MORE on the chemistry set. (Re-edited with fun substances of choice included.) We used to have these, once. Can anybody point readers to a proper chemistry set, anywhere in the world, with chemicals which you can do anything with?

Sorry for the rather short title. This thread on here came originally from the “12angrymenblog” (see our blogroll) some time ago. I don’t mind promoting it again now, because the side of this bolg gets hit by chemistry sets so often.

Apologies; I got called away. Here is a list of chemicals which would once have been common in early, which is to say early/mid-20th-century, chemistry sets.

I remember being able to buy potassium dichromate, in a high street chemist, in Epsom, Surrey, in 1967, for ninepence – not much but I got some, about an ounce or 28 grams, in a little cardboard cylinder with a plastic clip-top. The pharmacist, after informing me that it was a “schedule 2 poison (which I knew anyway, doing A-levels) told me; “now then, careful with that on the bus, sonny!” 

I’ve thought of everything that either I found in my first set, or that with hindsight as an experimental young boy, I would have liked. Further suggestions would be welcome, especially from American readers, who I gather in some states are now prevented from owning scientific apparatus and some chemicals, for “terrorist” reasons (is this actually true?)

No particular order of importance:-

Phosphoric acid, flakes.

A “Woods metal” ingot (Bi, Sn, Cd, Pb alloy, melts at 55C)

Potassium permanganate, solid.

Iron oxide powder 

Calcium carbide (so cheap once, you couldn’t giv it away.)

Potassium dichromate (or potassium chromate would do.)


Iodine crystals


Potassium iodide

Manganese (IV) dioxide

Sodium tetraborate

Nickel wire


Aluminium powder

Silver nitrate

Potassium or sodium nitrate

Mercury (II) Oxide

Aniline (cryptically referred to as “phenylamine” in the trans-planetarily-wierd and outlandish British A-level syllabus…did you know that they have to represent a benzene ring as a single hexagon with a circle inside it?)

Ammonium (V) vanadate or (VI) molybdate

Sulphur, flowers

Iron sulphide sticks

Magnesium metal, ribbon

Calcium metal in naphtha

Strontium nitrate

Bismuth, metal

Sodium nitrite

Starch powder

Iron (III) nitrate


A DECENT spirit burner, capable of running about 30 mins or more and with a big wick

Glass rods and tubes, for bending; capillary (1mm) and standard about 3mm bore

A good sharp cork-borer for same

Proper glass test tubes and corks/bungs to fit

Salicylic acid or benzoic acid crystals

Potassium bromide

Carbon charcoal powder (fine)

Glass wool

A year later aged 16, I was allowed to buy a litre of concentrated sulphuric acid, from Messrs Gallenkamp in North London somewhere, having forced my mother to drive me there. The receptionist was surprised, but I got the stuff. I recall that she was a woman of about 28-32(ish), in a tight pink wool (sort of) mini-skirt and a black top that we would now call a “t-shirt”. Goodness, she must be about 70 now…wonder if she remembers the strange boy who wanted REAL chemicals in 500g and 1-Kg lots, and apparatus (and who did the paying) and his stranger mother? (And, re t-shirts, Che Guevara WAS a murderer, and no, your T-shirt is EVEN LESS COOL than it was last year. So take it off, burn it, and get a proper one with Bush on it, looking dreamily off-camera somewhere. Towards Venezeuela if you like. Pretty girls there.)

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9 responses to “MORE on the chemistry set. (Re-edited with fun substances of choice included.) We used to have these, once. Can anybody point readers to a proper chemistry set, anywhere in the world, with chemicals which you can do anything with?

  1. Sheesh, reading this makes me fell nostalgic!

    Googling “Chemistry set” produces lots of hits.

    The one that appealed to me is this:

    Now, I know this isn’t what you had in mind. But it seems to be “the way it’s done” now, and you could certainly learn a lot about chemistry which you would not have in the mid-Fifties (when we learned how to make nitroglycerine, after watching “The Wages of Fear”).

    But it’s not as much fun, is it? >:-}

    Did you ever dream of being a fireworks designer?



  2. Dear Tony

    I’ve looked up your link, not having known about it. It looks nice and I’d love to have one if I was a proper science teacher in the UK and the State would pay for it for me!. However, there is no substitute for the real thing, especially for brilliant and violent redox reactions that make stuff really change its form for you while you wait, usually with spectacular results as we both know!

