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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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Alison Marras, Unsplash
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Food
Brine Time: The Science Behind Salting Your Thanksgiving Turkey
Alison Marras, Unsplash
Alison Marras, Unsplash

At many Thanksgiving tables, the annual roast turkey is just a vehicle for buttery mash and creamy gravy. But for those who prefer their bird be a main course that can stand on its own without accoutrements, brining is an essential prep step—despite the fact that they have to find enough room in their fridges to immerse a 20-pound animal in gallons of salt water for days on end. To legions of brining believers, the resulting moist bird is worth the trouble.

How, exactly, does a salty soak yield juicy meat? And what about all the claims from a contingency of dry brine enthusiasts: Will merely rubbing your bird with salt give better results than a wet plunge? For a look at the science behind each process, we tracked down a couple of experts.

First, it's helpful to know why a cooked turkey might turn out dry to begin with. As David Yanisko, a culinary arts professor at the State University of New York at Cobleskill, tells Mental Floss, "Meat is basically made of bundles of muscle fibers wrapped in more muscle fibers. As they cook, they squeeze together and force moisture out," as if you were wringing a wet sock. Hence the incredibly simple equation: less moisture means more dryness. And since the converse is also true, this is where brining comes in.

Your basic brine consists of salt dissolved in water. How much salt doesn't much matter for the moistening process; its quantity only makes your meat and drippings more or less salty. When you immerse your turkey in brine—Ryan Cox, an animal science professor at the University of Minnesota, quaintly calls it a "pickling cover"—you start a process called diffusion. In diffusion, salt moves from the place of its highest concentration to the place where it's less concentrated: from the brine into the turkey.

Salt is an ionic compound; that is, its sodium molecules have a positive charge and its chloride molecules have a negative charge, but they stick together anyway. As the brine penetrates the bird, those salt molecules meet both positively and negatively charged protein molecules in the meat, causing the meat proteins to scatter. Their rearrangement "makes more space between the muscle fibers," Cox tells Mental Floss. "That gives us a broader, more open sponge for water to move into."

The salt also dissolves some of the proteins, which, according to the book Cook's Science by the editors of Cook's Illustrated, creates "a gel that can hold onto even more water." Juiciness, here we come!

There's a catch, though. Brined turkey may be moist, but it can also taste bland—infusing it with salt water is still introducing, well, water, which is a serious flavor diluter. This is where we cue the dry briners. They claim that using salt without water both adds moisture and enhances flavor: win-win.

Turkey being prepared to cook.
iStock

In dry brining, you rub the surface of the turkey with salt and let it sit in a cold place for a few days. Some salt penetrates the meat as it sits—with both dry and wet brining, Cox says this happens at a rate of about 1 inch per week. But in this process, the salt is effective mostly because of osmosis, and that magic occurs in the oven.

"As the turkey cooks, the [contracting] proteins force the liquid out—what would normally be your pan drippings," Yanisko says. The liquid mixes with the salt, both get absorbed or reabsorbed into the turkey and, just as with wet brining, the salt disperses the proteins to make more room for the liquid. Only, this time the liquid is meat juices instead of water. Moistness and flavor ensue.

Still, Yanisko admits that he personally sticks with wet brining—"It’s tradition!" His recommended ratio of 1-1/2 cups of kosher salt (which has no added iodine to gunk up the taste) to 1 gallon of water gives off pan drippings too salty for gravy, though, so he makes that separately. Cox also prefers wet brining, but he supplements it with the advanced, expert's addition of injecting some of the solution right into the turkey for what he calls "good dispersal." He likes to use 1-1/2 percent of salt per weight of the bird (the ratio of salt to water doesn't matter), which he says won't overpower the delicate turkey flavor.

Both pros also say tossing some sugar into your brine can help balance flavors—but don't bother with other spices. "Salt and sugar are water soluble," Cox says. "Things like pepper are fat soluble so they won't dissolve in water," meaning their taste will be lost.

But no matter which bird or what method you choose, make sure you don't roast past an internal temperature of 165˚F. Because no brine can save an overcooked turkey.

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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
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The Elements
9 Essential Facts About Carbon
iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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