Chemistry in the early 1960s: a reminiscence.

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I started chemistry with a boxed set in 1962. In those days they contained serious amounts of chemicals, but I very soon ran out of most of them. Two discoveries turned what might have been a typical discarded christmas present into a lifelong career and hobby.

The first was 60 Stoke Newington High Street in north London, the home of Albert N. Beck, Chemist (or his son; my information comes from a historical listing of the shops present on the high street in 1921). I would set out from our home in London SW6 on the #73 bus route (top deck) and it would take about an hour to arrive. On entering the shop, I ventured down a set of stairs into the basement to replenish the chemicals with sensible stocks, and purchase the odd glassware, filter paper, etc. And then venture back across London carrying the proceeds of many weeks, possibly months worth of hoarded pocket-money (apart that is from 1 shilling every two weeks which I reserved for football at Craven Cottage). At some stage, health and safety legislated against 12-year-old boys (and certainly also girls) purchasing chemicals in this manner! However, I can assure you all that I never came to any harm with anything I purchased at A. N. Beck and Sons. Apart that is from giving my parents a good fright.

The second was coming across this book by A. J. Mee. I had thought it was well and truly lost; imagine my delight when I recently found it at home, complete with chemical stains, and dated as from a reprint in 1959.

IFOn the inside cover, I found one shopping list from my expeditions to A. N. Beck and Sons. The price 1/6 is the representation of one shilling and six pence (more than the price of a football match, or perhaps £50 in today’s money? I think football was much cheaper then! Oh, 1/6 is 7.5p in the decimal currency of today, or £0.075). Note that iodine was one of the items purchased. And note the wish list at the bottom! I was clearly starting to do organic chemistry.

shopping-list

The pages of this book list 289 experiments, and I assiduously recorded a tick against all the ones I actually did. This is a typical page (click to expand).

IFThus expt 205 is the preparation of 1,3,5-tribromobenzene from 1,3,5-tribromoaniline (ticked), followed by that of o-cresol from o-toluidine (ticked). You can see how all the aromatic rings are still represented by what now looks like cyclohexane. This book gave me many hours of delightful recreation (I have not counted the ticks, but I think I attempted around half the experiments). Note in particular the huge scale these experiments were done at; 18g of product (I suspect I must have scaled them down a fair bit in order to preserve pocket money). Expt 198 was that of benzidine, of which I do recollect preparing  ~2g. No warnings then about the extremely carcinogenic nature of this substance! Chemistry has certainly changed since then.

Lost unfortunately is the laboratory book where I recorded my results, but one or two samples still exist!

 

 

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29 Responses to “
Chemistry in the early 1960s: a reminiscence.

  1. I wonder how many other children were given chemistry sets as a child and then went on to study/practice as an adult.

  2. Philip Marriott says:

    I remember AN Beck and Son very well and the basement emporium. I loved to journey there from Harlow by train to Liverpool Street and then the number 73 bus.
    They were exciting times and I enjoyed hunting further afield and finding a chemist north of Birmingham city centre, Hoggs by name where I first got my own supply of bromine sodium and the materials to undertake the thermite process with my cousin in Edgbaston.
    They were exciting times when I learnt science in safety.

  3. Nigel Pacey says:

    I remember A Beck and Sons and ordering things by post! The strongest acid you buy was 10% nitric or sulphuric in a small medicine bottle. But my Dad said many years ago in the 1900s you could even buy white phosphorus at a chemist…even Becks would not sell that. As you say, happy times! And I never came to any harm either!

  4. Philip Marriott says:

    I have just come across an old AN Beck& Sons catalogue from 1973

  5. Philip Marriott says:

    Happy Days when we were young and truly able to “experiment with life”
    Indeed being able to bur potassium permanganate enabled me to colour the school and escape detection because it had NOT been taken from the school lab.

  6. JohnWiltshire says:

    In the early sixties I used to cycle 12 miles from Enfield on a 14″ wheel bike to collect chemicals from Beck’s. If you had a letter from your Dad you could get strong acids and I remember riding carefully back with a burette sticking out of the saddle bag and Sulphuric and Nitric acid for making gun-cotton! I am still here to tell the tale and I have worked in laboratories all my life wherein H&S seems to prevent any experiments sufficiently exciting to enthuse new recruits?

