Rediscovering Things of Science

For many years, the Science Service produced a monthly series of science kits called "Things of Science", available by subscription. When I was a kid (in the 60s), I subscribed to Things of Science for several years. I suspect that many of us who chose careers in the sciences found at least part of our inspiration in those blue boxes that arrived in the mail every month (well, almost every month; sometimes we'd get manila envelopes, filled with stuff that wouldn't fit in the boxes). Each kit ("unit") had a booklet of experiments, and usually everything needed to perform them.

On this page


The original mission of the Science Service, a nonprofit organization founded in 1921 by newspaper publisher E. W. Scripps (1854-1926) and still active today as publishers of Science News, was to educate the public about science, principally as a news service, by providing articles describing current research to newspapers and popular magazines. The Things of Science program, which was launched in November 1940, was the brainchild of Watson Davis (1896-1967), director of the Science Service from 1928 until 1967.

Interviewed in a 1946 Wall Street Journal article, Davis traced the beginnings of Things of Science to samples of new materials sent out with Science Service news stories as an attention-getter. "It was [Davis] who dreamed up the little packages that make every man a museum head who wants to be. The first ones were sent to newspaper editors to help sell natural science stories," wrote Herbert Nichols, science editor of the Christian Science Monitor, in a 1952 article about Things of Science.

Early in the program's history, the emphasis shifted to young people. Already in 1946, the Science Service estimated that half of its subscribers were school groups and science clubs, and the other half individuals. Things of Science brought journalists, teachers, and students alike in direct contact with not only the ideas but also samples of the actual stuff (unusual and often new materials) that researchers were inventing or studying.

The early boxes were light brown. The first of the familiar blue boxes appeared between October 1943 and September 1944. The wartime units provide intimate and often startling perspectives on their period. The samples in the Unusual Fabrics Unit of September 1942 were described as materials "of special value now because of war shortages and of promise for the days after the war when industrial progress will usher in many new products;" how must it have felt to handle and study these swatches of otherwise unattainable luxuries? A year later, the Cork Products Unit recruited subscribers to a grand project to survey the US for wild cork oaks, since the supply of Spanish cork was uncertain during World War II and finding a native supply was a priority.

Since the program relied on donated materials, the Science Service limited the number of subscriptions, initially to 1,000, but increasing to 5,000 (with a waiting list) in 1944, 7,000 in 1946, and 12,000 in 1952. In 1957, support for the program allowed the Science Service to expand the number of subscribers again, as noted in this flyer about the program.

The blue boxes I remember from the 60s were full of things to study, things to build, and experiments to try. Some boxes contained things I had seen before, but never really noticed. Others contained things I had never seen (a polypropylene hinge, made of a single piece of plastic, that could flex hundreds of thousands of times without breaking; a silkworm's cocoon, the size of a jelly bean, made of a strand of silk a kilometer long; a diffraction grating; copper ore; polarizers; flexible magnets). Subscriptions were cheap even by the standards of the time, which was a good thing since I had very little money to spend. I remember saving up a quarter every week for four months to get my subscription.

The Science Service produced and distributed Things of Science for about 40 years, through 1980. In 1981, the Science Service transferred its rights in the program to an independent company that produced additional units until at least 1989. The owner during at least part of this period was Andrew E. Svenson, Jr. (1939-2005), whose father was a noted author of children's books. The Science Service has reacquired rights to Things of Science and may revive the program at some time in the future.

The archives of the Smithsonian Institution contain a large collection of Science Service records. Designated Record Unit 7091, this collection is indexed in a finding aid. (Among its treasures is a collection of photographs taken by Watson Davis at the famous Scopes "monkey trial" in 1925.) I have not had an opportunity to examine the collection, but the finding aid suggests that at least 10 of the 457 boxes of records contain historical material relating to the Things of Science program. For example, one of these boxes is recorded as containing:

Box 306, folder 10: England - Science News Letter, "THINGS of Science," and Science Talent Search, 1948. Efforts to duplicate Science Service activities in England.
As noted below, an independent UK-based Things of Science program appeared during the mid-1960s.

On 10 January 2008, the Science Service became the Society for Science and the Public.

