water at a rolling boil for black tea, and barely boiling water for green tea.

LOOSE LEAF VS. TEA BAGS

Osmotic diffusion takes place whether you use loose leaves or tea bags, but there are some notable differences between the two. When given room to expand, loose tea leaves swell to their full capacity, creating more room for water to flow in and extract all those desirable compounds. Tea that comes prepackaged in a bag, on the other hand, only has so much room to grow, and the quality suffers as a result. This is why some tea companies have started selling tea in roomier, pyramid-shaped bags, though the size matters more than the shape.

But even before the tea touches the water, there's a difference in quality. Loose leaf tea usually consists of whole leaves, while most teabags are filled with broken pieces of tea leaves called dust or fannings, which have less-nuanced flavors and infuse fewer antioxidants than whole leaves, no matter how long you let them steep.

So if you have a choice, go with loose leaf. But if tea bags are all you have on hand, don't bother adjusting your brewing method: The difference in taste and antioxidants isn't something that can be fixed with a few extra minutes, and according to Sang, you should follow the same steeping times for both tea bags and loose leaf.

To calculate the perfect brew times for what's in your mug, first consider what you want most out of your drink.

IF YOU DRINK TEA TO BE HEALTHY

Suggested steeping time: 2 minutes, 30 seconds to 5 minutes

Tea leaves are packed with beneficial compounds. Research indicates that flavanols such as catechins and epicatechins, found in both green and black teas, help suppress inflammation and curb plaque build-up in arteries. Drinking tea may improve vascular reactivity, which dictates how well blood vessels adjust to stress. According an analysis of multiple tea-related studies published in the European Journal of Epidemiology in 2015, drinking three cups of tea a day reduces your risk of coronary heart disease by 27 percent, cardiac death by 26 percent, and total mortality by 24 percent. Polyphenolic antioxidants in tea may also protect against diabetes, depression, and liver disease.

Past research has shown that it takes 100 to 150 seconds to extract half the polyphenol content from green and black tea leaves. According to a study published in 2016 in the journal Beverages, you can get more polyphenols into your drink if you allow the leaves more time to steep. However, the returns may not be worth the extra effort: Most of the compounds the researchers measured after 10 minutes of steeping were extracted in the first 5 minutes.

Sang makes another argument for not waiting too long to drink your tea. Antioxidants are slightly unstable, which means they will eventually break down and lose their healthy properties after infusing with water. “After you extract the compounds from the tea bag, you can not keep the solution for too long,” he says. “Because these compounds are not stable, they will be oxidized. So if you brew it in the morning, then you drink it in the afternoon, that's not good.” This oxidation can occur even after the tea leaves are removed from the cup, so if your tea has been sitting out for a few hours, it's better to brew a new batch than to pop it in the microwave.

IF YOU DRINK TEA FOR THE CAFFEINE BOOST

Suggested steeping time: 3 to 5 minutes

Though less potent than its rival coffee, a properly brewed cup of tea packs a caffeine punch. According to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology [PDF], letting your tea brew for at least a few minutes has a big impact on the caffeine content. The study found that after brewing for one minute, a cup of regular Lipton black tea had 17 milligrams of caffeine per 6 ounces of water, 38 milligrams per 6 ounces after three minutes, and 47 milligrams per 6 ounces after five. (The nutritional information for Lipton black tea says a serving contains 55 milligrams of caffeine per 8 ounces, so it's pretty accurate.)

Some people may use those numbers as an excuse to steep their tea past the five-minute mark in an attempt to reach 100 percent dissolution. But a longer brewing time doesn't necessarily equal a stronger caffeine kick. Yes, more caffeine molecules will enter the tea, but so will other compounds like thearubigins. Caffeine works because it's perfectly shaped to bind to certain neuroreceptors in your brain, thus blocking the chemicals that tell you to feel tired. But caffeine is the right shape to bind to thearubigins as well, and if that happens first, less caffeine will get to those neuroreceptors. So if you're looking for a highly caffeinated cup of tea, you should remove the leaves after most of the caffeine has been extracted—after about three to five minutes—rather than waiting for every last milligram of caffeine to dissolve.

IF YOU DRINK TEA BECAUSE IT TASTES GOOD

Suggested steeping time: 1 to 3 minutes

There's nothing wrong with enjoying a cup of tea for taste alone. Flavor is the most subjective factor influenced by steeping times, but for the sake of simplicity, let's assume you prefer a pronounced tea taste that's not overshadowed by bitterness. To extract those more delicate flavors, you don't need to steep your tea leaves for very long at all. Some of the first volatile organic compounds to break down in tea are geraniol and phenylacetaldehyde, tied to a tea's floral aroma, and linalool and linalool oxide, which give tea its sweetness.

The other compounds we associate with tea's distinctive taste are tannins. They're the difference between an aromatic, fruity cup of tea and a bitter cup that needs to be diluted with milk before it's palatable. But tannins aren't all bad: Some people prefer their tea to have a bracing astringency. Because tannins are some of the last molecules to dissolve into tea, if you want to add some bitter complexity to your drink, steep your tea for a minute or two longer than you normally would. A good way to keep track of the strength of your tea is to look at the color: Like tannins, pigments are heavy compounds, so if you see your tea getting darker, that means it's getting stronger as well.

And what about herbal teas? Feel free to leave the leaves in as long as you like. Because herbal teas are high in aromatic compounds and low in tannins, drinkers can be more liberal with their steep times without worrying about getting that astringent taste. Some teas, like rooibos and chamomile, also contain antioxidants, which is another reason to take your time.

And if you're new to the world of tea and aren't sure what your preferences are, put a kettle on the stove and start experimenting.

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Mario Tama, Getty Images
Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano Is Causing Another Explosive Problem: Laze
Mario Tama, Getty Images
Mario Tama, Getty Images

Rivers of molten rock aren't the only thing residents near Hawaii's Kilauea volcano have to worry about. Lava from recent volcanic activity has reached the Pacific Ocean and is generating toxic, glass-laced "laze," according to Honolulu-based KITV. Just what is this dangerous substance?

Molten lava has a temperature of about 2000°F, while the surrounding seawater in Hawaii is closer to 80°F. When this super-hot lava hits the colder ocean, the heat makes the water boil, creating powerful explosions of steam, scalding hot water, and projectile rock fragments known as tephra. These plumes are called lava haze, or laze.

Though it looks like regular steam, laze is much more dangerous. When the water and lava combine, and hot lava vaporizes seawater, a series of reactions causes the formation of toxic gas. Chloride from the sea salt mixes with hydrogen in the steam to create a dense, corrosive mixture of hydrochloric acid. The vapor forms clouds that then turn into acid rain.

Laze blows out of the ocean near a lava flow
USGS

That’s not the only danger. The lava cools down rapidly, forming volcanic glass—tiny shards of which explode into the air along with the gases.

Even the slightest encounter with a wisp of laze can be problematic. The hot, acidic mixture can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. It's particularly hazardous to those with breathing problems, like people with asthma.

In 2000, two people died in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from inhaling laze coming from an active lava flow.

The problem spreads far beyond where the lava itself is flowing, pushing the problem downwind. Due to the amount of lava flowing into the ocean and the strength of the winds, laze currently being generated by the Kilauea eruptions could spread up to 15 miles away, a USGS geologist told Reuters.

[h/t Forbes]

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