  7. Henry Rzepa says:

    Talking of H&S reminds me of some asymmetry in the process of acquiring interesting chemicals from Beck’s. My regular visits stopped at the age of 18 when I went to university, but this did leave behind a small stockpile of the various acids and other stuff that could not easily be poured down a drain. My father eventually contacted the local council to ask how these might be disposed of. I do recollect the council officials being rather mystified by how this might be done, although it was eventually (and at no cost to my father as I recollect, or perhaps he withheld that information from me). I strongly suspect nowadays that such a request of a local council would certainly be accompanied by a very large bill indeed!

    • Hilary Beck Grant says:

      My Father was Kingsley Beck, who ,with his brother Carl, were sons of Albert Neve Beck, all dispensing chemists.  I don't know when they started the Chemistry set business , certainly pre war. I used to work in the shop on Saturdays in the late 40 s and early 50 s.  I remember the smell of the basement where two women did all the bottling, packing and dispatching 

      Thenks to all for your entertaining memories

  8. John Cooper says:

    In 1959 my sister Mary married Hugh Beck, grandson of Albert Beck, who was running the laboratory furnishing part of the business in the basement. Upstairs was an ordinary Chemist shop. I worked with Hugh for a while in 1965/1966 and left to work for Davey and Moore Ltd in Brimsdown, Enfield who manufactured glass laboratory ware. All the equipment A N Beck and Sons sold was proper laboratory equipment unlike the Lotts chemistry sets. The chemicals were in reasonably sized and priced bottles. I may well have served some of you at sometime.

  9. Henry Rzepa says:

    I received a letter recently describing a house clearing where two A. N. Beck catalogues had been discovered, dating from 1937 and 1938. Thanks Anthony for sending these catalogues; very much appreciated!

    The scans below show the front page of the 1938 edition, which I selected because it includes a four-digit phone number to the local exchange and an apology for 10% inflation! Inside, some items marked with a * (e.g. oxalic acid) can be sold only to approved students (one achieved this status I think by presenting a letter from a responsible person, quite likely a school teacher).

    ANB1

    This is their home laboratory, available for 42 shillings (£2.10 in today’s money), and including 80 chemicals (amounts are not described).
    ANB2

    The chemicals list is mostly inorganic; I think the organic items only came later.

  10. David Griffiths says:

    I fondly remember my trips to a chemicals shop in Stoke Newington – I think it must have been A.N.Beck – when on visits to London with my parents in the mid-late 60s when I was a young teenager. I stocked up with the most exotic chemicals I could find without being entirely sure what I was going to do with them – bromine. sodium metal, concentrated acids, potassium permanganate and others. In today’s climate it is surreal and amazing I was able to do this!

  11. David Timson says:

    What a wonderful memory Henry. I was just boring my wife with a story of long bus journeys to A N Beck to stock up with test tubes and concentrated sulphuric acid for my experiments in grandma’s garden shed in the early 60’s. She was doubtful a 12 year old could do that over the counter so I googled AN Beck Chemists. Lo and behold, your blog telling almost the identical story!

    Sadly I failed to be inspired to the same extent as you, Henry, going on to be an economist, then corporate treasurer, then headhunter. Thank you for taking a more useful path.

  12. Henry Rzepa says:

    I will add a further fond memory as a 12 year old of travelling across London by bus carrying odoriferous objects. One of my friends at the time had a father who was a greengrocer. On one occasion, he provided both of us with a very large sack of expired vegetables (might in fact have been cabbages, which have a lovely “aroma” when no longer “fresh”), and off we went on our own on the first London bus of the day to Regent’s Park Zoo, arriving around 06.00. We were allowed in via a side door by the keepers (without paying), and had the place largely to ourselves. I cannot remember the animals we were allowed to feed the cabbages to, but it might have been giraffes and elephants? Then back home, well before the zoo opened to paying customers.