    My father introduced me to potassium chlorate, and its possibilities for excitement, when I was about nine, in 1961. He was a scientist too as you know, and had the good fortune to get access, while still a “poor East End Boy”, to the finest education that money could not even buy (Imperial College) in the 30′s. Did you ever meet him? I have a sort of recollection that we went together to his house but I am not sure. I still teach classical biology of cells using a surviving set of his own microscope slides, which he made when a student, and even dated to the day.

    Tony, you will make me cry if you are not careful. I curse our mutual enemies, for the oncoming of the Dark Age that they wish to usher in.

  3. David,

    As a chemistry teacher I’m not sure why you seen to object to showing a benzene ring as a hexagon with a circle in it.

    The old structure of alternating single and double bonds is incorrect because the electrons are delocalised over the entire ring. Indeed, an examination of C-C bond lengths around the ring shows that they are all equivalent.

    As a simple representation of the benzene ring, the circle within a hexagon makes much more sense.


  4. Hi, Ian,

    But do they teach that the benzene ring structure, which won Kekule his Nobel Prize AFAICR, came to him in a dream of a serpent eating its own tail? (The Worm Ouroborous story).

    Popper quotes this approvingly, as an example that testable scientific hypotheses can come from anywhere. No “induction” nonsense.

    My late oldest brother Chris, who won his degree in mineralogy at Imperial College, and who spent his entire working life at Warren Springs Research Establishmnt (until they closed it down) was a resolute believer in “induction” in science, and would get very angry when we discussed Philosopy of Science. Siince I had learned most of that with my friend Jeremy Shearmur, who was Popper’s Research Assistant and who held a Master’s in Logic and Scientific Method, I usually won. >:-}

    You might (or might not) enjoy my Relational Dynamics Science paper, which integrates Classical Mechanics, Galilean Relativity and Quantum physics in one fully intelligible and testable theory. The next iteration will subsume the field presently occupied by Quantum Chromodynamics, which is an awfull mess. >:-}

    BTW: Hafele and Keating, which is often quoted in support of General Relativity, turned out to be “cherry-picking” results, when Dr. Gerald Kelly went to the US Naval Research Archives to check it out. The totality of the clock measurements in fact falsify GR.


    It’s good to cry once in a while. I feel a lot better afterwards. The alternative is a glacial, hard hatred, which isn’t much fun.

    I wish I could attend your cell biology classes.
    I’ve done quite a lot of work of the role of BHT (E321) in destroying lipid-enveloped viruses by breaking down the lipid envelope. Since BHT is very safe, and is just five bucks or so a kilo, it has a useful role to play in suppressing many viral infections in 250mg. oral dosages daily. It also has the same effect as 5 grammes of Vitamin C as an antioxidant free radical suppressor. And no ‘runs’! >:-}

    Best, Tony

    PS: ISTR meeting your Dad.

  5. Tony,

    Yes, the benzene ring structure is taught, though the Kekule dream is not always mentioned. I do – though very few sixth-form students would be capable of understanding concepts such as induction.

    Part of the problem in science is that the introduction of modular courses and splitting A levels into AS and A2 mean that there is a huge pressure on teachers to get the factual content covered and exam preparation done, that there is no time for discussion.


  6. Dave and Ian:

    It would be a useful research project, to find out how many of the items on Dave’s list are prohibited or controlled substances. It might be very possible to put classy chemistry sets together economically, then to sell them on eBay, not just in the UK. There must be a worldwide market for such a kit. Positive cashflow with payment via PayPal, and minimal overheads.

    Under the Permitted Import of Medicines Act, you can import and use for yourself and your family any medicines available legally in another country.

    Dave: It’s perfectly legal to sell BHT per se, but not to advertize its medicinal uses. Of course, if there were two separate web sites with ‘links’, one selling and one telling, this would not be a problem.

    BTW: I have Scientific American’s CD of all their “Amateur Scientist’s Experiments” articles over the years that they did them. If you want a copy, just ask!



  7. Tony, I’d love that! I have spend some hundreds of pounds trying to re-assemble a Sciam archive of hard-copy journals, which is yet incomplete. I’ll communictae with you privately on this one.

    But your other scheme has merit and we ought to talk. DD

  8. Ian,
    I do appreciate that the simple hex with a circle in it accurately represents the fact that the bonds are all of equal length and electronic structure, integrated over any apprecialbe time. however, the Kekule structure although electronically innacurate does facilitate the drawing of mechanisms.

  9. Hi there would you mind letting me know which web host you’re using? I’ve loaded your blog in 3 completely different web browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot faster then most.

    Can you suggest a good hosting provider at a reasonable price?
    Many thanks, I appreciate it!