The heyday of home experimentation in the US coincided with the rise of the Porter Chemical Company, makers of the legendary Chemcraft labs-in-a-box, which contained enough bottles and beakers to perform more than 800 experiments. At the height of its popularity in the 1950s, Porter awarded college scholarships, mined its own chemicals, and was the biggest user of test tubes in the US. The company produced more than a million chemistry sets before going out of business in the 1980s amid increasing liability concerns.
One kid whose interest in science was sparked by the gift of a chemistry set was Don Herbert, who grew up to host a popular TV show in the 1950s called Watch Mr. Wizard. With his eye-popping demonstrations and low-key midwestern manner, Mr. Wizard gave generations of future scientists and teachers the confidence to perform experiments at home. In 1999, Restoration Hardware founder Stephen Gordon teamed up with Renee Whitney, general manager of a toy company called Wild Goose, to try to re-create the chemistry set Herbert marketed almost 50 years ago. “Don was so sweet,” Whitney recalls. “He invited us to his home to have dinner with him and his wife. Then he pulled his old chemistry set out of the garage. It was amazing – a real metal cabinet, like a little closet, filled with dozens of light-resistant bottles.”
Gordon and Whitney soon learned that few of the items in Mr. Wizard’s cabinet could be included in the product. “Unfortunately, we found that more than half the chemicals were illegal to sell to children because they’re considered dangerous,” Whitney explains. By the time the Mr. Wizard Science Set appeared in stores, it came with balloons, clay, Super Balls, and just five chemicals, including laundry starch, which was tagged with an ominous warning: HANDLE CAREFULLY. NOT EXPECTED TO BE A HEALTH HAZARD.
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