    I was however clearly more smitten by chemicals than by animals. And, like the purchase of chemicals, I doubt 12 year olds are allowed into London Zoo at 06.00 to feed the animals any more.

  13. Russell Shurmer says:

    Reading all the posts which started with that of Henry Rzepa.  I purchased much equipment from Beck which came by post.This would have been in the late fifties. My lab was the kitchen in my parents flat in Sutton, Surrey. I now live in the south of Spain. In Sutton there was a chemist who also sold apparatus and chemicals. I would go in with my list. He would say that Shurmer, you are having arsenic, or cyanide or any these dangerous ácidas!! Happy days indeed over 55 years on …

  14. Philip Marriott says:

    It seems to me that one of the principal learning benefits of home chemistry in the 1950s and 1960s was not only the excitement but the engagement and management of risk. I have to say that I am not aware of any serious incidents nor even fatalities from those days

  15. Henry Rzepa says:

    Indeed so, "risk management" (the term is a recent one) was engrained in childhood in those days. Another phrase might be "street wise", since most children spent much of their non-school time on the streets, in my case some also in tree houses on the banks of the river Thames and in our cases, the rest of it in our "laboratory". 

    I certainly had several fires at home, none serious, and it taught one to remain calm and deal with them, since no-one else would.

     
  16. Nicholas Shepherd-Barron says:

    My chemistry set, augmented by supplies from A and N Beck, was what led me to science. I'm a mathematician now (that's what happens to scientists whose experiments don't work) but really I'm a closet chemist.

  17. Henry Rzepa says:

    I include here maps of the area of the shop; the nearest station is Stoke Newington and as I recollect it is down the high street (A10) from there.


    View Larger Map


    View Larger Map

    Note also Abney Park, one of London’s historic cemeteries. It is wonderfully overgrown, with an abandoned chapel at its centre, and many famous victorians buried there.

  18. ed smith says:

    Likewise, I remember going to AN Beck, in my case by buses from Upton Park, first with my dad and then on a couple of occasions on my own. I was 12-14 (1958-60).

  19. Nick Edgington says:

    I remember it, there was a down stairs as I recall, and retorts I think they were call, I use to buy sulfur there 🙂

  20. Ian Watson says:

    As a teenager in the north of England during the mid-1960s, I used to order chemicals and equipment from Beck’s which were always reasonably priced and promptly delivered. They had a way of making clever substitutions when they didn’t have quite what you had ordered, rather like supermarkets do today with their online shopping services.
    I also went to a local chemist in the town where I lived, who would supply me with practically anything, including concentrated acids, potassium chlorate (for making fireworks!) and quantities of mercury which I wanted for some electrochemistry experiments.
    The expertise I gained in handling these materials and, as has been noted here, the ‘risk management’ learnt along the way were invaluable when I started teaching Chemistry (which I’m still doing after 42 years).

  21. Mike Oakes says:

    I have today found some letters kept by my Mum and Dad from when I was at Uppingham school in the 1950s. One ends with a request list for my 14th birthday:-

    From: A.N.Beck & Sons,
    60, Stoke Nwington High St.,
    London. N.16.
    ———
    1 Spirit Lamp. 2/6d.
    1 Tripod stand. 2/6d.
    1 Kipps apparatus (substitute) 3/6d.
    Sulphuric acid (dilute) 4 1/2d.

    Total 34/4d.

    I googled “A.N.Beck chemical supplies”
    and came up with your blog:
    http://www.ch.imperial.ac.uk/rzepa/blog/?p=13220
    which I greatly enjoyed reading, and finding so many “kindred spirits”!

    The 30 items in that list, so kindly purchased, formed the basis for my bedroom “laboratory”, and probably helped towards my achieving good ‘S’ levels (incl. Chemistry) 2 years later, so schoolboy enthusiasm for science – which I’m sure you shared – is certainly a “good thing”.

  22. Simon Cotton says:

    Not a hark-back to chemical suppliers to students, but a parallel reference to that heroic age, is Lippy and Palder’s ‘Modern Chemical Magic’ (1959) which describes ‘Fired Liquid’ (aka ‘Liquid Match’), a solution of white phosphorus in carbon disulphide (a double-whammy for Health and Safety). The CS2 evaporates in seconds whereupon the phosphorus ignites. I know of one (elderly) demonstrator who still uses it. Other experiments for the brave are described.

