Thursday, March 29, 2007

Behold the Young Knurd

When I was young I got a Gilbert Chemistry Set for Christmas, and later a copy of Henley’s Twentieth Century Book of Formulas, Processes, and Trade Secrets. I’ve seen a lot of “ain’t it awful” talk about the Gilbert Chemistry Set, and how our modern litigious society took all the good (i.e. dangerous) stuff out of chemistry for youngsters, but the mid-1950s version of the Gilbert set didn’t have much to it either, with sodium bisulfate being the strongest acid in it, and many jars of such dangerous stuff as Logwood, and Iron Filings.

When I got tired of cutting the summer grass, I thought I’d invent an herbicide. I didn’t know the word “herbicide” and had no idea of the fact that major chemical companies developed and sold them, I just wanted the grass to grow more slowly. So I set up an experiment, nine small plots of dirt (in the holes of three cinder blocks), seeded with grass and put under a flood lamp in the basement. The center section I left as a control, and I applied different chemicals from my Gilbert Set onto each of the other sections.

Most had little to no effect, but the calcium hypochlorite surprised me by growing much better than the control. I know now that the hypochlorite is unstable, and converted to lime pretty quickly, and lime is good for the acid soil of Tennessee. The only section that had retarded growth was the one with copper chloride. Years later I learned that CuCl is a known phytotoxin and is used to control algae blooms in waterways and to kill roots in drain pipes.

I was nine years old when I did my experiment, and I still think it was a pretty good bit of junior science.

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