Friday Funny – science safety run amok

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I learned how to make and use gunpowder in the fifth grade thanks to my home chemistry set. KNO3 + S + C = boom!

I happily and safely (I have all my digits) made my own fireworks for the 4th. Today, I’d probably get arrested.

Get a load of this chemistry set.

JAYFK writes:

No, your eyes do not deceive you.  Yes, it is a chemistry kit with no chemicals.  Let’s dig deeper by looking at the kit’s description.

  • Crystals… of what?!?!  There are NO chemicals in the kit!  Is the 10 & up set supposed to create matter from nothing?
  • I have a PhD in analytical chemistry and I’m at a loss as to how to do chromatography with NO chemicals.  At. A. Loss.
  • Growing plants.  Surely, that is chemical-free?  No, actually, it’s not.  Soil alone is teeming with chemicals and critters.  The chemical water will be required.  In fact, there is a lot of biochemistry in growing stuff and all of that biochemistry takes chemicals.
  • It is a mystery how you can have slime and gook without chemicals. Boston’s Museum of Science show’s just how easy it is to explore slime chemistry, but it takes chemicals like glue, water and borax.
  • Bubbles?  The kit contains soapy water?  FALSE ADVERTISING!  That’s water (a chemical), likely a surfactant (another chemical) and probably other stuff (also chemicals).
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Tom Harley
April 29, 2011 9:59 pm

Our local (Broome, W.Australia) ankle-biting vandals have no trouble creating noise and a mess with swimming pool Chlorine and another ingredient or two. Running rings around the local ‘law’ too. And many didn’t bother with much school either.

Ed Fix
April 29, 2011 10:00 pm

Actually, not very funny.

Bob Diaz
April 29, 2011 10:10 pm

Thanks for the laugh, it’s just like AGW without the facts!!! 😉

anna v
April 29, 2011 10:21 pm

I happily and safely (I have all my digits) made my own fireworks for the 4th. Today, I’d probably get arrested.
I am happy that you have all your digits, and other appendages, and also children who played around with you on the 4th are as happy for themselves.
In Greece we have crazy fireworks during easter , mainly at midnight when the priests sing the “Christ is risen”hymn. Custom has it that a lot of noise should be produced to imitate the earthquake noises from the resurection, and his is done with home made fireworks. We have fatalities every year. Yesterday a 7 year old boy died who got a misfired firework on his face which then went and fractured a stone pillar outside the church. Fortunately for the boy, because he probably would have been a paraplegic and worse for life. Two lives were destroyed because the young man who fired the firework, 25 years old, is now facing involuntary manslaughter charges.
Another child of ten has lost one eye and is in serious condition from a firework a girl of ten threw at him by mistake.
Fireworks are forbidden, the making and selling of them, but it is impossible to go against the custom without arresting a huge percentage of the male population.
In some villages it is like war. The name of a village in Chios is called Vrontou, meaning thunder, because of the noise the fireworks make. The put special covers on the roofs and windows during easter in that village.

April 29, 2011 10:23 pm

So how much did this chemical-free chemistry set cost? Can you buy chemicals separately? I’m comparing it to what I remember of the chemistry set my father bought me about 1954. This set is junk. I guess that’s appropriate. Junk-science has taken over.

April 29, 2011 10:29 pm

I, too had some pretty alarming exothermic reactions with my chemistry set (which did have some basic elements, mixtures and compounds), but most were unintended!
The above “chemistry” set is yet another example of modern fanaticism in protecting kiddies lest they harm themselves. Yet how are they (poor innocents) to learn from their mistakes? It is no wonder that most children today are ignorant of the realities that life can throw their way.

April 29, 2011 10:31 pm

The children should also never be exposed to something composed of 65% dimethyl siloxane (hydroxy-terminated polymers with boric acid), 17% silica (crystalline quartz), 9% Thixatrol ST (castor oil derivative), 4% polydimethylsiloxane, 1% decamethyl cyclopentasiloxane, 1% glycerine, and 1% titanium dioxide.
That could be lethal.
Children these days are not safe unless they are strapped in the back of a Prius watching a Greenpeace video on their iPhone.
In my day you could go to the chemists and get powdered magnesium by the ounce, carbon black in pouches, picric acid and even the makings for nitrated-cellulose. I guess I’m getting on.

April 29, 2011 10:40 pm

Kind of like playing in an “air-band”…
As a kid, chemistry was mixing anything and everything I could get my hands on. Flammables were my fav. Empty test tubes are an attractive nuisance, probably more of a hazard than any ‘safe’ chemicals they might have provided.
Memories LOL!

April 29, 2011 10:43 pm

It is sad how ignorance, litigation and law suits have taken the fun out of things.
For my youngest 6th birthday party (years ago) as an activity the children each built their own (easy level) Estees rocket (using crazy glue), painted it up (with fast drying acetone based nail polish), loaded the rocket engine, packed the igniter and launched it.
Some where so unbalanced they immediately went nearly horizontal.
Ever play dodge missile with eight 6 year olds?
It was a blast, all the rockets were lost into the forest around the back yard, none returned from Space. The kids had a great time.
PS. I can remember one of my older brothers running a Jet-X powered sled in the living room when I was a child. Only happened once, loud noise and way too much smoke to hide from our parents.

P.G. Sharrow
April 29, 2011 10:51 pm

Learning safety was as important as the chemistry. 50 years ago we lived in a free country and that meant some risk went with the lessons. Now we live in a police state to reduce risk. What a loss in all learning, and the prisons are over flowing. Is the “safety” worth the cost? pg

April 29, 2011 10:59 pm

Cool looking goggles. Our kids will look like real scientists as they do temperature experiments with water and ice chips.

April 29, 2011 11:02 pm

Oh, wait a minute, no temperature experiments allowed. That would require a thermometer with alchohol, or (gasp) mercury.

April 29, 2011 11:02 pm

This chemistry set is safe, biodegradable, and contains no chemicals, so perfect for the tender planet.
60 “Fun activities” with no chemicals in a chemistry set ! The one fun activity would be tossing the whole thing onto a fire and watching combustion. Fun yes but not so good for our tender planet. Bugger.

April 29, 2011 11:05 pm

Well actually Anthony, if you read carefully, all the answers to your questions are in the ad. They say there’s no chemicals in the box. They didn’t say there’s no chemicals used in the experiments! In fact, the opposite:
“60 + fun activities with home science and kitchen chemistry.”
Get it? Why should they put chemicals in the chemistry set when they can dupe you into paying for the instructions (which are pretty crappy compared to what you can find with Google…) and you get the added benefit of supplying your own chemicals.
Crystals? Got salt in the kitchen?
Growing plants? they’ve supplied a nice plastic dish. all you do is add your own dirt and seeds.
As for slime, yes, most households have glue, water and borax. Now they have a chemistry set with instructions too. Or did that page just have a link to the Boston Museum of Science?
Bubbles… now read carefully Anthony, these aren’t just any sort of bubbles. They are THREE DIMENSIONAL bubbles. Way different from regular bubbles. In fact you can see the little jar of three dimensional fluid with the three dimensional bubble surface dispenser inside. The experiment of course has to do with filling the bubble skins with air, which is not chemistry per se, I would think it more in the realm of fluid mechanics.
Seriously this is well beyond a rip off, and it isn’t IMHO even targeted at 10 year olds. This piece of con artist thievery is aimed at the elderly grand parents or aunts and uncles who want to buy a present and think this is safe as well as educational. I doubt any average 10 year old would be duped by this and the marketing company damn well knows it.

April 29, 2011 11:10 pm

My father, an MD, bought me a chemistry set when I was 10. I still recall the day that my sister, two neighbor kids and I decided to make artificial life.
No, to my knowledge, nothing alive ever grew out of it, but years later the stain of the stuff that we created was still on the sidewalk outside our home. No one could ever get it out. We also made some smelly mixture that sent us running away until the fumes died down.
Those were the days.

Neil Jones
April 29, 2011 11:14 pm

A toy with an infinite “shelf life” after all old style chemistry sets would get damp in them and not work.

April 29, 2011 11:16 pm

jsbrodhead says:
April 29, 2011 at 10:40 pm
As a kid, chemistry was mixing anything and everything I could get my hands on. >>>
Yeah, my first serious chemistry was trying to build a solid fuel rocket. Doesn’t take much experimenting before you learn that its really hard to make a solid fuel rocket, but an exploding rocket… followed by why even bother with the rocket, explosives are way more fun anyway….
You learn all sorts of other skills too. For instance, we accidently ignited some fuel mixture..uhm… prematurely… and burnt a hole in the kitchen floor. The brand new, installed yesterday, Mom saved for almost a year to get the exact linoleum she wanted, kitchen floor. Model paints, exacto knives, soldering iron, scrap linoleum dug out of the garbage… For the next ten years I cringed every time she swept the floor, figuring for sure she would spot it. Never did.
On the other hand when she walked in the door and looked at me and my buddy, the first words out of her mouth were… what happened to your eyebrows?

April 29, 2011 11:21 pm

The dumbing down is worse than we thought…

April 29, 2011 11:31 pm

The false ad caters to our “chemophobic” society. “Chemicals are bad.” Period. That is the message anyway. Too bad children are so brainwashed and given false scientific information.
I happily and safely (I have all my digits) made my own fireworks … ☺ Yeah, me too. Gunpowder was a hoot. In our “gunpowder years,” my bro and I made an actual pipe gun out of ~3/4-inch plumbing pipe that shot marbles powered by large firecrackers. Shot thru ½-inch plywood. Today, I’d probably get arrested. ☺ No kidding!! SWAT team….police…social and child-care services…
Lots of stoopid stuff in our society that pretends to be safe or “green” or “eco friendly.” I could puke reading most “green” and “eco friendly” ads today.
“Green” electric lawnmowers … that run on coal-generated power.
We try to make the world “safe” and “green” for the children and only mislead them with this sort of “chemistry set ” nonsense.

April 29, 2011 11:32 pm

I can remember my first A level chemistry lab session making nitrobenzene in 1970. Boil up concentrated nitric and sulphuric acid. No mask, eye protection, gloves or suit!

