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Experimental spaces outside the laboratory –
Experiment kits and instruction manuals around 1900


Viola van Beek

In the late Eighteenth century, testing cabinets, household and travel laboratories became available for sale to anyone wishing to perform chemical analyses: to chemists, as well as doctors, factory owners, agriculturalists, traveling naturalists or lovers of chemistry and mineralogy. From early on, however, testing cabinets were also used by uneducated laymen. So-called "amusement chests" had been widely used in England since the first third of the Nineteenth century (Gee 1989) and also in Germany, chemical and physical experiments were overwhelmingly popular. Introductory experiment kits designed for such interested laymen were marketed for a broad target audience.

Nevertheless, experiment kits were not only used for traveling or stage performance and amusement; they were also teaching aids. In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth century experiment kits were produced in order to provide access to experimental knowledge at schools as well as at home. These portable laboratories, as they contained not only precisely tuned instruments and other materials, but also school textbooks or instruction manuals, made it possible to learn theory as well as concrete, practical application. In this way, the kit and the book were closely linked with one another: the book was supplemented by the objects at hand and the kit by instructions in written form.

By referring to evidence in the form of teaching materials catalogues, instruction manuals, reviews etc. and exploring how the kits were invented, marketed and used, this essay attempts to depict the ways in which experiment kits, which had been designed primarily for children and teenagers, created and staged experimental spaces outside of the laboratory in Germany around 1900.

Reference: Beek, Viola van. 2009. Experimental spaces outside the laboratory - Experiment kits and instruction manuals around 1900. The Virtual Laboratory (ISSN 1866-4784), http://vlp.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/references?id=art73