About the units

First, some general information I've been able to glean from looking at many units. The first 338 units (created between 1940 and 1968) were consecutively numbered, although the numbers did not appear in the first 20 (possibly as many as 22) units. An extra unit, numbered 25A (Nylon Monofilament Unit), was issued together with unit 25 (Resin Bonded Plywood Unit), and subscribers apparently received both units together in one envelope. Units issued in 1969 and later years were not numbered, and it can sometimes be difficult to establish even the year of their production. The mailing labels on most units indicate the expiration date of the subscriber's subscription, and not the date when the unit was produced or mailed. Both 1-year and 2-year subscriptions were offered at various times, so it is reasonable to assume that the production date of an unknown unit was at some time during the two years prior to the mailing label date. The copyright date on the booklet indicates the year (and in some cases, the month) of production. The table below indicates the production dates, where known; units were usually received by subscribers during the month following the production date, but sometimes much later (since it was possible to order extra units when available). The dates for the unnumbered units have been discovered from a variety of clues, but there is some uncertainty about them and most of the unnumbered units are only dated by year.

Certain topics, such as aerodynamics, chemical models, computation, crystallization, fossils, geometric models, optical illusions, probability, and surface tension, appeared on multiple occasions. A new collection of seeds was something to anticipate in February most years. Typically, the booklets were revised and new experiments were added whenever a title reappeared.

At the end of the table below, I've listed in italics titles of units that I haven't examined myself, for which the dates and in some cases the titles are uncertain. In a few cases, I found these titles in the booklets provided with later units; others have been sent to me by readers of this page (see below) or have been found in references elsewhere on the web.