Dr. Dave
April 29, 2011 11:52 pm

There was NO better Christmas present than the full Gilbert chemistry set. I went nuts as a kid. I didn’t just have the lame alcohol lamp, I had a full bunsen burner and all the hardware from 1940s and 1950s chemistry labs. I would buy potassium chlorate and potassium permanganate from a local pharmacy. Making our own fireworks was the coolest thing a kid could do. I always engaged in the very dangerous practice of making flash powder but a few years ago I got interested in plain ol’ blackpowder. I no longer have the interest, time or patience for making fireworks…but blackpowder is still intriguing. I discovered ball milling. You can (correctly, by weight) combine KNO3, charcoal and sulfur and ball mill it for a day or two, then wet it and push it through a screen onto newspaper to dry. The result is very impressive. I use it to launch tennis balls high into the air from a PVC mortar and let the dogs chase them. Kids don’t get to play with the fun stuff anymore.

Alan Clark of Dirty Oil-berta
April 29, 2011 11:52 pm

Are you people insane? Look at the box closely. There is more than enough materials and supplies there to once again prove AGW is for real and Michael Mann could surely use the cardboard box as a proxy to produce another hockey stick. Its a marvelous chemistry kit! It’s the same one that’s used in Climate Research labs the world over!
I doubt its necessary but… /sarc.

April 29, 2011 11:55 pm

No one in Elfin Safety in Australia appears to have noticed that freely available “party poppers” are high-class detonators, yet… but the kids have.
However… anna v does paint a compelling canvas for general fireworks restrictions; and some of my own idiocy as a youngster endorses it; but a chemistry set (containing the fearsome chemicals!!!) does not have to be designed for big bangs to be both good fun and good primary education.
We always go one bridge too far.

April 30, 2011 12:00 am

I also learned to make gun powder, nitrocellulose and detonators by my father, in a distant past. Also had several chemistry sets (called The Little Chemist), and even back then my father used to upgrade the sets, to be able to do more interesting experiments.
Being taught this by my father, who knew what he was doing, made it safe, and no large scale accidents happened even when my father were absent. Even today, I would be able to perform dangerous chemistry in a safe way.
The problems often arise when young people today pick up recipes for explosives from the internet, and does not learn anything about safety, or understand the many complex reactions involved.

April 30, 2011 12:01 am

Sounds like post-normal science.
Note to self – this year’s Independence Day will be more fun if I remember to order the cannon fuse for staged displays this year.
I learned how to make thermite from my Dad when I was a kid, I guess he *correctly* judged I wouldn’t kill anybody (and somehow I managed not to even come close, like most people).
It’s been a long time since I made fireworks. They’re probably illegal, and the factory ones are cheap.

April 30, 2011 12:28 am

As a pre-teen in Nova Scotia, my neighbor was a was a teenage rifle champion. Accordingly, he had basically unlimited access to ammunition, which he would bring home, break off the bullets, and cache the gunpowder. After a point he had enough gunpowder to fill a plastic model of some now-defunct American aircraft carrier…into whose funnel he placed a 2-inch firecracker, and, lighting the fuse, shoved off into the waters of the reed-filled ditch along the (now defunct) railroad line. Seconds later we stood, drenched head to toe with black slime from the gyttja at the bottom of the ditch, in awe of the six-foot-diameter excavation created when the powder let loose.
Undeterred, we later fabricated a rocket out of 2-inch iron pipe with a cap screwed on one end, leaned it against a snowdrift, and set it aloft to a height of several hundred feet (at least), leaving a big black swatch on the snowbank.
The sound of ballistic discharges was a regular occurrence in my neighborhood, and we never did find the rocket. Yes, we were nuts.

April 30, 2011 12:58 am

I have a smallish glass stoppered bottle of mercury safely stored away. It ‘only’ weighs 4kg/9lb. Kids are absolutely fascinated by how heavy it feels, and it is a liquid too! They don’t get to play with the stuff in the raw, unlike when I was a child.

April 30, 2011 1:16 am

Thank goodness the set does not include any of that dangerous Dihydrogen Monoxide.

April 30, 2011 1:22 am

In making our gunpowder, producing enough powdered charcoal was the rate limiting step. We’d search quite diligently and competitively for well charred branches, grind away, crush, and filter until our nostrils became a dirty black color simply from inhaling near enough to the point of attack, which actually did start to get me worried about our “horrendous” work conditi0ns without the Unions available to save us from exploiting ourselves.
The gunpowder itself didn’t burn fast enough to merit any worry about direct ignition threats, but which also left us with having to be content with making piles in the shape of people’s names on the soft tar + fine gravel roads outside of their houses, lighting them up, and watching as the slow burn, with about 3-6 feet of sparkling vetical flames, snaked determinedly around its course to complete the project. I delighted in the thought that the intended victims honorees or their parents might be watching the proceedings from within their houses that night with some apprehension, only to find their names inscribed in the road so professionally the next morning!

Allan M
April 30, 2011 1:24 am

When I was doing A-level chemistry, in the late ’60’s, my home chemistry set was mostly supplied by the local pharmacist. It included the usual mineral acids (in 3 litre bottles), sodium and potassium metals, phosphorus, perchloric acid, ether, and even some fairly harmless things. These days the guy would have gone to jail. The PC brigade, if they read this, might even dig him up to lock him up! (see Oliver Cromwell)
I used to enjoy dropping sodium pellets into the local stream just above a bridge. The echo as they exploded was impressive. I once left a concoction in a coffee tin which exploded and took out the garage window, and the bang was heard quarter of a mile away. Fortunately, I wasn’t there at the time (nor anyone else), and, like you, still have all the digits.
Our chemistry teacher had been a WWII bomb disposal man, and he used to amuse us by blowing up parts of the playing fields.
No wonder that British kids don’t find science interesting nowadays.

April 30, 2011 1:32 am

I never made gunpowder, but I branched into the metal smelting industry when I was ten.
My brother and I heated lead to melting point on the kitchen stove, then took it outside to pour into a little mould. Then we cooled the result under the tap (faucet) and the little ingot dropped out.
Of course, we didnt know how much steam a tiny drop of residual water could make..until….
my brother was leaning over , doing the pouring when there was a BANG, and he got a face full of molten lead. He made a full recovery in a week, it took two weeks before my butt recovered after my father got home

April 30, 2011 1:38 am

Drying out gun cotton in a gas oven in the 1950’s, was, on reflection, a somewhat foolhardy occupation………
At least we gave Darwin’s theory a chance, and in the still war damaged Portsmouth of that time, consequential damage would hardly have been noticeable!

April 30, 2011 2:07 am

“60 Fun Activities With No Chemicals”
This is just an apologist marketing statement saying your children will never be harmed while using the kit. Science without the risk of science, if you know what I mean. Post modern science defined.

April 30, 2011 2:16 am

The above comments bring back many childhood memories. I got my first chemistry set in about grade 3 and I suspect that many of the chemicals that were part of the average childhood chemistry set then would be very difficult to get nowadays. It didn’t take long before my interests turned to explosives and rockets and I was soon banned from making gunpowder inside the house. All it took was a trip to the pharmacy to pick up the KNO3 and S and the primary difficulty was getting the charcoal crushed fine enough. My gunpowder rockets were epic failures but what did work well was to take an empty metal pen refill and carefully stuff it full of matchheads. Applying a flame to the open end of the pen refill resulted in gratifying flight and the first attempt embedded itself in the wooden exterior wall of my parents house. Firecrackers were easily available when I was a child and, by slightly enlarging the hole the fuse went into, one could produce rockets.
I found sodium perchlorate to be too touchy to use in home made explosives and a few unanticipated but spectacular explosions with perchlorate based mixtures convinced me to get away from explosives. It was fortunate that by this time I’d developed an interest in biochemistry and organic chemistry which lasted until the end of undergrad university. The one area I’d like to explore again if I find the time are oscillating chemical reactions now that I have the equipment to monitor them in far more detail than a film camera and stopwatch that I used the first time that I got the Belousov-Zhabotinski reaction working.
The chemophobia of current society is depriving kids of valuable experiences and safety Nazi’s have far too strong a role in society now. The last thing any kid would want to do is to grow a plant. Plant growth, in the temporal perception of a child, takes forever and it wasn’t until I was in my 50’s that I had the patience for gardening. Kids like things that happen fast; perhaps that’s the reason for the universal fascination with explosives for all of us who grew up in an era when it was considered to be a normal childhood pastime to blow things up.

John Marshall
April 30, 2011 2:37 am

Flash powder and Potassium Permanganate also makes a good bang.
Oh! Sorry this could be construed as help for terrorists, though they seem to be able to get hold of Semtex without any bother.
And I have just realized–humans are composed of CHEMICALS !!!

April 30, 2011 2:42 am

My, what a bang happy bunch of little pyromaniacs we make. My parents are also of that exclusive club whose members had to explain to neighbours why their son has no eyebrows all of a sudden.
The things you could do with burning magnesium and a few chemicals…*sigh*
I too discovered that homemade exploding rockets are far easier to make than homemade rockets……..and weather balloons filled with homemade hydrogen make tremendous fireballs in the night sky.
Ahhh, memories.

April 30, 2011 2:54 am

I remember having great fun making hydrogen in a jam jar – a bit of washing soda and some aluminium foil squares in water IIRC. Puting foil secured with a rubber band over the top of the jar then allowed you to light it when you poked a hole in the top. There was a delightful ‘pop’ blowing the foil and band a few feet in the air.

Andrew Harding
April 30, 2011 2:56 am

My “kids” are 23, 21 and 15. I bought them chemistry sets as presents wnen they were a lot younger and helped them with the experiments and tried to encourage them to love science as I do. None of them has any scientific inclinations whatsoever. Why? Because once they had put on the polythene apron, protective gloves and goggles, they were bored rigid by the mind-numbing mediocre experiments and chemicals in the box.
When I was a kid I used to make rockets and explosives from sodium chlorate weedkiller and sugar (Na ClO3 is now banned by the EU). I made tracer pellets for my air rifle by scraping off the red bit at the top of a match and putting it in the pellet. The compressed air in the gun would ignite it. Cannot do that now because all matches are safety matches. I bought chemicals by mail order, I cannot do that now because the postman might be in danger. I cannot buy chemicals locally because they have been banned from local shops. We cannot buy banger fireworks they have been banned as well. I never hurt myself or anyone else with these activities
What a boring, sterile, risk averse, thrill less world we live in.

