Fond Memories of Chemistry Sets and Electrical Experiments

-January 02, 2012

Just before the Christmas holiday I receive a few emails from people who want advice about what to buy for a young person interested in science and electricity. In the late spring and late fall I write a column, "Kits for Kids," for parents who want holiday-gift ideas and kits to keep kids busy during summer vacation. Usually I can offer some additional advice to email correspondents.

My parents, a lawyer and a school librarian, had little to guide them to gift ideas for sons interested in chemistry and electricity.  So my grandfather, an electrical contractor, mounted low-voltage light-bulb sockets, knife switches, and buzzers on small pieces of wood, and along with some hookup wire and his personal instructions, this assortment of electrical building blocks made a wonderful gift.  I wired and rewired series and parallel circuits and made electromagnets for an Erector set, and amazed friends with a solenoid. Power came from four large 1.5-volt dry cells. At about this time I also received Alfred Morgan's book, "A First Electrical Book for Boys," which I still have.

After demonstrating my "expertise" wiring simple circuits, Santa Claus decided I was ready for electric trains; a used set of Lionel "O" gauge track, switches, and cars, plus a locomotive.  I remember the green board that held the tracks and transformer extending under a living-room couch at Christmas. Dad gave instructions to keep the locomotive speed down and not derail the train behind the couch. In later years my mother told me I would often invite elementary-school friends over to see my trains, but most of the time they would not operate because the layout was continually "under reconstruction," as I modified the electrical wiring or rearranged the track.  I enjoyed working on the setup, but my friends wanted to see the the trains actually go around the track. They didn't want a discussion about what switch would control what part of the layout.

When I was 10 or 11 I got a Gilbert chemistry set for Christmas, along with the book, "Simple Chemical Experiments," also written by Morgan and still on my shelf. The list of necessary chemicals in an appendix includes small pencil marks the indicate I eventually had most compounds available in the basement lab where my brother Chris and I spent most of our free time. The chem lab eventually expanded so much we had to move it across the street to my grandfather's basement where it took one entire wall, as shown in the two photos nearby.  The sophistication of our experiments increased as did our inventory of raw materials.  We discovered a courteous request for small samples of industrial chemicals kept us well supplied. Those days are long gone.

My interests continued to include electronics and I bought and built Knight and Heath kits and requested books about electronics for Christmas and birthdays. I also received gifts of kits such as a Heathkit "Q Multiplier" and a Knightkit VOM. Eventually I got a Hallicrafters SX-110 short-wave receiver and passed the test for a novice amateur-radio license. I got an Eico 732 transmitter, too. One Christmas, Dad gave me the "gift" of a trip with him to Canal Street in New York City. At the time, surplus stores lined Canal Street and the array of electrical, electronic, and mechanical equipment boggled the mind.  Over the years I bought power supplies, relays, switches, and other components with Christmas and birthday money. Mom and Dad had given up trying to figure out what gifts I might like and decided I knew best what I needed for "the lab."  We also visited John Winn & Co on east 23rd Street in New York and bought chemicals for the lab.

My brother and I went on to obtain Ph.D. degrees in chemistry from Virginia Tech. During our research, though, we became more interested in computers and electronics and made our careers designing electronic equipment, writing software, and writing about electronics. 

Those past Christmases were a happy and fun time and I always remember how my parents and grandparents kindled my interest in science and engineering.

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