Science today is circumscribed by so many rules and regulations designed to prevent children harming themselves or each other, that I wonder if they learn anything out of school. Our scientific self-education was a more hit-and-miss1 affair. There would be what we called а 'craze' - that is, a sudden interest in one subject to the exclusion of all others, that would disappear as quickly as it had arisen. They still occur today, I know. There was a Pokemon card craze here not long ago, but now it is seldom spoken of. Now it is texting on mobiles. Ours used to be things like building crystal wireless sets, telephone systems or making arc lights from two pencils and an array2 of batteries. Chemistry was an endless fascination and many quite dangerous chemicals were readily available. I remember trying to make soap, firstly making caustic soda from lime3 and washing soda and then mixing it with fat before adding rose scent made by soaking rose petals in water. I'm sorry to say, it wasn't very effective at cleaning as it tended to remove skin rather than dirt.
Mr David Wright (UK)
As November approached, bringing with it Guy Fawkes Day, the emphasis would be on making fireworks. Pennies would be saved from pocket money, gifts from visiting aunts and uncles, doing errands4, etc, so that the necessary ingredients could be obtained. Such things as flowers of sulphur5 could be obtained from an obliging6 chemist's shop, saltpetre7 from an ironmonger's8, sticks of charcoal9 from an art dealer (or made by burning wood) and then powdered with a hammer, and iron filings10 laboriously filed11 from an old nail to make sparks. Or instead of iron filings, salts might be added to colour the flames - sodium12 yellow, copper blue-green, and if we were lucky, strontium to make them red, or powdered aluminium or magnesium to give a brilliant white. The resulting mixtures would be packed into small tubes and fitted with fuses13 made from paper soaked in saltpetre solution. We were sensible enough not to attempt to create 'bangers'14. Sometimes, but not always, our fireworks worked! A less hazardous chemistry involved growing crystals: white alum15 or purple (almost black) chrome alum, blue copper sulphate, pale green ferrous sulphate and others whose Ingredients escape me. Crystals of common salt were particularly difficult to grow to any great size as they would continually sprout small crystals spoiling the cubic shape. Mum was easy to obtain as it was commonly used as a mordant16 to make dye attach to cotton doth and chrome alum was used in the tanning industry to make chrome-leather. Copper sulphate was mixed with lime and used as a fungicide17 on the potatoes in our garden. If we had any strong ammonia we could grow beautiful blue crystals of cuprammonium18 sulphate.
When we were in primary school (up to the age of eleven years) we were given little, if any, homework - that came in the secondary school. So after school, if the weather was clement19, we were encouraged to go outside to play as our mothers would be busy in the house and our fathers would be still at work. When I lived in London, going outside meant out into the street and occasionally to the local park. Sometimes we would play formal games - cricket or football - but often we would just wander around talking, or playing tag20, which we called 'he' or 'it'. These often ended in fierce disputes leading to occasional fights. Mostly, the discussion about what to play took up far more time than the game itself - perhaps that is still true today. Girls had their own games, such as skipping, hopscotch21 and various ball games, but as they never mingled with the boys, we didn't really know what they got up to. One favourite occupation was simply finding things', which involved walking around the streets looking for items of interest: pieces of shrapnel (fragments from shell or bombs), conkers22 in the right season or money. Even though people were poor, a surprising amount of money was dropped in the streets -perhaps through holes in pockets or from the hands of careless shoppers or drunkards. Anyway, we looked for it. The standard procedure was to walk along the streets with one foot on the pavement and one in the gutter23. The best place to look was where there had been a street market that day and coins would have rolled under stalls24 where the owners could not retrieve them. Only when the stalls had packed up and gone would the coins be accessible. They would be only small value coins, ha'pennies or farthings, but we would collect them avidly and add them to our store of treasures. It was generally accepted that with such things, the rule was 'finders keepers', which meant that whoever found the lost item could keep it. Jewellery or items of greater value were handed into the police for safe keeping until they were claimed by the rightful owner who might even pay a small reward.
When we moved out of London, "playing out" meant going into our garden or that of a neighbour, or into nearby fields and footpaths. Later on, I had a bicycle and then I would usually be found on that, exploring the surrounding district or visiting the library or going to see school friends in their villages. Now, most parents are afraid to let their children out of their sight, but still complain that they spend too much time with their computer or watching TV. The media sensationalises every story and scares parents with horror stories of what might happen: mobile phones might fry their brains, genetically modified food threatens our existence, overhead power lines might cause leukaemia, additives in food could cause diseases, being too clean/dirty causes asthma or allergies and so it goes on.