April 30, 2011 2:59 am

I love Fridays.
But there is possibly a serious connection here. Is it possible that the younger generation is so gullible about climate and health scary stories because they have been prevented from doing experiments as children? Have we made our children safer and more ignorant in the process?
Sometimes I am nostalgic about the 1950s.

April 30, 2011 3:16 am

You missed the “Science Tricks” : must be a post-normal science kit.

Geoff Sherrington
April 30, 2011 3:20 am

My career started in a room of my own that I was permitted to fit out for experiments. It was highly educational, but I would probably be locked up now. I used to do big bang experiments with the girl next door. My raw material was from the local pharmacist, mostly harmless lubricants and rubber compounds, which he sold with a strange look to a 1o year old. Ignition could be unpredictable and sometimes one could lose a digit for a while.
Who are these weird people who would emasculate little boys and ditto (insert correct term) little girls? The best memories of childhood are often those when you knew absolutely that you were doing what you had been told not to do.
Yes, I did chemistry also. Like one of the above bloggers, I tried drying gun cotton, not in a gas oven, but over a Bunsen. It had dried by next day, when my brother lit the Bunsen for another use. My cousin made his 15 minutes of Warhol with a live artillery shell about 2’6” long at midnight on Guy Fawkes night, 5th November, 1957. (Psychoanalysts can here insert a reference to ‘phallus’ shape). He then took time off from discovering the joys of sex until he could again hear that ‘No means no’, but made up lost ground later.
Chemophobic education in childhood? Probably breaches the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

April 30, 2011 3:42 am

Brings back the old story of “Stone Soup”

Peter S
April 30, 2011 4:38 am

A chemistry set with which you could make 2 Dimensional bubbles would be far more interesting.

April 30, 2011 4:52 am

The intent is pretty clear. You will get sued if you provide the materials for anything useful or interesting. Much less chance of lawsuits when you provide only “literature”.
Though I hate to admit it, this may actually be a good thing. If you’re inclined toward chemistry, you’ll probably learn more and remember more when you use materials you already know. The experiments in the old “complete” chemistry sets weren’t all that interesting to me, because they didn’t seem especially relevant. Take this set of mysterious letters and mix in this other set of mysterious letters, and the litmus turns blue. Okay, so what?

April 30, 2011 4:58 am

Can’t believe all you wusses saying ‘I’d probably have got arrested for that today’ – you just weren’t trying hard enough. Many years ago, a chap I knew actually did manage to get himself arrested despite the more lenient attitudes at the time. While quite a few kids experiment with miniature pipe bombs on railway lines, and so-on, not many decide to do it in a major station at rush hour.

April 30, 2011 5:07 am

Seems like all the males here enjoyed big explosions. I too enjoyed my chemistry set, but I remember mostly things like making whatever was in the test tube change colors when I added a little of this or a little of that. This little set doesn’t sound like much fun, and certainly not worth the money, especially if all the chemicals are common household items and not included anyway.
On the more serious side, I grew up on military posts where there were impact areas full of unexploded ordinance, some of them fairly near the main post. Boys (always just boys) would go out to these areas, sometimes inadvertently (and a dud would blow them sky high) or on purpose, to get duds which they would bring home to extract the gunpowder. There is a lot more gunpowder in a mortar shell. One kid was killed and another lost his hands in these little adventures. Those areas are a lot harder to get to now.

A Lovell
April 30, 2011 5:10 am

I remember the chemistry lab at my posh girl’s school in the 60s. A few of us discovered we could mix nitric acid and iron filings together and stink the whole school out. It was worth the detentions!
Speaking of chemicals, this article could put some people off eating strawberries.

Tom in Florida
April 30, 2011 5:26 am

Doing chemistry without chemicals? Perhaps it is another one of those “nature tricks”.

April 30, 2011 5:28 am

61, you can toast ants with the magnifying glass provided!

April 30, 2011 5:29 am

The reason why there are no chemicals in the box is because the new American dream is to make as much as you can while working as little as you can. In the latest example, as soon it was revealed the iPhone tracks you, a lawsuit was started. People are sue happy. Ever read your car’s manual? Every other page is “don’t do this while driving” or something similar. It has to be that way because some greedy person will purposefully ignore common sense, sue the car company because they didn’t tell me it was unsafe to read the manual while driving, and win lots of money.
And so companies must protect themselves from litigation. People want to be rich because far too many believe the lie that “money = happiness”. It isn’t the nanny state in this instance. It is greed.

Steve Keohane
April 30, 2011 5:33 am

I had a chemistry set circa 1960, moderately interesting until I found my father’s college chemistry book with formulas for everything explosive. Other than a bit of tinnitis (sp?) all worked out well. Before those fools blew up the math building at U. Mich., one could mail off for casings up to 6″ and 1.5″ in diameter, underwater fuse, and two bags of powder when mixed was the same stuff in M80s and cherry bombs. I suppose one best not mention what the actual ingredients are these days to avoid culpability. These large firecrackers would clear a six-foot diameter of grass from a lawn, or a small pond of fish. At twelve, upon seeing molitov cocktails used in a war movie, a 2 am escapade involved a beer bottle filled with gas and a rag, tossed under a highway overpass after lighting. The resulting explosion, yes, explosion, resulted in flames 50-60 feet high, daylight illumination for a quarter mile around, and eight young male legs pumping like hell to escape the light. A scar remained on the asphalt for at least thirty years I knew of.
Those spring-loaded clothes pins could be retooled to ignite and shoot the wooden self-striking matches. Enough of the crushed ends of those matches in a 30-06 casing would launch said casing. Reading the above comments brings back many fond memories. Thanks folks.

wayne Job
April 30, 2011 5:39 am

I went to a tech school and we used the lathes to manufacture rocket nozzles and nose cones. These were fitted to our 6FT rockets , filled with Potassium Nitrate and sugar these tended to go out of sight. Launched from the school ground and angled to land in a local army area. Apparently we never killed anyone or we would of heard.

April 30, 2011 5:57 am

I am sure I made something like potasium tri iodate crystals which are heat sensitive. The dried crystals would be put on door knobs and explode from heat of the hand when someone turned the knob. I tried to speed the drying process by putting the material on top of a heater and it exploded shaking the house.

April 30, 2011 6:23 am

> Potassium Nitrate and sugar
Oh good, someone finally mentioned that. Good smoke. A spark from burning some landed in my jar that I had stupidly left too close. Great smoke!
I wrote an essay once, titled “No More Edisons.” It got printed in our local Mensa newsletter, but was wasn’t happy enough with it to make it into a web page. Worth including here, though. Lessee, ah, here it is.
No More Edisons?
-by Ric Werme
One of my childhood heroes was Thomas Edison. No, I’m not old enough to know him – but his eldest daughter gave me my first book about him. “Aunt Marion” lived next door to my grandparents was one of my grandmother’s closest friends. That book was a biography written for children and gave an appreciation of his entire remarkable life. That was some fifty years ago, and even then it would have been nigh on impossible for another child to replicate Edison’s childhood. Today, aspects would be considered child neglect or result in other adults facing criminal charges.
In 1859, when Edison was 12, he convinced his mother to let him sell newspapers on a train that ran between Port Huron and Detroit, 60 miles away. The time in Detroit was frequently spent reading at the library or buying items for his chemistry hobby. Apparently there were no restrictions on what he could buy – just consequences when a stick of phosphorous set fire to the baggage car when its bottle was jarred loose by bad tracks.
Edison never became an engineer or scientist, he remained an experimenter and inventor and several of today’s products are still closely related to his original designs.
Suppose someone with Edison’s promise were born in 1997, 150 years after the original. How might he turn out? Today’s United States is so vastly different it’s hard to tell. Edison was a “late talking child,” not talking until age four. Today, that is a red flag for autism, though I’m certain Edison’s mother would have found Thomas Sowell’s book on the subject and realize that description is a better fit.
The new Tom would never become a newsboy on the Port Huron train, in part because it and most other passenger trains no longer run, in part because neither parent nor train operator would allow it. Nor would he have learned Morse code or the telegraph business. Instead, I think he would carve an interesting niche out of the World Wide Web. I’ve heard stories of motivated teens setting up commercial web sites, and have no doubt a new Tom would readily get the little permission and parental support needed to get a business running. What to sell? Probably not chemicals! Today’s EPA, Consumer Product Safety Commission, Homeland Security, and several other federal, state, and local agencies and other distractions have virtually destroyed the home chemistry hobby. They’ve even created huge obstacles to legitimate R&D. Perhaps in Russia or India a new Edison could grow up with chemistry.
New Tom would embrace electronics and could well build his web business around clever gadgets, peripherals, etc. and reach far more customers than he ever could on a train. Edison was a master at finding new products that would create new markets, even if he had to create the infrastructure to support it. The incandescent light and electricity production is his the best example. The phonograph and the recording industry has parallels with today’s iPods and music downloading.
As new Tom’s business grows, it would give him the capital to look for new product niches and set about filling them. Genetic engineering or nanotechnology could be the stage big enough to address the myriad ideas, and is fresh enough so that empirical design and experimentation that Edison relied upon might apply to new Tom’s work. Science is the process of understanding how the universe works and developing tools to interact with it. Engineering takes those tools and creates new systems not previously possible. Invention envisions new systems not previously known. What might the new Tom create? I don’t know, that’s his job. What markets might exist to absorb new products? That’s a much easier question! Medical monitoring for the aging baby boomers is one obvious choice. Clean energy production or post production cleanup like carbon sequestration is another. Novel ways of extracting material from depleted ores or waste couples into that.
Some of the best inventions are things that are fairly simple but no one ever considered them before. That’s one reason why most predictions about the future fail. When predictions center on improvements to existing technology, the failure can be quite spectacular when new technology comes along that makes existing products obsolete.
Can there be another Edison? Perhaps, but he’ll have a different background. Few people are as widely read, as experienced, and as insightful as Thomas Edison was. I’ve met people who have some of those characteristics and can infuse employees with the intense allegiance needed to join in the 99% perspiration work. However, they have never achieved more than a small bit of Edison’s fame and impact. The biggest obstacle may not be personal, but environmental. Until a new “disruptive technology” like nanotechnology opens up thousands of avenues for invention, there may not be room enough for a new Thomas Edison.

