The 5 Retro Science Kits That Inspired a Generation of Tinkerers

Manu Prakash was himself a kid who liked to blow up stuff. As a child in Rampur, India, Prakash didn’t have a chemistry set, so he harvested chemicals after the fireworks show during Diwali, the Hindu light festival.
“My brother and I would go out in the early morning, the day after, and collect all of the unexploded fireworks,” he recalls. “We removed all the chemicals and made a giant pile. We actually lit that thing. We didn’t put it in containment; our goal wasn’t to make a large bang. We were curious what happens when there is no coverage. It pretty much produced a mushroom cloud. It was very beautiful.”Although he burned his hand and still carries a small scar, the Stanford bioengineer says such open-ended play was important in setting his career path. And as the first-prize winner of the Science, Play and Research Kit (SPARK) competition for reimagining scientific toys for the 21st century, he hopes his brainchild device, called the Punchcard Using Microfluidics, will provide the same inspiration and opportunities for future crops of scientists.

Inspiration struck Prakash when his wife brought home a small hand-cranked music box, which pulled a ribbon with holes in it through two sets of pins. When pins encountered each other through the holes, one pin plucked another and produced a musical tone. He predicted he could program such a system to instead pump fluids, control valves and generate liquid droplets.

The A.C. Gilbert Co. developed hundreds of toy kits, ranging from magic sets to the extraordinarily popular Erector sets that inspired young children to build anything from model engines to model Ferris wheels.
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Working with a graduate student, Prakash paired a silicone chip (containing tiny channels that guide the droplets) with a small hand-cranked device and some punch-card paper to dictate when valves release the different fluids. Voila! A $50,000 prize winner was born.Prakash’s invention allows young chemists to mix fluids and observe reactions. Users can mix chemicals in tiny amounts, and any reactions are confined by the chip, which (alas!) safely reduces the scope of powerful odors and explosions.

Prakash hopes to see manufacturing and distribution of his miniature chemistry set, with the SPARK prize money earmarked for a start toward that end. “We want children to have that ‘aha!’ moment . . . a lifelong passion from figuring it out for yourself,” he says.

Prakash’s vision is one shared by many. “I loved science as a kid because we were able to go out and just sort of see what was going to happen,” says Rosie Cook, a curator at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. “So much of it now is, ‘Mix this and tell me what happened,’ even at the Ph.D. and postdoc level. There’s very little of the ‘I’m going to mix A and B together and see what happens!’ ”

Cook, who oversees the foundation’s planned 2015 exhibition of vintage science kits, says that letting students discover things on their own energizes them and often allows them to internalize it as something wonderful. “How many Nobel laureates got their start just from experimenting?” she asks. “That was the wonder of those old chemistry sets. They really allowed for free play and experimentation.”

That career-shaping moment of awe and wonder came about for many via their first scientific toy. Here are a few of our favorites (and maybe yours, too).