    A useful resource on demonstrations is http://www.chymist.com/Booklist.pdf

  23. Henry Rzepa says:

    Ah, we are moving into the topic of memorable lecture demonstrations in chemistry.

    The famous Colonel Shaw used to tour the UK (and possibly further afield) in the 1970s and 80s. I suspect this would have been one of his demonstrations. Another, with possibly a further ingredient as oxidant (could it have been perchlorate) would sit quietly for 30-50 minutes, by which time the audience had entirely forgotten its presence. It would then explode with great gusto, and I can assure that this unexpected shock would quite literally make the audience jump out of their seats. I saw him give several lectures, and once, after the 50 minute mark had been reached, he had to give the game away to the audience by prodding it with a stick. We still all jumped.

    For me at least, an equally memorable demonstration was the release of fluorine gas from a cylinder. It was simultaneously a smell you knew you had never smelt before, but at the same time incredibly halogen-like and “familiar”. Unforgettable (even if the molecules that reached your nostrils were probably not F2 but F2O).

  24. Michael Hallinan says:

    I’ve come across an old box in my father in law’s shed whilst clearing it out. The box is marked MEDICINE -URGENT and is addressed to A.N. Beck and Sons of Stoke Newington. It contains 6 glass apparatus (Wood Bros)with some bungs, a small mortar and pestle, some filter paper, a tube full of ‘chalk carbonate’ and a tube full of ‘copper sulphate’……it also contained lots of saw dust and straw that the mice lived in.

    Can you suggest anywhere that might be grateful to take this? Having seen your posts it seems you know lots about the history.

    thanks
    Michael

  25. Alan Bell says:

    I remember ordering many items from ‘Beck’s’ in the mid 1960’s to furnish my attic laboratory at home. Spent many hours testing soils and doing experiments. My father even ran a gas supply up to the attic for my Bunsen Burner! It is true that way back then you could indeed buy anything chemical wise and have it delivered by post. Today it would be frowned on to buy such items for a home laboratory. I eventually came top of my class at Science and worked in the Public Analyst’s Laboratory for a spell. It is a shame that there are no photographs of A.N.Beck’s shop, inside and out, it would be great today to see the premises from where we got our laboratory items from.

  26. for some time now a box of bottled chemicals has been kicking around my garage/workshop getting in the way, today I decided to clean them out but before doing so I noticed label denoting A.N.Beck and sons, so I thought I would google the name, glad I did, a number of these bottles have no labels and some have labels stating poisonous, not sure what to do with them now, will probably dispose of the contents, well those left, and perhaps offer them. kind regards

  27. Steve Roberts says:

    Henry, you remember me as “Soss” from Laurie Phillips group … now when I was a schoolboy aged 15, me and two other boys used to buy stuff from Beck’s in the post, every few months we would put an order together for glassware, chemicals etc. I remeber the excitement when it all arrived, this was what got me into Chemistry (I was good at Classics and my very traditional school really wanted me to go that way). I had a whole room full of chemicals and apparatus! We lived in northern Essex and my father did take me to Stoke Newington once, to buy conc. H2SO4 and other nasty chemicals that could not be sent in the post, I was struck by how small the shop was. But I really remember with pleasure those times perusing Beck’s catalogue and gettng an order together. I did a Google search for Beck’s and that’s how I came to this blog.

  28. I just found this blog when i was searching for the name of the marvellous chemist’s shop in Birmingham (Hogg’s) where as a boy in the late 1960s I would invest my pocket-money in buying all sorts of exciting chemicals for my experiments. I went on to be a biologist and now, in retirement in Thailand, write books on science. I thank Prof Rzepa for his anecdotes and the other comments – actually I ended up as a prof at Imperial too, so that was a nice coincidence. Great memories of a time when you could get tins of chlorate to make rockets and go to the Midland Educational store and buy refills of cobalt chloride.

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