Steve C
April 30, 2011 6:34 am

Like several of the others commenting here, I have very happy memories of growing up learning about science by making bangs, flashes and stinks myself, with real ingredients, and share in the generally nonplussed feeling when looking at rubbish like this. It was not only in the labs at school that my experiments were carried out, not by a long way! It does not take too many scary experiences and healthy electric shocks to teach you where the limits of safety are, but we seem now to be sleepwalking into a world where nobody is ever going to be allowed to learn what is actually safe, where those limits are.
The onward march of Elf and Safety seems to be attempting to make every square inch of the world wholly free of any risk, most particularly for those who really ought to be allowed to Darwin themselves out of the gene pool. Actually knowing what you are doing is no defence: a few years ago I watched helplessly as these cretins required the school whose labs I kept running to make several of the lab features “safe” by their warped standards, despite the fact that their tampering both considerably reduced the usefulness of the lab and made it no safer in use. We actually had to drop several experiments and demonstrations after their meddling, simply because the lab had been made a less safe environment for experimentation. So that’s a few things less for future pupils to learn about, eh? The “dumbing down” continues.
Better yet, I heard last year that the UK’s Open University – where students study at home and have, in previous years, attended summer schools at conventional universities to catch up on larger scale experiments – is considering dropping summer schools for the science subjects, “for cost reasons”. No doubt orders from Elf and Safety are a major part of that decision too … but, anyone fancy employing a “science graduate” who has never been in a lab?

April 30, 2011 6:44 am

I worked my way through 2 or 3 Gilbert chemistry sets as a kid in the 1960’s. While the changing-colors experiments were fun, I also became quite adept at getting excessively high temperatures out of the alcohol burner for bending/melting glass tubing, etc. The odd experiment where a pile of powder goes poof somehow wasn’t quite good enough, so one day in my parent’s basement I managed to adjust the mix just enough for a larger POOF that for some reason started a small fire. Now of course this was the time before smoke/CO/fun alarms, so it was up to me to extinguish the flames before my parents discovered what I had done. (Repercussions would be worse than any fire.) Using my chemical knowledge, I dashed upstairs for a box of baking soda, and used it to put out the small blaze. I had to answer questions under the parent’s glare, and I had to clean up the mess, but I survived! 🙂

April 30, 2011 7:12 am

My guess is we are hearing from all the survivors, especially those without serious maiming scars! Chem sets (sic) aside, what do you provide for your children and/or grandchildren today for their edification and imaginations?

April 30, 2011 7:25 am

My older brother was a science-nut, and my early boyhood was filled with wonderful examples of his high-risk curiosity.
He would snitch chemicals from the school lab. Eventually he got in trouble because he was a sort of absent-minded-professor, even at age ten, and he forgot he had some potassium (?) in his school locker, which did not ignite because it was in a flask filled with alcohol (?). There was no cover on the flask, and the alcohol slowly evaporated. The janitor came slouching down the hall and was confronted by a locker belching smoke. Our front doorbell rang, and my mother was confronted by the police chief. My brother came ambling downstairs to see who was at the door, a dreamy and innocent look on his face. He was accused of trying to burn down the school, which was ridiculous, because if he had wanted to he would have succeeded.
One time I went into the back yard and saw him crouched behind a boulder, manipulating flasks which were tied to the ends of very long sticks. Usually he was very mild mannered, but he snapped at me, telling me to go get lost in no uncertain terms. (So I watched from a safe distance.) He was making nitroglycerine. It was of a poor quality, but worked if you gave it a solid whack.
In those days it was difficult to get my Dad’s attention, especially when he was working on one of his own projects. He tended to answer all questions and comments with a sort of, “Hmm,” without really listening to you. He was working away on an anvil in the cellar when my brother told him he had made some nitroglycerine. He said “Hmm,” turning away to get his hammer. While he was looking away my brother put some of the nitroglycerine on the anvil. Dad turned back, brought his hammer down, looked up at the hammer imbedded in the plaster of the ceiling, turned to my brother, and inquired, “What did you just say?”
Meanwhile, in the school science class, they were learning that a candle will go out in a closed jar. My brother was bored to tears. He was reading a book on molecular bonding by Linus Pauling.
In geology class the students had a project which involved making volcanoes. Most of the volcanoes spewed out red food coloring and wet flour, with the propellant a mix of vinegar and baking soda. My brother’s volcano set off the sprinkler system.
My brother was always on the verge of being kept back, and almost didn’t graduate. There was some technicality involving credits. I think he hadn’t passed in his French homework because he was too busy studying German. However he was granted some waiver or something, and went on to Harvard.
That was back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and since then I think public schools have gone downhill, when it comes to encouraging inquisitive minds. The dumbing-down process seems to be based around “protecting” youth, but is actually repressive, even Puritanical. It is also downright cowardly, quailing from a fear of bullying lawyers.
My wife and I run a daycare on our farm. Kids are always scraping knees, running into thorns, being chased by enraged roosters, and basically behaving normally. The way we avoid lawsuits is to remain too poor to be worth suing. The only other way to avoid lawsuits would be to wrap all children in eighteen inches of bubble-wrap.

April 30, 2011 7:26 am

1950’s chem sets, and cutting up dead animals just to see what’s inside. I loved the 50’s. Far more interesting than “virtual” science. 🙂

Mike Bentley
April 30, 2011 7:44 am

You folks had all the fun…all I was ever able to do was produce bad smells my mom hated…I did love that REAL chemistry set though – came in a wood box with square bottles of a bunch of stuff…ah, the golden years!
Oh, The most questions at our local planetarium are on the signs of the zodiac and the end of the world in 2012…and these are from the adults – some of the kids are more level headed.

April 30, 2011 8:09 am

Valentine McKee: What the hell’s in those things, Burt?
Burt Gummer: A few household chemicals in the proper proportions.
I have offered to allow my grandchildren to come to my house during the summer. In the process of doing “safety training” we will discover why it is bad to have fine particulates near an ignition source, and what happens when you combine potassium nitrate (fertilizer), sulfur (from the fumaroles a few miles away), and charcoal (dehydrated heated wood). All in a completely safe manner, of course. My daughter-in-law has refused to allow my grandchildren to visit unless she comes along, for some odd reason.
Oh, and setting fire to iron filings, making mustard gas, throwing knives, building catapults . . .

April 30, 2011 8:16 am

You can still yourself get into trouble:

April 30, 2011 8:26 am

Here’s a recent chemistry book by Robert Bruce Thompson who is doing his best to allow kids to learn real chemistry (with chemicals), despite the “safety über alles” mindset. He is currently working on (or perhaps has finished) chemistry sets to accompany the book.

April 30, 2011 8:35 am

All I can say is –
“Uncle Tungsten”
by Oliver Sachs !

April 30, 2011 8:42 am

They are obviously using Green Chemicals made from antimatter.
Not that it really matters.
The chemicals turn Green when the dough is exchanged.

April 30, 2011 8:45 am

Buy this.
Chemical Magic
There was also a first edition, I have both. I haven’t compared the two closely, but the 2nd edition was edited by his son-in-law, or someone like that, to remove some of the most dangerous experiments/demonstrations. I’m actually okay with that – there were several that I wouldn’t do or wouldn’t even want to be nearby. The second edition still garnered reasonable reviews like “Not really for the general public.”
The oldest, only 2 star review:

By Ms. B “HS Chem Teacher” (Topeka, KS USA)
This book gives lots of chemical demonstration ideas. However, some are entirely too dangerous to do. You must use a lot of common sense when considering doing any of these demonstrations. Some are not safe at all. Mercury and CCl4 are EPA regulated. It’s not advisable to put ethanol in your mouth to spit out in front of students… This only demonstrates bad lab techniques. Make sure you do the first experiment in the book outside or in a fume hood. It releases a strong odor and an acid vapor. Definitely not something you want your students breathing!

Boy, I’m glad she wasn’t my chemistry teacher, however, the book is definitely for people with more than the current level of common sense.
Amazon doesn’t have any sources for the first edition.

April 30, 2011 8:48 am

Oops, blew the link. I meant to say Chemical Magic though simply (without Amazon tracking notes) might work.

Jim G
April 30, 2011 8:52 am

My first chemistry set (early 1950’s) had radium included so one could study this mysterious substance!! I’m still here, for now.
In our first chem lab in undergrad school (mid 1960’s) we precipitated fulminate of mercury as a lab experiment. I’m still, still here, but the waste basket into which we threw the test tube is not.

JRR Canada
April 30, 2011 8:55 am

Perfect, chemical free chemistry to compliment fact free science

April 30, 2011 9:02 am

Cementafriend says:
April 30, 2011 at 5:57 am

I am sure I made something like potasium tri iodate crystals which are heat sensitive. The dried crystals would be put on door knobs and explode from heat of the hand when someone turned the knob. I tried to speed the drying process by putting the material on top of a heater and it exploded shaking the house.

Probably Nitrogen triiodide (or is it Ammonium triiodide – actually a bit harder of a question to answer than it should be).
My father told me about it, and I made a little with tincture of iodine and household ammonia. It’s an extremely sensitive contact explosive – your explosion was probably due to the mechanical stress of drying.
The typical demonstration is to touch a very small amount with a feather.
In college, a friend and I use the Chemical Magic book’s directions. It said to combine lab-grade ammonia, iodine, and potassium iodide. It turns out iodine is far more soluable in a KI solution. That created semi-dangerous quantities, but we never used it for anything interesting like stuffing key holes. I kept it wet with ammonia in a small capped container in a glass of water.
Eventually we just smeared it on an IBM card one weekend and left it in a corner of a stairwell to let it dry. We set it off early when we saw the head of the computer center wandering around.