Things of Science units, 1940-c.1989

Unit numberDateSubject
[3] 1/41Fingerprint Unit
[4] 2/41Fabrics
[5] 3/41Meteorites
[6] 4/41Synthetic Rubber Unit
[7] 5/41Bimetallic Unit
[8] 6/41Fossils Unit
[9] 7/41
[10] 8/41
[11] 9/41
[14]12/41Paper Packaging Unit
[15] 1/42Transparent Packaging Unit
[16] 2/42
[17] 3/42
[18] 4/42Seeds of Medicinal and Condiment Plants
[19] 5/42Fern Fossil Unit
[20] 6/42Treated Wood and Cloth Unit
[21] 7/42
[22] 8/42
23 9/42Unusual Fabrics Unit
2410/42Oyster Unit
2511/42Resin Bonded Plywood Unit
25A11/42Nylon Monofilament Unit
27 1/43
28 2/43
29 3/43
30 4/43Lodestone Magnetic Unit
31 5/43Oil Shale Unit
32 6/43Coins Unit
33 7/43Insects Unit
34 8/43Rayon Unit
35 9/43Cork Products
3711/43Unusual Paper and Sheeting Unit
3812/43Felt Unit
39 1/44Textile Identification Unit
40 2/44
41 3/44
42 4/44Rubber Plants Unit
43 5/44Spice Unit
44 6/44Cotton
45 7/44Dehydrated Food Unit
46 8/44War Rubber Unit
47 9/44Lignin Unit
4810/44Sweetness Unit
4911/44Volcanic Unit
5012/44Upholstery Unit
51 1/45Steel Unit
52 2/45Coal Unit
53 3/45Sprouting Seeds Unit
54 4/45Coal Byproducts
55 5/45Coffee Unit
56 6/45Lithium
57 7/45Nylon Unit
58 8/45Talc Unit
59 9/45Perching Plants Unit
6010/45Home and Office Unit
6111/45Tricky Minerals Unit
6212/45Glass Lens Unit
63 1/46Sound Recording Unit
64 2/46Petroleum
65 3/46Rope Unit
66 4/46Bread Grains
67 5/46
68 6/46
69 7/46Blast-Furnace Slag Unit
70 8/46Petroleum Products Unit
71 9/46Insecticides
7210/46Ball and Roller Bearing Unit
75 1/47Chicle Unit
76 2/47Ramie Unit
77 3/47
78 4/47Petrified Wood
79 5/47
80 6/47Cotton Unit
81 7/47Vegetable Dye Unit
82 8/47Vinyl Plastic Film Unit
83 9/47Housing Materials Unit
8410/47Tree Products Unit
8511/47Vinyl Resin Fiber Unit
8612/47Phosporescence Unit
87 1/48Dry Cell Unit
88 2/48New Flower Seeds Unit
89 3/48Electronics Unit
90 4/48Impregnated Paper Unit
91 5/48Coffee Byproducts Unit
92 6/48Lightweight Aggregate
93 7/48Cellulose Plastics
94 8/48Sand
95 9/48Specialized Textiles Unit
9610/48Fungicide Unit
9711/48Tablets, Capsules, Pills Unit
9812/48Color Unit
99 1/49Magnetic Unit
100 2/49Disease-Resistant Plants Unit
101 3/49Silk Unit
102 4/49Geometric Models Unit
103 5/49Stainless Steel Unit
104 6/49Polyethylene Plastic Unit
105 7/49Stone Unit
106 8/49Soapless Soap Unit
107 9/49Nylon Process Unit
10810/49Cold Rubber Unit
10911/49Mineral Hardness Unit
11012/49Sponge Unit
111 1/50Oil Shale Unit
112 2/50Kid Leather Unit
113 3/50Straight Line Unit
114 4/501950 Seed Unit
115 5/50Iron Ore Unit
116 6/50Taste Enhancers Unit
117 7/50Portland Cement
118 8/50Soybean Unit
119 9/50New Fabrics Unit
12010/50Wetter Water Unit
12111/50Diazo Printing Paper Unit
12212/50Humidity Unit
123 1/51Computation Unit
124 2/51Seasoning Unit
125 3/511951 Seed Unit
126 4/51Basic Chemicals Unit
127 5/51New Cotton Developments Unit
128 6/51Wood Identification Unit
129 7/51Sea Shell Unit
130 8/51Color Vision Unit
131 9/51Paper-Making Unit
13210/51Fertilizer Unit
13311/51Paper Chromatography Unit
13412/51Motion Picture Unit
135 1/52Nut Tree Unit
136 2/521952 Seed Unit
137 3/52Titanium Unit
138 4/52Pyrethrum Insecticide Unit
139 5/52Curve Unit
140 6/52Highway Safety Unit
141 7/52Ancient Marine Life Unit
142 8/52Carbon Black Unit
143 9/521952 Fiberglas Plastic Unit
14410/52Optical Illusions Unit
14511/52Taste Unit
14612/52Christmas Tree Ornaments Unit
147 1/53Multi-Layer Wood Unit
148 2/531953 Seed Unit
149 3/53Fibers of the Pacific Unit
150 4/53Nails Unit
151 5/53Licorice Unit
152 6/53Iron Oxide Pigments Unit
153 7/53Synthetic Fiber Ropes Unit
154 8/53Polarized Light Unit
155 9/53Sugar Cane Bagasse Unit
15610/53Tea Unit
15711/53Fingerprint Unit
15812/53Modern Fabrics Unit
159 1/54Diatomaceous Earth Unit
160 2/541954 Garden Unit
161 3/54Fertilizer Chemicals Unit
162 4/54Crystallization Unit
163 5/54Lodestone Unit
164 6/54Urea Chemical Unit
165 7/54
166 8/54Modern Electronics Unit
167 9/54Synthetic Mica Unit
16810/54Solderless Connector Unit
16911/54Pharmacology Unit
17012/54Top Unit
171 1/55Paperboard Unit
172 2/551955 Seed Unit
173 3/55Water Conditioner Unit
174 4/55Fastener Unit
175 5/55Sulfur Unit
176 6/55Cattail Unit
177 7/55Seed Germination Unit
178 8/55Balloon Unit
179 9/55Modern Cotton Unit
18010/55Horology Materials Unit
18111/55Chemical Indicator Unit
18212/55Poultry Byproducts Unit
183 1/56Products of the Sea Unit
184 2/561956 Seed Unit
185 3/56Glass Properties Unit
186 4/56Straight Line Unit
187 5/56Sugar and Starch Unit
188 6/56New and Unusual Paper Unit
189 7/56Plastics Unit
190 8/56Dye Unit
191 9/56Geometric Models
19412/56Salt Unit
195 1/57The Mollusk
196 2/571957 Seed Unit
197 3/57Air Pollution
198 4/57Zirconium
199 5/57Spice
200 6/57Pesticide Unit
201 7/57Papermaking
202 8/57Thermal Insulation
