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Speaking of Science: A.C. Gilbert chemistry sets

Speaking of Science: A.C. Gilbert chemistry sets

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As if touching a holy object, my hands trembled when I removed the cover of my first chemistry set. Arranged neatly by divine hands I could see the square bottles of chemicals stacked in proper order, set protectively within the steel shelves. The test tubes were new, the experimenter’s manual unopened and the little bottle brush ready for work that was coming up. I made a mental note to always keep the set in order and guard its life forever.

The set was bought for me by my grandmother, a gift for my eighth birthday. It was manufactured by the A.C. Gilbert Company, once one of the largest toy companies in the world, My friend across the street had a huge chemistry set — one that could do anything: plate copper on a quarter, turn water into wine (color only), and most of all, make green fire.

This set was well stocked. Glass bottles containing cobalt chloride, sodium nitrate (a poor man’s substitute for an important gunpowder ingredient), potassium permanganate, ammonium chloride, ferric ammonium sulfate, sodium ferrocyanide. There was enough material for years of experimentation. When my chemistry associate moved away to South Carolina he gave me all of his chemicals and in one great windfall I quintupled the size of my laboratory.

Somewhere along the way I purchased the now forbidden and banned “Golden Book of Chemistry,” and, coupled with the enhanced chemistry set, these enabled me to excel in high school chemistry.

Now that our daughter Hannah is heading to ninth grade, we looked fruitlessly to purchase a modern chemistry set for her to have fun and experiment with during the summer. We asked ourselves where are the chemistry sets nowadays? Nothing in Walmart. Nothing in K-Mart. To be sure the shelves are stocked with all of the cheap plastic junk that China can spit out, but seriously, where are the thought provoking, mind forming, experimentation toys that were once available? They are gone and will never come back. The A.C. Gilbert company was the last of its kind.

Could you imagine the liability Walmart would have if some child accidentally ate a full bottle of cobalt chloride? The lawyers would pile on them like ants on dropped picnic cake. The lawyers and the laws have stifled our creativity. No wonder we now rank 27th in math and science of the countries of the world. And don’t think that China is worried about sending chemicals to the USA. You probably remember the tainted dog food and lead paint toys they sent here several years ago without concern.

It’s sad but the days of children experimenting with chemistry sets are over. You can buy new chemistry sets — they are available. They contain chemicals such as salt, chalk and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). Sounds like a lot of fun.

A.C. Gilbert was a huge company since 1909. They are perhaps best known for introducing Erector Sets to the marketplace in 1913. Story has it that the design was inspired when founder Alfred Carlton Gilbert observed steel girders being used in construction for the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad as he routinely traveled between home in Westville, Conn., and New York City.

Originally out of Salem, Ore., A.C. Gilbert was quite an interesting person. Educated first at Pacific University, he transferred to Yale University in 1902, financing his education by working part time as a magician. Although he obtained a degree in sports medicine he was an accomplished athlete and broke world records for consecutive chin-ups (39) in 1900 and the distance record for running long dive in 1902. In 1908 he tied for gold with fellow American Edward Cook at the Summer Olympics in London in the pole vault competition. Choosing the capitalistic path over a medical career, Gilbert co-founded a company that manufactured magic sets in 1909. This was the start of the A.C. Gilbert Company.

You may recall Erector Sets. They were basically a large box that held an assortment of metal panels and brackets that could be fastened together using 8-32 round head machine screws. Included were gears and spinning shafts that allowed children to create items like bridges, Ferris wheels, steam engines and amusement park rides if they followed simple pictures in the handbook that came along with each kit. More advanced sets offered an electrical motor that you could couple to your design and “make it move.”

Gilbert was one of the first manufacturers of educational toys who held the belief that playing was an essential part of learning. As time went on he added chemistry sets (1935) and microscope sets (1938), a telegraph set and a weather station. In New York City, the Gilbert Hall of Science was opened in 1941 to encourage engineers and scientists in developing new technology. The company often advertised their toys as being “Developed at the Gilbert Hall of Science.”

Perhaps Gilbert’s most interesting toy was the Atomic Energy set introduced in 1951 appropriately around the time of the Pacific Ocean hydrogen bomb tests that were always in the news. The set was built with the aid of professors at MIT, and included a working Geiger counter and samples of radioactive material. Many parents argued that these sets were dangerous (though the radioactive material was at very low levels) and production ceased in 1952, making the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory one of the most collectible Gilbert toys. A recent check online revealed that one unopened set had sold for $7,944 in 2006 on eBay. A line of inexpensive reflector telescopes followed the Sputnik-inspired science craze in the late 1950s.

Feeling his age, A.C. Gilbert stepped down as president of company in 1954 when he was 70, asking his son, A.C. Jr., to take over operation. This lasted for a while but by 1962, a year after A.C. Sr. died, the Gilbert family unloaded the A. C. Gilbert Company to the Wrather Corporation. They couldn’t make a go of it either and declared bankruptcy in 1967. A sad and undignified ending to an American educational company.

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Gary Hanington is a professor of physical science at Great Basin College and chief scientist at AHV. He can be reached at garyh@gwmail.gbcnv.edu.

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