Poor Yorek
April 30, 2011 10:03 am

This reminds me of poor “Mr. Turpentine” from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Probably wouldn’t get past the EPA censors nowadays.
See: from 5:20-6:35

April 30, 2011 10:06 am

The thing with ALL science – is that it WAS fun – and I am 51 now!
the danger, the stupidity, was least of the concerns 40 years ago – it was part of the learning. Accidents will happen – and lack of supervision and adequate teaching would no doubt have contributed – but no amount of education will prevent a schoolboy doing something stupid given half the chance (you know what I mean!)
You could say, if you were politically incorrect – that learning in the old days of danger and no health and safety was actually SAFER in the long run – because you were taught/knew the danger in a hands on way and had no choice but to hold YOURSELF responsible. These days, they never get to even SEE or get close the danger!
It might be politically incorrect, but the old addage still stands, – you cannot learn to ride a bike, without falling off occasionally!
For myself – I demonstrate the dangers to my kids as often as possible – real life experience beats dictatorial instruction hands down perhaps one day Mrs Nanny state will recognise this?

April 30, 2011 11:09 am

I get the feeling no chemicals are included in the chemistry set so they can’t be sued for any consequences of using them. If you have to scrounge them for yourself, then you are the responsible party. Go sue yourself.
As many have stated, my Gilbert set was the basis for gunpowder experiments. But I also cleared everyone out of the house one day when I heated some parafin and sulfur in a test tube with that alcohol burner, Hydrogen sulfide, here we come!

April 30, 2011 11:40 am

Mind you, I had my early childhood in the late 70s and 80s into the 90s. But we could still get chem sets with actual burners! And my parents allowed me to have fuel for those burners! OMG!!!
I was never really big into the whole chemistry thing. The thing I was more interested was fire and blowing up stuff. I was totally in awe when some of the older kids could get so called “Schweizer Kracher” (lit “swiss crackers”, also known as “pirate crackers”) and use them, while we had to deal with the so called “Stripsy” (essentially very small crackers usually sold in strings that would go off in a row.)
I ended up pondering “What if I would take several of them?”
There used to be an ice cream in my country that was sold in little plastic barrels (which actually looked like real barrels.) They were pretty awesome, stable little containers. I used them to store many of my plastic soldiers in them. So yeah, I got one of those, filled it up with blackpowder from the Schweizer (that took A LOT of those), made a hole into the top and used the standard ignition from a Schweizer.
I knew it would be a big boom, so me and my friends figured we’d test it in the local playground.
Now that local playground was split in two parts. One was pretty standard with all the standard stuff. The other part was called “Indianerdorf” (lit “Indian Village”), and had several Old West style wooden buildings (one was themed like a real salloon, with that typical door everybody knows from any random western movie, OMG). The town government, which was maintaining it, had also added two ovens, both very solid, about a meter or a bit more high, made of bricks.
Well. Afterwards there was only one left.
We made a fire in one of them, as it was common. Then we came to the big moment. That was when one had the idea “Hey, let’s use some spray cans as well.” Fire material was plenty, back then our garbage containers were still accessible (today they’re locked away) and we burned A LOT of paper from the recycling containers (on some fire days we’d empty at least half of those really large containers and burn it all.) And the guy had found some used spray cans.
Remember, that was in the late 80s, before “OMG! OZONE LAYER!” became the hype.
So we dumped them in and finally the mini bomb, then we hauled ass.
It wasn’t strong enough to shatter windows, and we were really glad about that, but that oven? The top was gone after it and we just ran like hell.
We also burned batteries. Basically, we burned everything we could get our hands on. I once almost accidentally burned my Scoutrooper action figure! And Princess Leia had her foot melted. Whoops.
We also jumped from those buildings after stacking up freshly mowed grass. Cracked my right ankle that way. There were also apple trees growing which produced very small, very hard apples (some were edible). That always led to “apple battles” and lots of bruises. Every autumn we’d pelt each other with those apples. It was a bloody war zone.
Today the entire “Indian Village” is gone. The apple trees have been cut down. There’s only grass left. The playground is still there, but it’s now all protected and safe. State of the art.
In the house where I lived there was also a plumber who had his store in the ground floor. In the backyard, accessible to everyone, he’d store stuff that was removed from construction sites until the large truck would come to haul it all off. There were hot water tanks, old, rugged, and used. Damaged partly. Lots of sharp metal edges!!!!!!! OH THE HORROR! And those tanks back then had mercury in their thermometers…
We played with mercury. It was amazing to watch how you could push it around on the naked earth of our fragile planet, poke it with sticks, etc.
Oh dear, we were so bad.
Today the only thing I can do is squeeze a couple of rounds down my local firing range. The reason I stayed in our “national guard” was because I could fire a 120mm cannon and get away with it!
This safety craziness is a global thing. I see it in Japan every time I’m there as well. So now I’ve taken it upon my self to teach my niece (who’s now 11) a few things about wildlife and stuff like tracking, etc. We usually get out of Tokyo for a couple of days and I try to teach her stuff (not always easy, because the fauna there is a bit different than here.) But it’s enough to turn her into somewhat of a nerd. She’s already planning on becoming a ranger up in Hokkaido (can’t say her grandma is very pleased with that idea and it’s the foreigner’s fault!) Go me.
Luckily firecrackers aren’t as badly controlled there as they are here. Well, their production is very strictly controlled, simply because Japan has some bad experiences with fires coming from incidents. But you can get smaller ones without problems and even some bigger buggers are easy to get if you know where to look (and if you make sure you’re not setting them off in the middle of Shibuya.) My 11 year old niece now knows more about black- and gunpowder than all the Safety Nazis together and I plan on doing this with my three god-daughters as well.

April 30, 2011 11:53 am

Caleb, I think we were separated at birth.

Andrew H
April 30, 2011 11:57 am

Health & Safety in the UK was intended to protect people in dangerous working environments, which was a good thing eg putting guards on rapidly moving machine tools, providing eye protection for welding etc. It was NOT intended to be implemented the way that it has been ie to remove all risk from day to day activities. The reason that it has is because of litigation so warnings or preventative measures have to be given/taken to cater for the most stupid people in case they hurt themselves.
In UK we have such gems as a bag of peanuts bearing legend “Warning, this product contains nuts”. A microwave oven cautions the user against putting in live animals and that “Products cooked in it may be hot”. A chemistry set with no chemicals is just a logical progression of this.
What really hacks me off is the fact that there are literally an infinite number of ways to hurt, maim, kill yourself and others and that H&S cannot deal with all of these factors. What can deal with all these factors is the human brain with it’s inherent instinct for self preservation. Why do we need use by dates on food? I frequently eat food past it’s use by date I use my eyes and nose to make sure I am not going to get food poisoning. My 15 year old son though throws away perfectly good food because it is a few hours out of date. That is the way that the young have been conditioned, to accept that nanny state has removed

Andrew H
April 30, 2011 11:59 am

all risk.
What we need is some common sense and the lawyers need to realise that if someone slips on something and hurts themselves it is sometimes their own fault for not looking where they were going.

April 30, 2011 12:12 pm

P.G. Sharrow, can’t agree you more.
In the end we have forfeited both our kids knowledge and our freedom.
Yeah, sure, tell me we are safer.
I mean where the heck is the Phenolphthalein ?? I bet mom doesn’t have that in the kitchen cabinet.
That was one of my favorites. What a guy to do if he needs to pass secret messages in fourth hour? What are kids going to do if they don’t know what phenolphthalein smells like? Sigh.

April 30, 2011 12:17 pm

Ah, yes! We remember it well!
Maurice Chevalier from”Gigi”

April 30, 2011 12:24 pm

I’ve been so enjoying your stories. Mine more on the accident side. Alone in the house for a while around age 7/8 and playing with the thermometer I wondered how hot the two bar electric fire was. The exploding thermometer blew back into the bars, wrecked the fire and I played with the mercury scattered around the floor. Nothing was ever said. When I took my 5 years elder brother’s pride and joy racing bike with everything for a spin, and getting to 23 miles an hour, could go faster down steeper hills, changed my mind about direction and decided to go home, taking the turning too late crashed into the low pub wall resulting in great shock, what? I wasn’t going fast enough to make it?, bruised and bloodied me and very mangled bike, which was repaired without a word of reproach.

April 30, 2011 12:37 pm

@ AK says:
April 30, 2011 at 11:40 am

Mind you, I had my early childhood in the late 70s and 80s into the 90s. But we could still get chem sets with actual burners! And my parents allowed me to have fuel for those burners! OMG!!!
I was never really big into the whole chemistry thing. The thing I was more interested was fire and blowing up stuff

Well in some parts of the country, you can still blow stuff up 🙂
How to split a log with blackpowder:

The Ill Tempered Klavier
April 30, 2011 1:45 pm

One of the “read to pieces” treasures of my book collection is “Rocket Manual For Amateurs” by Capt. Bertrand R. Brinley (Project Officer, U. S. Army Amateur Rocket Program) from 1960. (the golden age of so many things is twelve ;;;)
With about a dozen of my friends (only one other girl though), I did about everything in it, especially the parts labeled “This should only be done by professionals with proper equipment.” We took our creations out to James Rock and shot them over the bay till the Coast Guard got mad at us. After that we moved out to the rez. Donnie was a Quinault so he could take the rest of us up there. We eventually made stuff that would go up a few thousand feet and make a nice boom when it got there. The state had some regs about that, but they didn’t apply on the rez…
I have since become a sane and sober citizen. Well, except for the continuing go ’round the OM and I have with the building dept over some of our ham antennas and a few other things like that. Our grandson knows the code but doesn’t read well enough to take the test yet. He’d probably pass if we were allowed to read the questions to him …. ..

Person of Choler
April 30, 2011 1:59 pm

wayne Job says: (April 30, 2011 at 5:39 am)
“I went to a tech school and we used the lathes to manufacture rocket nozzles and nose cones. These were fitted to our 6FT rockets , filled with Potassium Nitrate and sugar these tended to go out of sight.”
Some pals and I did exactly that, although we never made a 6 footer. One of our rockets went high and straight up, then came straight down. No matter where we ran, the thing looked like it was going to spear right through our heads.
I won’t say how we fabricated the fuel. It worked well but by rights the process should have sent us to meet Robert Goddard in Valhalla. God looks after his fools.

