Sunday, December 11, 2011

Museum at the Chemical Heritage Foundation

Who would have thought that my childhood chemistry set would wind up in a museum? And not 100 feet from a famous “chymistry” book by the father of modern chemistry Robert Boyle!

These wonders and more can be found at the Museum at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. That’s right, a museum about the history of chemistry!

If you ever find yourself in downtown Philly, as I did a few weeks ago, please stop by this museum. It’s only a few steps from Independence Hall, and some of the stuff here is a lot older than the Liberty Bell (book = 1668, Liberty Bell = 1752). Not to mention more interesting, depending on your inclinations.

And yes, I did actually have a Mr. Wizard Chemistry Set. The one in the museum is from 1973, which is right around my time. It was surreal to see something from my childhood mounted in a climate-controlled display case. I wanted to rip open the box, fire up that old alcohol burner, and start some chemicals fuming! Sort of like this guy, who looks a lot like me experimenting in my parent’s basement. Actually it’s Explosion in the Alchemist’s Laboratory, by Justus Gustav van Bentum (1670 – 1722).

But everything worked out OK with Mr. Wizard, and now I make a living as a safety engineer specializing in chemical safety. That prominent WARNING on the front of the Mr. Wizard box must have made a big impression on me as a child.

Here are a few more of my favorite things at this museum:

One of the first desktop electron microscopes – something I use today when I send asbestos samples to the lab for analysis. It looks like the RCA engineers cobbled this one together with mixing bowls from the company cafeteria.

And a couple of fun old advertisements that put the lie to “better living through chemistry”. Both of these chemicals were later banned – tetraethyl lead in gasoline, and “butter yellow” food dye. Of course when you are kneeling backwards in the rumble seat of an old jalopy with no seat belts, breathing lead fumes is the least of your worries. (1933)

At the time, it was illegal for margarine manufacturers to add yellow dye to their product, because the Congressional butter lobbyists didn’t want anyone confusing margarine and butter. Mom looks delighted to help pull one over on the family. (1947)

So get yourself over to this museum!


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