This Chemcraft Master Laboratory set afforded a good lesson in managing hazardous materials found in museum collections. When the toy was discovered to contain uranium samples, the set was isolated from other artifacts and workspaces until environmental authorities could be notified. The only way to prove whether radiation was present was through the use of specialized equipment, in this case, a Geiger counter. Our readings revealed that the amount of uranium was negligible, and that the set was safe to handle.
While it is hard to imagine uranium being included in a toy meant for children, in the early 1950’s, nuclear energy was in its infancy and early exploration. The Chemcraft set was advanced for its time, considering that scientists were only beginning to understand atomic energy.
Comprising of nearly 100 individual pieces, the set was the most elaborate and expensive model available in 1951 from the Porter Chemical Company of Hagerstown, Md. A toy like this would set a family back $27.50, or about one-third of an average week’s wages. CAP Curator Katie McGowan selected the set as this week’s Pennsylvania Treasure.
Brothers John and Harold Porter founded the Porter Chemical Company in 1914, and began selling their chemistry sets as early as 1915. Their chemistry outfits were designed to be “intellectually stimulating” toys for children.
Chemistry sets had risen in popularity as of the late 1880’s, but the true peak occurred in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Not surprisingly, the market demand coincided with that era’s nuclear arms race. In the early 1940’s, the United States began researching how nuclear energy could be harnessed in weapon warfare and, in 1945, dropped an enriched uranium bomb on Japan . One year later, President Harry S. Truman signed the Atomic Energy Act and soon after, in 1947, Atomic Energy kits were added to the Chemcraft chemistry sets. The model, which belonged to a family from Camp Hill, contains not only chemicals, but also an educational manual on atomic energy, radiation test strips and, yes, even a sample of true uranium ore.
How many young future scientists were inspired by Chemcraft chemistry sets? We may never know!
About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.