April 30, 2011 2:48 pm

pyromancer76 says:
April 30, 2011 at 7:12 am
“My guess is we are hearing from all the survivors, especially those without serious maiming scars! Chem sets (sic) aside, what do you provide for your children and/or grandchildren today for their edification and imaginations?”
I once sat in on a “Science Camp” that I was thinking about enrolling my daughter in. The camp councilor was demonstrating a soil testing kit to four-year-olds. I realized that instead of getting my young daughter interested in science at a young age, this boring camp would turn her off to science for good.
I was mad as heck, so I wrote up a proposal for a science camp that included things like taking apart old small appliances and building batteries from pennies and aluminum foil. I sent it around to places that might be interested. I ended up working for a children’s museum and doing daring things like lighting a candle and putting a glass over it, then watching the candle use up the invisible air. I burned steel wool with a small battery to show how the filament in a light bulb would burn if it was exposed to air. We mixed baking soda and vinegar in a bottle with a balloon on top and then played with the funny heavy balloon. These are not dangerous but they are interesting.
With my own kids, we did hydrolysis, and then exploded the tiny bit of hydrogen and burnt the oxygen. We sprouted beans… in a spinning centrifuge… to see if increased gravity would make the beans grow slower than a control. We tried to mix peroxide with anything that we could find to see if it would fizz. I even bought a Geiger counter from Russia and we tested everything in the house. The only thing that we found to be radioactive was an old radium watch dial.
Most science kits are worse than useless, they are boring, and especially kits made for girls. I think the worst one is the soap making kit. Do they give you oil and a base and you actually make soap? No they give you bars of ready made soap that you melt and pour into a mold. The kit might coast 20 dollars. Ivory soap can be purchased for a few cents. It should be called a soap molding rip-off kit. (…yes… we made soap out of wood ashes!)
I blame the emergence of Climate-Change-Science on boring science kits.

Al Gore's Holy Hologram
April 30, 2011 3:41 pm

Made in China. They kept the chemicals for industry — something we are having less and less of because of chemophobes

April 30, 2011 3:53 pm

Why do I feel like I’m reading a post from the Free Range Kids blog? (
A majority of Lenore Skenazy’s blog posts over there have something to do the irrational fear of random kidnappings; which are less likely to occur than deaths due to kitchen activities, much less likely than kidnappings by a family member (which result in the child’s return within a few hours except in very rare instances), and FAR less likely than deaths in car accidents. Almost all of the rest have to do with how the (somewhat rational) fear of lawsuits is hurting America’s children. When discussing these fears, such quotes as “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (Franklin D. Roosevelt) and “He who would give up liberty for security deserves neither” (Benjamin Franklin) come to mind. Though Lenore has never mentioned global warming (she is a liberal, though a reader of her blog would likely pin her as a conservative due to her stance for tort reform and against the sensationalist media), it can be said that the principle applies there as well… do not give up trillions of dollars for a plan that even the AGW advocates admit will have very little impact on global temperature.
Anyway, yes, the fear of lawsuits is the reason for the set not including any chemicals. It is also the reason for the conversion of many older American (and UK and Australian, and to a lesser extent Canadian) playgrounds, even larger ones, into “safe” structures that are no more than 6-8 feet high at any “reachable” point (not to say that the kid won’t find a way of reaching the unreachable points.. ha :P) and have little or no parts that move while the kid is on them (such as swings; seesaws; merry-go-rounds; and other such equipment, which cannot be easily found today outside of foreign nations). Poor education, childhood obesity, increased teenage crime — all of these are easily attributable to the dumbing down of kids’ culture due to fear. Countries such as South Korea, Japan, Germany, and Finland have great educations as measured by internationally standardized test scores; the USA is lacking to say the least. Going to these countries (which I have not… yet) one can see that children are more autonomous than in the United States. In fact, it becomes apparent that the idea of child overprotection is unique to English-speaking nations (with the USA being the worst offender… case in point, they are alone with Somalia in not ratifying the UN’s Conventions on the Rights of the Child, one of the few liberal-touted protocols that I agree with. If I were the Senate, I would ratify with a reservation that additional spending [such as Article 26’s “social insurance”] would not be required; however I would NOT add reservations to Articles 12-16, as they are the parts the USA needs work in). Of what I’m going to say about Germany, the vast majority applies to educational leader Finland as well; but I’m more familiar with German education, as it is more often studied and discussed. In Germany, for instance, it is very uncommon to see any child above second grade NOT walk, ride a bike, or take public transportation to school. It is often said that “[in Germany] the journey to school takes 5 minutes, but the journey back takes 5 hours” (the first figure is more likely around 20 minutes). Those who scratch their heads at this statement should recall their own childhoods or ask an older relative about theirs. If you think that this freedom is due to the lack of major urban areas, then keep in mind that things are much the same way in urbanized Japan, except the journey back takes just 2 hours due to the longer school day. German school is basically a half-day education (8:00 to 12:30), with some academically-minded high school (grades 10-13) students taking a class or two in the afternoon or evening 2-3 days a week. It is extremely common for German children as young as 5 (though more common at 8) to go to a nearby (within a few kilometers/miles) swimming pool or ski resort (depending on the season) by themselves. German playgrounds, even newer ones, are similar to American playgrounds from before 1984, and this is not a bad thing. Today such unique structures would be sued out of existence in America, or at least not built due to the fear of a lawsuit and/or the inevitably high cost of insurance. With all of the overprotection in America, kids with naturally stronger personalities tend to go overboard commit crimes when they are (often abruptly) first given the privileges they should have had many years before. The increase in depression in America can also be blamed on overprotective parenting, which can in turn be blamed on fear. To recap, children in America are being denied the basic freedoms that children in non-English-speaking countries take for granted and that even American kids had just 30 years ago. Much of this is due to irrational fear of risks which are far less likely than those that parents don’t think twice (or even once) about. In addition, lawsuits and the fear thereof are driving many fun activities out of the country (not just with the dumbing down of playgrounds, but also with the abolition of outdoor recess activities in many American school systems). Of all I’ve read on the Free-Range Kids blog, this long comment by KyohakuKeisanki has got to take the cake:
Sorry if you think I sounded anti-American, but even the best of anything (whether it be video games, sports, or nations) has its faults; and it would be stupid to turn a blind eye to these faults simply because of the good things…. instead those in control (the voters in this case) should correct the faults and make things better for everyone — even those who are being restricted by government (whether it be family “government” [which most of it is], local government, state government, or federal government) more than in any other time in American history.

kadaka (KD Knoebel)
April 30, 2011 4:05 pm

For the pyro-technically inclined, these days the internet has many assorted “recipes” available. YMMV. One thing often Googled for is The Anarchist Cookbook (Wikipedia entry). Written by the author to protest US involvement in the Vietnam War, resembling reading material for an urban guerrilla revolutionary, the author has since renounced his earlier views and basically wants the book to disappear. Which may be for the best, it is getting dated, and the pyrotechnical recipes are regarded as… unreliable, also dangerous… possibly because those attempting them didn’t have the technical ability and know-how to use them. The following thread from a site named after the tome has a download link (download tested, worked):
Interestingly there’s a similarly named book, Recipes for Disaster: An Anarchist Cookbook (Wikipedia entry). It’s put out by a “real” anarchist group, who complain that the other book wasn’t written by a real anarchist, and essentially isn’t “anarchist” enough.
Searching for the title dredges up many things going by that or a similar name that aren’t the real one. Which may be a good thing. Googling for “anarchist cookbook pdf” found “The Anarchist’s Cookbook” as the first result (download tested, worked):
This appears to be an excerpt of a larger book, limited to the exciting recipes. It is replete with assorted disclaimers and warnings in the general format “if some complete moron were to make this he could use this method.” The layout is good, and going by what I recall from chemistry classes long ago, the recipes look like they could work, with sufficient technical detail. Of course you’d have to be stupid to try them.

April 30, 2011 5:39 pm

For my son’s science class ‘volcano’ project this year we used potassium nitrate and sugar in an inverted plastic cup lit by a remotely triggered Estes model rocket engine embedded within a clay volcano submerged in water to simulate the Ring of Fire.
The science teacher saved the video to his personal drive.
No child growing up on the above chemistry kit will ever have their project saved to the teacher’s personal drive.

April 30, 2011 6:23 pm

Andrew30 — thanks, I haven’t thought of JetX engines for over 40 years….brought back great memories of terrorizing our quite suburban neighborhood with my genius (but looney) older brother.

Super Turtle
April 30, 2011 6:27 pm

Some really great comments about how children need to learn and grow and do so by making mistakes. The idea that all children are to be placed in a hermetically sealed clean room with padded walls or must be strapped up in child seats really makes you wonder how we ever will produce people with backbones or any kind of leadership qualities in our society?
A country full of homogenized little purple Barney characters is the last thing we need in this very complex world in which were are in fact desperate for people with great leadership qualities to get great things done. It was inspiring to hear so many great stories about childhood chemistry sets and the contrast of how such a ridiculous chemistry set shown really nails everything that’s so wrong in our society today.
One of the MOST important aspects of the AGW movement is how we finally realized the connection between the socialist movement and the green movement. When the wall came down in Europe, all of the socialist people did not pack their bags and disappear, but simply morphed into the global warming movement. It is the same anti-west and anti-business garbage that they been preaching all along but with a different name. Socialism had became a dirty word, but green had not.
I should note that now we’ve pretty much destroyed and showed up the gig of the green movement being a bunch of leftists and socialist people pushing their agenda in message of more government control over everybody, they are now jumping ship and landing in what we call the safety movement.
Just like the socialist movement or the green movement, the whole safety movement is exactly the same thing all over again!
We can’t use nuclear reactors due to safety! We cannot drill for offshore oil due to safety! We cannot burn coal due to the un safe health effects! We can’t let people drive their own cars, and they must use certified public officials and must use public transit due to safety. And to ride a bicycle, you better get the bicycle licensed with lots of red tape from more government officials so you do not hurt yourself, and of course you also have to wear that helmut in the name of safety.
So was with heartfelt warming that is post about the chemistry set was posted here, and now that we made the connection between the green movement and socialism, we forcing them to jump ship into the safety movement. Once again it is high time we also call these new safety Nazis what they are: Good old fashioned busy body leftist socialists.
Super Turtle

April 30, 2011 8:48 pm

Gilbert Stork was jilted on the Nobel Prize. Everybody expected him to win it in combination with E. J. Corey. Stork was a better chemist but Corey published more, by far. And one day they threw away Stork’s chemistry set too.
It was called the ‘Stork Morgue’ at Columbia University. It was in the basement with no lock on it. A room with THOUSANDS of little and not so little bottles of organic and organometallic chemicals.
My Lord in God’s Great Heaven WHAT A PLAYGROUND IT WAS!!!
Aldrich chemical was across the river in Jersey so if ordered by 5PM I’d get anything I wanted by 4-5PM by UPS the next day. But that left the god damned weekends.
Enter the Stork Morgue. A simple clipboard was used to check items out like library books. You could go grab stuff and leave a note with the current owner that you took it and would bring it back on Monday. Most people were there though, even at midnight on a Saturday. Most organic chemists I mean. Not the computer jockeys.
In the late 90s they killed it. The safety people. They started testing our water drain lines for acetone, even. We couldn’t even wash glassware any more in the sink.
They THREW IT ALL AWAY. For me it was like the burning of the Library of Alexandria.
My last year there prior to three at Harvard with George Whitesides was without a library of chemicals that went back to the 1930s.

