Retrotechtacular: The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments

Back in “the old days” (that is, when I was a kid), kids led lives of danger and excitement. We rode bikes with no protective gear. We stayed out roaming the streets after dark without adult supervision. We had toy guns that looked like real ones. Dentists gave us mercury to play with. We also blew things up and did other dangerous science experiments.

If you want a taste of what that was like, you might enjoy The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. The book, first published in 1960, offers to show you how to set up a home laboratory and provides 200 experiments. The colorfully illustrated book shows you how to do some basic lab work as well as offering some science history and terminology.

Want to make oxygen? There’s several methods on page 27. Page 28 covers making hydrogen. To test the hydrogen for purity, the suggest you collect a test tube full, invert it, and stick a match up to the tube. If the hydrogen is pure it will burn with a pop noise. If air is mixed it, it will explode. Yeah, that sound safe to us.

At least they do warn you not to use sulphuric and nitric acid, although why that’s more dangerous than lighting up some hydrogen, we aren’t quite sure. Besides, after saying you shouldn’t use it, several experiments do call for it, including making rayon by blowing ammonia and cupric hydroxide into hydrochloric acid. You can only hope the kids realized to take their mouth off the blow tube before inhaling. Then again, they were probably going to get brain injuries if they went out bike riding, so it is probably a  wash.

This book reminded me a lot of another one from about the same time about building your own lab equipment. It would also go great with a real chemistry set, if only you could find one.

33 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments

  1. So I go to archive.org and download the book (my grandson is coming for Thanksgiving and I want to be prepared). I scroll down pretty much randomly and the first thing my eye lands on is “IN TEST TUBE IN WHICH YOU MAKE H,S. MOISTEN A SILVER COIN.” Dang, now I just have to try it to see if there’s any silver left on our “silvery” coins.

    And remember kids, “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Then it’s still fun and games but with no depth perception.”

    1. LOL and in the land of the blind….. I was fortunate enough to grow up in the 60’s and had one of those chemistry sets with all the politically incorrect toxic stuff and as an added bonus bottles of chemicals from my fathers 1930’s REALLY toxic chemistry set. Never did any permanent damage AFAIK, though we did do some of the dodgy experiments out on the back porch. Just don’t drink any of it, stay upwind and you should be OK!

      1. Or a quarter or half dollar . Kennedy halves were still 70% sterling until 1970. Then there’s foreign coins. You could probably make a fun experiment out of refining brazing rod. All you’d need is a couple torches or a furnace, lead and a bone ash cupel.

      1. also https://www.amazon.com/Creative-Chemistry-Descriptive-Achievements-Industries-ebook/dp/B004UJKGEM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1478900502&sr=8-1&keywords=creative+chemistry “creative chemistry” was published in 1919, but it was VERY interesting to read from a historical (geopolitical and social) standpoint and from a technical standpoint. I keep trying to get others to read it since I picked up a copy at a bookstore, but have had no takers yet.

          1. Thanks for that! Spent an hour or so yesterday reading about world supplies of nitrogen, the Chilean saltpetre supplies that the world depended on for nitrogen, and how the Haber process had freed the Germans from reliance on it. And much more.

            Written when it was, there’s a lot of reflection on how modern chemistry made it possible for Germany to produce fertiliser and explosives for the years during WW1. Without that, they would have run out of nitrates in a year, since the British blockaded Chile, and that’d be WW1 over.

            There’s something reassuring about a paternal scientist telling you how the world works, and that basically Civilised Men like you and me have mastered it (although actually it doesn’t have much of the innate racism of the time), and that science will conquer the world soon, and give us all lives of endless prosperity. And all thanks to fairly simple things like making nitric acid from various sources. Science back then was understandable by a layman, the sort of giant science that fed nations from huge chemical reactors with glowing electrified platinum mesh and 6 foot electric arcs feeding the soil.

            It’s very reassuring to read all that, from some self-confidently knowledgable man, makes you feel like a kid on his grandfather’s knee.

  2. I still contend that the best place that a young wanting to practice chemistry can find real experience is in the kitchen cooking and baking. This has nothing to do with the ‘dangerous chemicals’ issue of home experiments, but rather doing the sort of thinking and problem solving that one needs to do working in an analytical or synthetic lab.

    1. Couldn’t agree more! My early (age 5 or 6) start in the kitchen (thanks, Mom!) has definitely contributed to my happiness in the fields of science & engineering and in eating well on a limited budget. Wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything in the world!

    1. I actually got to witness that experiment when a housemate went on a cleaning spree and went momentarily retarded. We had to open all the windows to vent the house. Germany in February is chilly.

  3. Wow! So cool to see this posted. It inspired me to leaf through the copy of this book that I still have on my shelf which I purchased with lawn mowing earnings as a kid some 50 years ago. This and similar texts, many acquired through the Scholastic Book Club at school, inspired me to a great career in engineering. I can remember spending many hours learning and dreaming with these books.

    1. The classic chemical volcano demonstration is done with ammonium dichromate. The eruption produces copious amounts of heat and sparks and flings hot chromium oxide about. Wearing safety goggles is definitely indicated.

  4. I recall my 8th grade chemistry teacher telling us how to mix lye, aluminum foil, and water in a coke bottle and then with a ballon quickly put on top. While the resulting water vapor, air, and hydrogen gas mixture wouldn’t float the balloon, it WOULD make a nice explosion on the driveway when you tied a gas soaked string onto the end of the balloon as a fuse and lit it! 😀

    1. My chemistry teacher did something similar in the classroom. Used a candle at the end of a well scorched yard stick to ignite it.

      Unfortunately, one year, a couple of students snuck in during lunch to repeat the experiment. No idea what went wrong, but the resulting explosion dislodged a number of FL bulbs, destroyed a number of ongoing experiments, and sent the kids straight to detention.

  5. Quite fond memories of this! Before computers stole my soul, I was a chemistry geek. I didn’t do much actual chemistry, but looking at this & other books, and imagining how things worked, probably helped me be a passable programmer. (Still, someday, I want to make Rayon!)

  6. We had this little green book. Don’t recall the title, but I do recall that it had–and this is true–complete instructions for making picric acid. We “made” hydrogen, gun powder, etc. from this book, but even us kids knew to stop before picric acid. Something about the warning that just lifting the EM flask after drying could cause a violent exothermic reaction. Maybe it was Darwinist chemistry education. Maybe we were just ‘fraidy cats.

  7. Pretty easy to tell when the Hackaday writers are having a difficult time to find new interest content or too hung over to put effort in doing so when they resort to trolling the visitors to hackaday.com.

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