Once widely available, electronic kits and chemistry sets made science fun and approachable
It happens every time.
On our way to the beach, my wife and I pass through Marshville, thirty-five miles outside Charlotte on Highway 74. Not long after I see the sign proclaiming we’re speeding past the birthplace of its most famous son, Randy Travis, we pass a rusted Radio Shack sign.
I can’t help but gaze at it. Like Mr. Bojangles, I still grieve after all these years.
When I was in high school in the early 70s, nothing compared with a trip to Radio Shack. It was a science nerd’s dream. The kits they sold promised high-tech adventure, and making them gave a sense of accomplishment. Build your own AM radio transmitter! How about a treasure finder? Make your own shortwave receiver and listen to the US armed forces, or NASA, or ships at sea. There was nothing quite like soldering that last connection, powering up your project, and hearing it work.
And it wasn’t just Radio Shack. Kits for any skill level, as well as more serious electronic gear, could be found at Heathkit and Lafayette stores. Retail and drug stores offered chemistry sets, lab gear, and a dazzling (and potentially dangerous) variety of chemicals.
From the 1950s up to the early 90s, kids were encouraged to explore the sciences, and not just for entertainment value. After all, we had to compete with the Soviets. It was the age of Sputnik, of Lyndon Johnson growling that he did not want to look up at the moon and see a damn Russian flag. Mastering science and technology wasn’t just for the sheer fun of it; it was a patriotic duty.
My parents did their part. I had a microscope in the third grade, and received chemistry and electronic learning labs as presents for many birthdays and Christmases. One set included a formula for what the manual called “Dehydrated Fire,” a harmless-looking powder that would burst into flames when you sprinkled water on it. Who says science is boring?
In the eighth grade, my parents bought me a reflecting telescope from Sears. The night sky in the backyard of our rural home was unpolluted with city lights, ideal for squinting at distant craters, ice rings, and glowing stellar nurseries.
In the late 70s, the personal computer put even more technology into the hands of ordinary people. Hard-core hobbyists made their own computers from kits, but even off-the-shelf computers gave owners the ability to create and store their own programs. Learning to program no longer required access to a big-ticket, room-sized mainframe. I learned BASIC on the Commodore 64, and thought I was Mr. Spock himself.
From the end of WWII to the early 90s, science and technology were domesticated and made understandable. Little wonder that this period saw such a creative outpouring of intelligent and optimistic science fiction, with visionaries such as Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Card, and Le Guin dazzling and enchanting us with tales of wonder, exploration, and adventure.
And then something happened.
Today’s computers do not come with built-in programming capabilities. You can buy an interpreter or compiler, but why bother? Whatever you want to do, there’s an app for that already. Yes, computers can be customized, but they only allow you to choose features designed by others. The mini-computers in our cell phones are not springboards for creativity, but instruments that transfix and numb their owners.
Technology today is designed for consumers, not collaborators.
I believe the age of hands-on, empowering technology started dying the same year Radio Shack peaked, 1999. The number of stores dwindled until the parent corporation declared bankruptcy in 2015. Since then, electronics morphed from interactive to anesthetizing. With the Cold War won, and no real challenges before us, we lost that sense of purpose that pushed us to learn and explore and dare.
And yes, a few stores do offer science kits today, but these kits are feeble substitutes for the magnificent and daring science adventures we enjoyed. Have you seen the “fossil dig kit” available in craft stores? For $19.99, a kid can brush away dirt from a fake rock and “discover” real shark’s teeth and bones. Yes, it’s boring, but it’s safe. It’s what kids are allowed to do in a timid, complacent, and aimless age.