Common Sense
April 30, 2011 9:20 pm

Not only are chemistry sets neutered, so are science classes. In my son’s general science class his sophomore year in high school, only the teacher was allowed to do the experiments, he wouldn’t let the kids touch the stuff, they could only watch and take notes.

April 30, 2011 9:46 pm

reminds me of that old Star Trek episode where Capt. Kirk fights “The Gorn”…..Kirk finds a pile of sulphur or phosphorus on the surface of the planet and makes some kind of gunpowder or black powder out of it…as a 7 or 8 year old kid, i thought “The Gorn” was the coolest thing i’d ever seen…

Julian Braggins
May 1, 2011 2:22 am

Recently on our domestic news was a story of a badly stung amateur beekeeper who had fallen when carrying a beehive up a ladder, the ladder sunk on one side and he and the bees crashed.
The punchline came when he was described as a “Health and Safety Officer” 😉

Barry Sheridan
May 1, 2011 2:33 am

Thank you to all readers who left memories of their childhood excesses. I laughed a lot at some of these experiences, a reminder of how dull over anxious parents have made modern childhood. It is rather sad.

Tony B (another one)
May 1, 2011 3:20 am

“Myrrh says:
April 30, 2011 at 12:24 pm
I’ve been so enjoying your stories. Mine more on the accident side. Alone in the house for a while around age 7/8…….”
Ok – I think could be time for a visit by social services and police……
Your parents need jail time, quite clearly.
This entire thread has been brilliantly entertaining, and it is almost certainly the case that most/all of the posts have been by people over the age of about 40. I dont know when exactly our society got so totally risk averse, but we do seem to have a generation for whom any notion of risk/uncertainty is just too much for their over-protected brains to comprehend.
The generations who have been through school in the last 30 years seem to have a need for absolute certainty in everything, and they cannot work things out for themselves. Hence the slavish adherence to the AGW message. Don’t question it, you might have to think. Don’t do anything which isn’t completely “safe” according to the mantra, something might happen to the planet and we will all die….
This chemistry set is a perfect example

Geoff Sherrington
May 1, 2011 3:52 am

Some say that poilio was a disease of affluence, because children were sanitised so they did not form antibodies when they were needed.
So it is with the stories above. The stories do not tell us, but I’d bet that many of the experimental explosive bloggers later became successful chemists. An early curiousity seems to be an indicator of good chemists. (I suspect this is not a general occupational principle, but that it is occupation-specific – consider morticians, then hookers).
We used to have many pounds of mercury. It was a fascinating material and we’d be up to our wrists in it some weeks. It was quietly teaching us about some properties of materials that would stand us in good stead later. At the other end of the density scale we made hydrogen and exploded it. Boundaries of properties were learned. Then I was a chemist in a plant making urea, while the one over the river made ammonium nitrate. We advertised how dangerous it was – one truck engine was found 400 yards from the explosion of its 4 tonne load – so they invented a coating to slow propagation of the shock wave. I got the job of working out what it was and how it worked. And how to reactivate it, which we won’t discuss.
I’m making the point that the inhibition of childhood experiments cramps the mind and fails to educate in breadth for later professional use. The chemistry set with no chemicals does not teach one much about a vacuum, which mercury metal can make fairly well.
The dominant mesage for me is that we are breeding killjoy goodie goodie two shoes types who worm an occasional way into a decision making position. Heaven help us. That’s what Mullahs say they are for.

Reply to  Geoff Sherrington
May 1, 2011 4:22 am

Lack of chemicals (even not really knowing what they are) will not deter the budding scientist. This was an ‘experiment’ from last year (daughter then aged 7) – density: what sinks in water? (treacle – until it starts to dissolve, ???); what floats? (oil – two different kinds, cloves, peppercorns, ???)
We’ve graduated to exploring thixotropy this morning (cornstarch in water, with obligatory pink food colour).

May 1, 2011 5:27 am

At least here on the Internet, we can still have a bit of fun with chemistry:
I recommend starting with Potassium. 🙂
It occurs to me that one or more of my chemistry sets wasn’t a classic Gilbert model. The plastic bottles containing the magic chemicals were blue with a white cap. Sound familiar to anyone?

May 1, 2011 5:46 am

Verity Jones, could you give me the details of your thixotropy experiments?
I help out at the scouts, one of the things I have been asked to do is to come up with a safe, cheap, scientific experiment that takes about an hour for ages 11-16.
I never thought about chemo-physical properties and thixotropy looks very visual.
A friend of mine suggested using a standard sized coffee tine, with two of the plastic lids on each end. Place different types of powder inside, with different grain sizes but the same mass, and then tilt gradually. The tins are only able to move down the slope when they overcome the internal friction of the material they contain.
Works apparently, but data interpretation is phenomenological.

May 1, 2011 6:40 am

Cementafriend @ April 30, 2011 at 5:57 am
‘I am sure I made something like potasium tri iodate crystals which are heat sensitive. The dried crystals would be put on door knobs and explode from heat of the hand when someone turned the knob. ‘
Ammonium iodide perhaps? Very easy to make and fairly well behaved if still wet. Once it’s dry, it explodes if you give it a dirty look. We made it at every opportunity at school, – Blackboard erasers and chalk leaping a foot into the air when touched and the like.
About 20 years ago my son had an excellent science teacher at school, and he told said teacher about this marvellous substance dad had described. Teacher was very disbelieving, but cheerfully agreed to make some during a lab. Unfortunately, there was a lunchbreak in the middle, and they returned to an absolutely dry ammonium iodide covered filter paper standing in a beaker on an open window ledge.
They decided it would be a good idea to use a couple of stirrers to gently lift the paper and flick it out of the window. The resulting bang as soon as they touched the paper attracted the attention of half the school, and blew the beaker to pieces as well as 2 panes of the window.

Adam Gallon
May 1, 2011 8:18 am
Dam! They’ve sold out of Uranium Ore!
I remember a fellow student trying to make NI3 in his lab cupboard at University. The Lecturer was walking around trying to work out where the explosion and smell of Iodine came from, as the petri dish finally dried out and auto-detonated!
We knew, we didn’t say a word!

mike g
May 1, 2011 8:40 am

I remember learning the lesson of how to safely insert glass tubing into a rubber stopper. It involved an ER visit and having to paint the walls of my bedroom. That scar is a constant reminder to me now about the cost of cutting corners.

mike g
May 1, 2011 8:45 am

Used to, you could buy saltpeter and sulfur at the drug store. There were lots of places to get your charcoal. Now, I’m not sure if just putting the above two sentences together on here will get me in trouble, or not.

May 1, 2011 9:52 am

we used about four teaspoons of cornflour in a small dish with enough water to form a stiff but flowable paste that has given hours of fascination (even for the adults!). Just found some videos here that show the properties: (you can probably paste into Google Translate if you need a better understanding of the text). Lots of other stuff on YouTube too.
The original idea was to replicate this ‘walking on water’ test:

This scale is probably more appropriate for home and scouts:
I think I’m incorrect in labelling cornstarch mix as thixotropic – but it certainly is a non-Newtonian fluid.
Next experiment is to make ‘crazy putty’ with PVA glue and borax:

Physics Major
May 1, 2011 12:42 pm

I can recommend the Flavia de Luce detective novels by Alan Bradley. Flavia is an absolutely charming 11 year old amateur detective and chemist.

May 1, 2011 1:10 pm

Somebody mentioned an “Air Band”.
I was flicking through a GCSE Music revision guide that was lying around the other day and came across the last page which detailed a “elective” subject section called “Air Guitar”. I kid you not. It had help on how far apart your feet must be and the proper distance your fret board hand must be from your body.

May 1, 2011 5:28 pm

I added this post to my list of “WUWT classics” at Ric Werme’s Guide to WUWT:

2011 Apr 29: Friday Funny – science safety run amok
This started out as a rant about “a chemistry kit with no chemicals.” Disppointing, despicable, disheartening to be sure, but certainly not worthy of being listed here.
However, WUWT Nation is full of people who’ve learned chemistry the fun way, from 1960’s chemical sets to making their own rocket fuel. They (we!) hijacked the thread to reminisce about all the chemistry society (and Homeland Security) frown upon today. Enjoy! BTW, the link goes to the first comment, if you want to read about depressing chemistry sets, you’ll have to scroll up or edit the URL.

May 1, 2011 6:07 pm

mike g says:
May 1, 2011 at 8:45 am

Used to, you could buy saltpeter and sulfur at the drug store. There were lots of places to get your charcoal.

Actually, you still can! I did some colonial reenactment stuff and to make the “slow match” for the linstocks that are used to set off cannons, you soak some cotton clothesline in a solution of KNO3 to get something that smolders reliably. Source for the saltpeter? Walmart’s pharmacy section. Cotton clothesline? Lotsa luck. Black powder? Expensive, especially if it’s shipped due to the haz-mat fees and paperwork.
BTW, colonial and civil war reenactors take safety issues seriously. There’s a field safety officer who oversees everything. Cast iron cannons must have a stainless steel insert to absorb some of the shock of the exploding black powder. Instead of wrapping cannon charges in linen, aluminum foil is used. “Pricking” the charge is still done with a long pin, Instead of priming the charge with block powder, people grind up black powder, get all they can to stick to some Scotch tape, then roll it lengthwise and stick it in a straw, leaving a cm or two for the contact area with the linstock.
Works great – I’ve never seen a misfire. Well, maybe one, early on in my activity.
It’s really amazing what you can do to black powder without it going off. People put some muscle into ramming the charges into the cannon, both for a faster burn and to get charge firmly in place by the touch hole. Grinding it for making primers is generally done in a ceramic mortar and pestle, and it takes some muscle there too!
A spark from the campfire? That’ll do it. Aluminum foil wrapping helps dissipate the heat from any ignition sources that would only be a problem if there were multiple safety lapses.