203 9/57Plant Growth Regulators
20612/57Lens Unit
207 1/58Steel Wire
208 2/581958 Seed Unit
209 3/58Computation Unit
210 4/58Soil Unit
211 5/58Tin
212 6/58Cotton Laundering
213 7/58Curve Unit
214 8/58Paper Chromatography
215 9/58Cotton Finishes
21610/58Spectral Color
21711/58Specialized Papers Unit
21812/58Motor Unit
219 1/59Lithium Unit
220 2/591959 Seed Unit
221 3/59Corrosion Inhibitor
222 4/59Atomic Energy Unit
223 5/59Crystallization
224 6/59Optical Illusions
225 7/59Cryptography Unit
226 8/59Measurement
227 9/59Static Electricity
22810/59Non-Woven Fabrics
231 1/60Bacteriology
232 2/60Herb Seeds
233 3/60Color Top
234 4/60Sextant
235 5/60Straight Line
236 6/60Hexaflexagon
237 7/60Seed Germination
238 8/60Test Papers Unit
239 9/60Kaleidoscope Unit
24010/60Chemical Models Unit
24111/60Magnetic Force Unit
24212/60Pendulum Unit
243 1/61Sound Unit
244 2/61Soilless Gardening Unit
245 3/61Polystyrene Plastic Unit
246 4/61Ancient Gems Unit
247 5/61Breakfast Cereal
248 6/61Paint Unit
249 7/61Synthetic Rubber Unit
250 8/61Survival Food Unit
251 9/61Manganese Unit
25210/61Irradiated Seeds Unit
25311/61Natural Rubber Unit
255 1/62Sea Shell Unit
256 2/62Seed Unit
257 3/62Geometric Models Unit
258 4/62Tobacco Culture
259 5/62Metals
260 6/62Surface Tension
261 7/62Marble
262 8/62Probability
263 9/62Silicones
26612/62Space-Age Minerals
267 1/63Mathematical Paper Folding
268 2/63Maps and Charts
269 3/63Enzymes
270 4/63Cotton
271 5/63Metal Fasteners
272 6/63Diffraction Optics
273 7/63Computation Unit
274 8/63Fossils
275 9/63Simple Machines
27711/63 Yeast from Trees
27812/63Space Materials
279 1/64Polymer Fiber
280 2/64Seeds
281 3/64Triboluminescence
282 4/64Papermaking
283 5/64Spectral Color
284 6/64Curve Unit
285 7/64Pinhole Photography
286 8/64Coal
287 9/64Powder Metallurgy
28810/64Polarized Light
28911/64Food Supplements
29012/64Acetate and Triacetate Fibers
291 1/65Artists' Colors
292 2/65Seeds from Tree Farms
293 3/65Water-Soluble Plastics and Paper
294 4/65Aluminum
295 5/65Gemini III model
296 6/65Unusual Optical Phenomena in Minerals
297 7/65Corn By-Products
298 8/65Carbon Black
299 9/65Textile Fiber Identification
30111/65Unusual and Specialized Papers
303 1/66Humidity
304 2/66Seeds
305 3/66Reactivity of Metals
306 4/66Topology
307 5/66Solar Still
308 6/66Latex
309 7/66Vision
310 8/66Static Electricity
311 9/66Rocks and Minerals of the Southwest
31210/66Stars and Constellations
315 1/67Hearing
316 2/67Miniature Flowers
317 3/67Cast Iron
318 4/67Center of Gravity
319 5/67Color
320 6/67Glass
321 7/67Magnetism
322 8/67Buoyancy
323 9/67Chromatography
32511/67Chemical Models
32612/67Fiber Optics
327 1/68Touch
328 2/68Soilless Gardening
329 3/68Computer
330 4/68Salt
331 5/68Linkages
332 6/68Sundial
333 7/68Sound
334 8/68Aerodynamics
335 9/68Corrosion
33711/68Treated Cotton Fabrics
33812/68Crystal Growth
1969 1/69Surface Tension
2/69The Grasses
6/69Fumed Silica
7/69Optical Illusions
8/69Pinhole Photography
11/69Geometric Models
1970 1/70Simple Machines
Chemical Indicators
Color Vision
Mathematical Paper Folding
11/70Polarized Light
12/70Holiday Ornaments
1971 1/71Plastics
The Sense of Smell
4/71Soybeans and Soy Proteins
Hydrophobic Fumed Silica
10/71Liquid Crystals
Spectral Color
3/72Center of Gravity
7/72Solar Energy
8/72Stars and Constellations
9/72Jars and Bottles
Life Cycle of a Can
1973 1/73Chemical Models
2/73Herb Seeds
3/73Metric System
Natural Rubber
Crystal Growth
Copper Basin Geology
Mathematical Mechanisms
12/73Man-made Fibers (Non-Cellulosic)
Geometric Models
Liquid Chromatography
Acid-Base Indicators
Optical Illusions
2/75Seeds of Garden Plants
4/75Mathematical Paper Folding
6/75Visual Perception
7/75Figures of Maximum Area
8/75Pinhole Photography
9/75?Man-Made Cellulosic Fibers
12/75The Lever and the Pulley
19761/76?Surface Tension
Herb Seeds
Spectral Color
Metric System
Stars and Constellations
Vegetable Garden
Crystal Growth
Synthetic Wood Pulp
Center of Gravity
Solar Energy
Herb Seeds
Rainbow Holography
Acid-Base Indicators
Super Slurper
Vegetable Seeds
Geometric Models
The Skin Senses
Work and Energy
Magnetic Force
Wind Power
12/79Matter: What Is It?
Vegetable and Fruit Seeds
The Wheel
Metallic Corrosion
Mathematical Paper Folding
Optical Illusion
Heat and Temperature
11/80Holiday Science Fun
1983Seeds and Germination (Angiosperms)
1984Acid-Base Indicators
Simple Machines
Conchology - The Study of Shells
Science Fun
Continents Adrift
Astronomical Numbers
Optical Illusions
Static Electricity
Titles known, dates uncertain
Titles uncertain, dates unknown
1946-47?Magnetic Clutch
Hot and Cold
Hydroponic Salts
Light and Color
Making Work Easier
Rock, Stone, and Earth
Seeds and Plants
Using Magnets
Water Around Us
Weights and Measures

