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Playing with science: A brief history of the chemistry set

Published: 15 May 2019

How have scientists and educators prepared children to be scientists over the centuries? Five games in our collection ranging from the late-19th to late-20th century hold some revealing clues.

The early days of chemistry sets

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a lot of science equipment was portable and experimentation could be done in the home, without a full laboratory.

Our collection has two chemistry sets for teaching how matter can be manipulated to make light and heat, including practical applications of chemistry like the manufacture of candles and chemical lighters. The sets include matter derived from animals, vegetables and fossils. They were manufactured by Vetter in Hamburg around 1880 and were meant to be used at school and in the home.  Germany led the world in chemistry in the late 19th century, so it's not surprising that these sets were made there.

Portable chemistry set made by Vetter, Hamburg, c.1880.
Science Museum Group More information about Portable chemistry set made by Vetter, Hamburg, c.1880.

Some decades later, in the UK in the early-20th century, Stathams Laboratories in London were manufacturing a chemistry set called Stathams Chemical Magic.

Statham's Chemical Magic set, c.1920–1940.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Statham's Chemical Magic set, c.1920–1940.

The company chose to market the set as ‘Chemical Magic', drawing on a long tradition of chemical showmanship. Since the 18th century, itinerant lecturers had toured Britain and spectacular science shows were a familiar form of entertainment. 

Friedrich Accum lecturing at the Surrey Institution Science Museum Group Collection
Satirical etching by Rowlandson showing Friedrich Accum lecturing at the Surrey Institution in Blackfriars, 1810

In the 19th century, crowds flocked to watch lecturers such as Michael Faraday and Humphry Davy do experiments at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Davy and Faraday would encourage their audiences try some of the experiments at home. 

An accompanying booklet in the Statham's set instructed children to clean their glassware thoroughly after use and encouraged the use of wine glasses as chemical vessels—as with Vetter’s set, these were experiments designed to be done in the home.

Little games, big science

Big changes were afoot in the early 20th century, as experimentation once done by a couple of people using portable equipment moved into vast industrial laboratories which could conduct research on a massive scale.

This was the era of ‘Big Science’—a style of organising scientific and technological projects which rose in prominence during the Second World War and into the Cold War. 

What is big science?

Jodrell Bank radio telescope Mike Peel via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
Jodrell Bank radio telescope

According to science and technology historian Jon Agar, Big Science has four organisational features: 

  • It must be goal-orientated in order to justify huge quantities of state funding, as opposed to ‘blue sky’ research 
  • It results in resources being concentrated on a handful of massive facilities 
  • Labour is specialised and siloed 
  • A lot would be at stake in the success or failure of the project: national prestige, industrial potential, national health or military might. 

Big Science projects span the range of scientific fields—some important examples include the Manhattan Project, which produced the first nuclear weapons, the Jodrell Bank radio telescope and Richard Nixon’s ‘war on cancer’.  

Elemento: the card game of the chemical elements

Elemento is a game of the Big Science era. Although very different from the items manufactured by Vetter and Stathams (it’s a card game, not a chemistry set), Elemento was part of a series of games called ‘Portable Laboratories’.

Produced in 1960, Elemento typifies how the sites of famous scientific discoveries had changed in the time of Big Science.

Elemento, an educational chemistry game from the 1960s, made by the Science Materials Center, Inc.
Science Museum Group More information about Elemento, an educational chemistry game from the 1960s, made by the Science Materials Center, Inc.

While the Stathams set has an image of a fatherly figure and young boy doing experiments on a table top in a decidedly domestic setting, Elemento is full of photographs of Brookhaven National Laboratory. 

Brookhaven is a state-of-the-art high-energy physics laboratory, described by Agar as a "powerhouse of post-war physics". Unlike the wine glasses and kitchen paraphernalia suggested for use as chemical vessels in Statham Laboratories’ chemistry set, Brookhaven’s Cosmotron particle accelerator was not easy to replicate at home.  

Instead, the creator of Elemento, Samuel Podgor, focused on teaching kids the fundamentals of sub-atomic structure through a card game. Although it was designed for children around the age of ten, Elemento doesn’t shy away from topics like valencies and isotopes—it's a lesson in quantum mechanics. 

How do you play Elemento?

The aim of the game is to collect points by collecting sets of elements. Those sets could be in ascending atomic number, elements in the same group, or even elements with isotopes with the same atomic weight. For example, nitrogen, oxygen and fluorine; lithium, sodium and potassium; and sulfur 36 and argon 36 would all be point-scoring sets of elements. 

Elemento chemistry card game Science Museum Group Collection
Cards and periodic table from Elemento

Each element card gives details of its sub-atomic structure, along with a description of its physical properties (such as melting point), applications and a brief description of the history of its discovery. The information for the chemical cards was provided by Abraham Breslau, a chemistry instructor at Queens College and Bushwick High School in Brooklyn.  

Training scientists for the atomic age

During the Cold War era there was the political willpower in Britain and the US to increase the number of scientists. The education system was organised to mass-produce the scientific minds needed to run the massive projects in which so much government funding was at stake. 

Samuel Podgor, creator of Elemento, was a physicist employed at the United States Naval Research Laboratory when the game came on the market in 1960. In the game's accompanying instructions, atomic energy and nuclear fission feature heavily—uranium is the first named element in the instruction booklet.

The game reflected the atomic age in which it was created. Indeed, its creator was most likely the same Samuel Podgor who worked at Los Alamos, New Mexico and Oak Ridge, Tennessee from 1944 into the 1950s. These were two of the three main sites of the Manhattan Project—perhaps the most well-known Big Science project of the 20th century. 

Los Alamos, New Mexico Science Museum Group Collection
As part of the Manhattan Project, a laboratory was set up in 1943 at a remote location at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Safety-conscious chemistry sets

These games were made to prepare children for the science of their time. But following the environmental movement of the long 1960s, catalysed by the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), more scrutiny has been placed on the impact of chemicals on our own health and the environment.  

The Merit Chemistry Set No. 2 manufactured by J & L Randall between 1967 and 1975 reassured parents that the 30 experiments their young chemists could do with the kit were "safety tested". Manufactured in 1995, Salter Science's Chemistry in Action chemistry set again came with the endorsement that the 90 experiments were "safety tested".  

Salter Science 'Chemistry in Action' set, 1995.
Science Museum Group More information about Salter Science 'Chemistry in Action' set, 1995.

But perhaps parents should still have been cautious. Some of the experiments in Stathams Chemical Magic required the toxic chemical potassium cyanide—yet the instruction leaflet in the Stathams set had also promised their experiments "may be performed with ease and perfect safety". 

The future of chemistry games

The hazard-conscious climate has created chemistry sets that many argue are too safe, and ironically inadequately prepare would-be-chemists for the dangers of the chemical laboratory.  

Yet the nature of science is changing again. The new Centre for Rapid Online Analysis of Reactions (ROAR) at Imperial College aims for its users to be able to 'dial-a-molecule'. The synthesis of required compounds tends to be the bottleneck that can slow down many research projects, and so automating chemical synthesis has the potential to speed research up.  

If chemical synthesis becomes increasingly automated, how might the chemistry games of the future best prepare budding scientists for the changing chemistry lab?

Find out more



  • Agar, Jon. Science in the 20th Century and Beyond. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012.
  • Marcet, Jane. Conversations on Chemistry. London: Longman, Green, Brown and Longmans, 1853.