An education in a box: Things of Science subscribers received a monthly box of “unusual things,” such as fossils or high-tech materials (like the “glass fibers” in this 1948 ad). One kit had strips of corrugated cardboard to make gears. Imagine what today’s postal inspectors would make of the enzyme kit!

Among my childhood memories of toy gyroscopes, souvenir radiometers, and other scientific kid stuff is a unique series called “Things of Science.” I nostalgically recall its clever combination of simple yet effective elements: the anticipation of a magazine subscription combined with the mystery of a “Free Inside” cereal prize, crossed with the fascinating variety of a science fair together with the sense of accomplishment from completing a merit badge — all mailed to my house once a month in a little blue box.

If you were one of the lucky subscribers to Things of Science (“memberships limited”!) you know just what I mean, and if you weren’t, here’s what you missed.

In 1940, the nonprofit group Science Service created Things of Science (ToS) as an educational outreach program to spread news about science to the public. The idea was to put actual samples of real things into the hands of newspaper editors, teachers, and students. Each month, Science

Service produced a kit on a different scientific topic, such as optics or electricity, and included small samples, such as lenses or wires, along with booklets containing information and simple experiments to do at home. These materials were collated into small blue boxes and mailed to subscribers. There were hundreds of different ToS kits produced over nearly 50 years.

The list of scientific topics reads like an encyclopedia: enzymes, seashells, modern electronics, carbon black, slide rules, papermaking, fossils, probability, horology, polarized light, licorice, air pollution, the mollusk, simple machines, and on and on. You never knew what scientific surprise next month’s little blue box would bring!

The one common element of all Things of Science kits was the “thing.” By placing an actual thing in your hand, otherwise abstract or distant topics became real and touchable. Instead of just reading a book about sound, the ToS Sound kit, Unit No. 243, provided you with a complete (if tiny) sound lab featuring various sound makers: a nylon string, a harmonica, a reed, a siren, a whistle, a plastic membrane, and a booklet with experiments. You’d build a drum, explore the relationship between tension and pitch with a vibrating string, and experience how air pressure affects volume in wind instruments. With each ToS, you’d hear, see, feel, smell, and taste science.

Yes, taste! I remember the Taste kit, Unit No. 265, from November 1962. It came with a packet of table salt, a piece of bubble gum, some strips of impregnated paper, and several mysterious, unmarked pouches of white powder (imagine sending this through the mail today!).

Besides the tried-and-true grade school science-fair experiment of mapping the locations of salt, sour, and bitter taste bud areas on your tongue, this kit came with samples of phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) for testing “taste blindness.” I learned that some people cannot taste the bitter PTC and that this inability is hereditary; children of two nontaster parents are also nontasters. According to the accompanying booklet: “It has been found that among American whites, three out of ten are ‘blind’ to PTC’s bitter taste. The proportion is somewhat different for other races. The Chinese are reported to be 94% tasters and so also are the American Indians. This fact is used as evidence that the Indians originally came from Asia.” From tasting salt to anthropological migration — that’s just a “taste” of the cleverness of ToS kits.

Can you smell the science? In December 1961, ToS subscribers found a special star-covered “Christmas Unit” edition of ToS in their mailboxes: Incense, Unit No. 254. It included different sample cones of incense, including pine, sandalwood, rose, wisteria, “oriental,” violet, jasmine, piñon, gum arabic, and, appropriately for the season, gum olibanum, better known as frankincense.

The experiments had kids mixing and sampling gum arabic (used in foods as well as incense) and burning and smelling the cones. This multisensory approach to learning is particularly effective. The sense of smell’s olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system and the hippocampus, directly associated with memory and learning (and emotions). To the old saying “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, but I do and I understand,” perhaps we can add “I smell and I feel” because scents are very emotionally memorable.

One month the “thing” would be a common substance (like table salt), but presented in new ways; the next month, the “thing” would be an “out of this world” material. December 1963’s ToS arrived as a thin cardboard folder instead of the usual blue box. Huh? Inside was Space Materials, Unit No. 278, with five shimmery, silver swatches of “Satelloon” skins: high-tech (for the time) laminates of foils and plastics.

These were samples of the same space-age material used to make Echo I, the passive radio wave-reflecting satellite balloon that was then orbiting the Earth and was visible from my backyard. I could see the brilliant reflective balloon — 800 miles up, streaking through the night sky at 16,000mph — and hold the very same vacuum-metalized aluminum-coated mylar right in my hand. I was touching the space age!

Of course, every ToS kit wasn’t so exciting. Sometimes I’d rip open that month’s latest mystery offering and find a clunker, like Cotton, Unit No. 270, from April 1963. It came with some puffs of fibers, a bit of thread, and few swatches of woven cotton cloth. Snore. Even as a third-grader I was already too jaded to do the boring-sounding experiments and learn about carding, spinning, and weaving cotton. No matter, there was always next month. It was that intermittent positive reinforcement that kept me coming back.

As the product of a nonprofit organization, the ToS kits had to be low-cost. The modest subscription fee ($5 a year in the 1960s) covered only the postage and printing. Samples and materials were donated by companies. The “science” part of ToS was written by the staff of Science Service, now known as Society for Science & the Public, publishers of Science News.

One fun fact: for a while in the 1980s, the ToS kits were produced by a company owned by Andrew Svenson Jr., whose father, under the pen name Jerry West, wrote Hardy Boys, Tom Swift Jr., and Happy Hollisters books. (The endpaper illustration from the 1958 edition of Tom Swift Jr. shows Tom in his orbiting space lair, filled with every child’s dream of scientific things: rockets, subs, beakers and flasks, a microscope, blueprints, and electronic control panels.)

My family wasn’t quite so dedicated to science.

My mom threw out all my old ToS kits long ago (along with the comic books and baseball cards), so I turned to eBay to find them again. Sure enough, I got some old friends back and some other vintage ToS boxes that were new to me. I’m having a blast going through them.

Looking at them now, I’m impressed by how simply and cleverly the kits were designed. The writing is direct and conversational. The entire ToS series is so earnest and straightforward — no “edutainment” here.

Could a Things of Science-style program work today? Unlike years ago, many cities now have excellent children’s science museums. The kids’ section of any bookstore is filled with slick, four-color “book and thing” titles and plastic snap-together kits giving even the least-patient kid fail-proof, fast results. Cable TV shows nature and science programming in high definition.

The competition for kids’ limited time and attention with all these well-heeled for-profit entities would be daunting. U.S. manufacturers struggle against cost-cutting pressures with little room in their budgets for sending out free stuff. Society is more litigious now, and in a time of heightened peanut allergy awareness, sending out raw industrial materials with sharp edges, chemical compounds, and pouches of mystery powders could keep an army of liability lawyers busy.

And yet — there’s a certain undeniable coolness about holding a real thing in your hand, and feeling, smelling, or tasting it. That’s some “thing” that even the internet can’t provide.


Society for Science:

George Moody’s excellent cataloging of ToS Units:

More on the Svenson family, real and fictional:

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