Now, I thought I had a cool chemistry set when I was a nerdy kid in the 1970s.
It was awesome. It contained dozens of vials containing dangerous-looking chemical elements, solutions and compounds just waiting to be scooped or pipetted into various flasks, beakers and test tubes, possibly later to be heated over the alcohol burner which came complete with clamps, retort stands and extra wicks.
But, apparently, I had nothing on the fortunate nerdy kids of the 1950s. A vintage item known as the "Gilbert Nuclear Physics Atomic Energy Lab" is up for auction on eBay -- and what a cool science toy it was!
The Gilbert nuke lab contained real radioactive isotopes, a Geiger counter, lots of weird scopes, and even a Wilson cloud chamber. Very cool; the only thing it lacked seems to have been plans for building a backyard particle accelerator.
Apparently, nuclear physics was an acceptable pastime for lads in the Eisenhower era. By the Ford administration, however, it had become unfashionable for 10-year-olds to play around with radiation.
The experiments in my chemistry-set manual were pretty tame. By laboriously following a recipe, I managed to combine two colorless solutions to magically -- no, scientifically -- produce a bright blue liquid, which I then poured down the bathroom sink. After that, I was hungry for more dramatic chemical reactions.
Using large amounts of sulfur and a few other secret ingredients, I constructed a "volcano" in the back yard, producing clouds of foul-smelling vapors, thrilling my younger stepsister and annoying the neighbors.
Flushed with success, I discarded the manual, and decided to create my own experiments. I combined chemicals at random and fired them up over the burner, hoping for an exciting explosion. Instead, I invented what I think was a new kind of very tough polymer. It was a brown sludge that precipitated to the bottom of the test tube, and could not be removed by any means.
I suppose I was lucky that I didn't burn down the house or kill the whole family with poison gas. But who knows what I could have accomplished if my chemistry set had included, say, a spinthariscope and a few uranium-bearing ores? Those 1950s kids were so lucky.
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