May 2, 2011 5:26 am

When I was a kid I always wanted a chemistry set! I asked for one each Christmas, but instead got a biology one! (I hate biology and in fact have never taken a class in it).
Then I grew up and computers became PCs! Then I wanted a compiler! I got one of those (my first was an ancient basic compiler for MS DOS). Any wonder I am a network engineer?

May 2, 2011 9:04 am

Steve C says:
The onward march of Elf and Safety seems to be attempting to make every square inch of the world wholly free of any risk, most particularly for those who really ought to be allowed to Darwin themselves out of the gene pool.
I have long argued that so-called “civilization” is DEvoluntionary.
Ric Werme says:
Buy this.
Chemical Magic
Here’s another one – “The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments”. Almost impossible to find on Amazon, and quite expensive when it’s available:
BUT it can be found in PDF format:

May 2, 2011 10:17 am

I also liked the book ‘Caveman Chemistry.” It’s a text, but if you skip some of the philosophy bits, the book does a lovely job of each experiment builds on the others up to the point where you are making gun cotton. That’s the “final exam” as it were.
Never had a chemistry set, but I managed to get into trouble just the same. And to blow a small dent in the physics teacher’s work table in the set-up space in High School. I sanded the char out during my study hour and we agreed that it had never happened.

May 2, 2011 1:12 pm

I received a C-minus from a disgruntled geology prof. who assigned a “lab” in which the students were to grow crystals. I made rock candy, had an excellent euhedral sucrose crystal. He did not appreciate it though and gave me the “C”, when I went ahead and ate it after he chewed me out for taking things more seriously, he tacked on the “-“. Oh well.

May 2, 2011 1:15 pm

Chuckles says:
May 1, 2011 at 6:40 am
Cementafriend @ April 30, 2011 at 5:57 am
‘I am sure I made something like potasium tri iodate crystals which are heat sensitive. The dried crystals would be put on door knobs and explode from heat of the hand when someone turned the knob. ‘
Ammonium iodide perhaps? Very easy to make and fairly well behaved if still wet. Once it’s dry, it explodes if you give it a dirty look. We made it at every opportunity at school, – Blackboard erasers and chalk leaping a foot into the air when touched and the like….

Kind of fun to paint on the feet of toilet seats too. Takes a while to dry usually, but sooner or later…

May 2, 2011 1:55 pm

My most memorable experiment with my Chemcraft set was heating sulfur with candle wax according to instructions in my basement “lavatory” during one of my parent’s parties upstairs . Proved H2S isn’t all that deadly , but will empty even a large house .

May 2, 2011 4:43 pm

Nobody has mentioned Lott’ s Chemistry Sets, which were dominant in Britain. Oddly, Lott’s also made building bricks, a sort of simple precursor of Lego. By the time I got mine (in about 1956) there was a note in the instruction book that the instructions for making gunpowder were no longer printed there because it was illegal. The favourite experiment was definitely making hydrogen sulphide. Also, making up novel explosive mixtures which would blow the cork off a test tube when heated on the spirit burner. (Of course they always did, because even heating air or water would do this ! We never had a test tube break).

hotrod (Larry L)
May 2, 2011 7:43 pm

Protecting kids from the consequences of their actions, only creates dumb kids (and adults) who do not think before they act.
When I was in grade school we had some simple electric lab setups in about 3rd or 4th grade. It included some of the large cylindrical dry cell batteries and light bulbs and various other things like electro magnets. I happened to notice one day that if you shorted a paper clip across the terminals of said dry cells the paper clip got very warm.
Being a typical kid, I thought about this wonderful discovery for the rest of the day. When I got home I decided I should run the experiment with more advanced equipment.
The only source of electricity I had at hand was a wall socket, the most available metal object was one of my Mom’s hair pins. Having had other “adventures” with experiments, I realized that the wall socket had more power than the dry cell so I figured out that I needed a safe way to hold the hair pin. I cut a pink school eraser in two pieces and gingerly held the hair pin between the two little rubber blocks and carefully inserted it into the wall socket.
I learned several lessons with this experiment.
1. Wall sockets have WAY more power than a dry cell.
2. A vaporized hair pin creates a significant jet of hot plasma and molten metal that is rapidly ejected from the wall socket.
3. The a fore mentioned hot plasma arc is very bright, resulting in a purple spot in my field of vision for several minutes.
4. Hot plasma and molten metal burns your fingers very quickly, but 1/4 inch thick rubber blocks are adequate insulation to avoid both direct contact burns and electrical shock.
5. The red hot remains of the hair pin leave an interesting little curly burn mark in the hardwood floor when they are dropped while you suck you burned fingers.
6. The act of shorting out a wall socket makes a loud “POCK” sound followed immediately by all the lights in the room going out.
I was terrified that my Mom heard this sound and would ask me all sorts of interesting questions if she found me sucking my burned fingers in a room with no lights.
Pondering the situation I realized that I must have popped the circuit breaker with the short and recalled watching my Dad reset a popped breaker.
The breaker panel was at the top of the basement stairs right off the kitchen, where my Mother was working. I nonchalantly walked down the hall, and as I walked through the kitchen could see one circuit breaker that was obviously popped, I reached up and reset it as I walked past and went down in the basement, then after a few minutes I came back up stairs and was relieved to find that the lights in my room now worked again.
Mom never knew I almost electrocuted myself and or set the bedroom on fire with spraying droplets of molten metal.
I learned several things additional things like it takes several days for your fingers to quit hurting if you burn them badly.
Years later I had similar learning experiences after placing M-80 fire crackers under a large tin can and seeing it blown high in the air and wrapped around a tree branch.
The sum total of dozens of such experiments were an appreciation of the consequences of actions and a tendency to pause a moment before doing something and considering “and what could go wrong here?”
I learned about gravity by falling out of jungle gyms and out of trees. These lessons also included important information about how the human respiration system responds to strong physical blows and how to get my breath back, not to mention learning how to land on hard things from high places without breaking major bones.
I discovered chemical mixtures that if placed in a plastic bag with even the slightest trace of moisture would quickly self heat and ignite in a small fire ball. This also taught me about the basics of room ventilation to clear the smoke from the kitchen before Mom came home from work.
My brother lit a fire cracker in the house than thought better of it and decided to toss the lit firecracker in drawer of a night stand and slam the drawer shut. Lesson learned, even a small fire cracker will blow the bottom out of a closed drawer – this was useful information for a 10 year old.
We also discovered that if you cut the stick off a pop bottle rocket and put it in a large jar, it will zip around inside the jar in a most satisfying manner, filling the jar with a pungent sulfurous smoke.
Let the kids be kids and learn these bad things happen if you don’t consider consequences when the results are more than likely minor, and sane adults are around to help you out if you do hurt yourself. Instead we shield them with rubber play grounds and boring toys that don’t do anything interesting.
Have you ever thrown a super ball inside a room? It teaches you all sorts of interesting lessons about highly elastic collisions, conservation of energy, trajectory analysis and reflex honing efforts to avoid the multiple rebounds.
On second thought you probably cannot buy a super ball any more because it might be dangerous.

Geoff Sherrington
May 3, 2011 1:01 am

Does anyone have a spare copy of the “Greeat Scientific American Paper Aeroplane Book”? I gave my copy from Oak Ridge Library 1978 to a son who promptly lost it. Not explosive chemistry, but elegant physics.
Another memory of my younger days was keeping a cube of Plutonium 244 (or one of the other long-lived Pu isotopes, I forget now) on my desk as a small encapsulated paperweight. I used to toss it to greenies to catch as it was quite dense. Then I would tell them what it was, to see if they were.
Then the Health Authorities heard about it and took away my toy.

May 3, 2011 7:29 am

hotrod (Larry L) says:
Protecting kids from the consequences of their actions, only creates dumb kids (and adults) who do not think before they act.
Part the desired outcome, IMO – the other part being a substitution of the thinking of “authorities” for your own. I know a frightening number of people who are utterly incapable of holding any opinion without first consulting with an “authority”.

Donald Mitchell
May 3, 2011 5:52 pm

By third grade, I had found that a 10 gallon milk can with a small hole in the lid would blow the lid higher than the power lines if you added a bit of carbide and water, lit the gas coming out of the hole and waited for the flame to back down through the hole.
In the fifth grade, I learned that you should use insulated wire when attempting to make an electromagnet which you are going to plug into a wall outlet.
In the tenth grade I discovered that using a two foot square piece of glass to support a tesla coil on a bed does not prevent a spark from the bottom of the tesla coil from setting the mattress on fire. The glass remained intact, so I also learned about capacitive coupling.
The major revelation, however, came the summer after my junior year in high school. I had a summer job at a medical research foundation. I was working in a small room with no other people in the room. I had several bunsen burners lit when I noticed a new smell. Looking down, the entire floor was wet. To the best of my knowledge, I had not spilled anything. I touched the wet floor and smelled my fingers. It was ethyl ether. After I had shut off the burners, left the room, and had time to see that the hall floor was not wet with anything, I went into a much larger room adjacent to where I had been. Several people with many paper towels were at a counter at the adjoining wall. After asking what was going on, they informed me that they had broken a five gallon carboy of ethyl ether. I will never forget the changes of expression when I asked them if they had considered going next door to ask me to extinguish the bunsen burners. The lesson learned was that I am quite happy to take my chances with my actions – I somehow manage to survive them – but I must take extreme precautions to protect myself from the actions of other people.

May 5, 2011 4:03 am

A grandfather must be responsible.
This is killing me…
Sheesh! So many things I’d like to show the g-kids how-to-do. Maybe I can do a work-around and begin showing them THINGS THEY MUST NOT DO?
Thank you all for a wonderful thread down memory lane; and much to ponder.

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