Things of Science in the UK

During the late 1960s, Geoffrey Young ran a UK-based "Things of Science" program for ACE (the Advisory Centre for Education, based at that time in Cambridge), which produced a series of at least 16 kits in 1966.

Tien Bryan sent me a photo of nine of these kits from 1966, which came in boxes with imprinted titles and numbers. The first section of the table below catalogs his collection.

It appears that at least 12 of these kits were reissued between 1966 and 1968. My own collection includes 11 kits dated 1966, 1967, and 1968, which came in boxes with imprinted numbers only, listed in the second section of the table below. Since the numbers do not appear on the instruction sheets or elsewhere in the kits, their association with the kits is uncertain, and I suspect that the boxes on my kits may have been shuffled long ago; in particular, based on the dates, it seems likely that the Chemical Indicators kit currently housed in box 2 may have originally been supplied in the missing box 11.

Although several of the titles and some of the materials also appear in the Science Service's Things of Science, the accompanying experiments are different, and it appears that instruction sheets included in the ACE Things of Science were written specifically for those kits.

ACE Things of Science units, 1966-1968

Unit numberDateSubject
11966Simple Machines
71966Polarised Light
101966Air Pollution
111966Road Safety
1undatedSimple Machines
21968Chemical Indicators
51967Soil-less Garden
91967Slide Rule
101968Fibres for Fabrics

About this web site

My wife and I met as students at MIT in the mid-1970s (I studied physics, and she studied mathematics and biology). We have three kids who all share our love of science, engineering, and mathematics. I was disappointed to discover, when our oldest was about the age to start enjoying Things of Science, that the program had been discontinued, and (worse) that my mother had tossed out all of my old Things of Science (although she kept the flower pot I made from a tin can and a bunch of clothespins, for reasons I didn't understand until I started collecting my own kids' creations -- but I digress). Since I was (and still am) at MIT, our kids were certainly not science-deprived, but it nagged at me that there really was nothing quite like those blue boxes for them, a bit of mystery to unravel each month.

A few years later, along came the Web, and eBay, and then (seemingly) everything that anyone had ever thought to collect was available again. It has been great fun to rediscover (and to learn more about) this wonder of my childhood and to share it with my kids. And sometimes I let them open the boxes first.

Naturally, I wanted to learn everything I could about the program, and I began compiling a list of Things of Science units (above). As time permits, I am adding additional information about the units, including their contents, notes about the experiments, and current sources for replacement materials. I've checked the information posted here carefully, in most cases with reference to kits I've been able to examine. Entries in italics are from information supplied by readers of this page, and have not been checked further. Thanks especially to Ivars Peterson for sending me notes written by Richard Wayne Bush about his family's collection of Things of Science spanning three generations, which provided many of these unchecked listings. Other readers who have contributed information and recollections include James Benton (whose question about Computation Unit 209 prompted me to begin work on this page), Jim Buhrman, Tom Fredette, Karl Gardner, Rebecca J. Goetz, Carlo Milono, Dale Schubert, Kathleen Smith, Andy Stevens, and Ron Zilli.


Additional information and corrections are welcome and will be gratefully acknowledged here (please send email about this page to george at mit dot edu). In addition, I will send a Things of Science unit as thanks to the first reader who sends me readable scans of the booklet or instructions and photos of the contents of any unit not listed above, or for any of the units listed in italics.

George B. Moody
Last revised 1 December 2009.