Books You Should Read: The Annotated Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory

Like many engineers, as a child I spent a lot of time in libraries. There were certain books that you would check over and over again. One of them was [Raymond Barrett’s] He built a scientific laboratory himself. This book really captures my imagination with plans for things as simple as a funnel and as complex as an arc furnace (I actually built it; see the diagram above), a cloud camera, and an analog computer (see below). This book is from 1963 and it really presented some unique challenges when I read it in the 70’s. It is even more difficult if you try to reproduce some of the projects in it today.


The world of 1963 was not as safe as ours today. The children rode bicycles without protective equipment. The dentists gave the children mercury to play with. You can eat some paint or have asbestos in your ceiling and no one bothered about it.

This means that some of the facilities and experiments of Barrett’s coatings are difficult to reproduce today or are simply dangerous. For example, he offers to get sulfuric acid at the pharmacy. I don’t suggest you call the local Walgreens and ask them about it. The arc furnace – which can melt a nail, as I learned first hand – used a salt water rheostat, which was actually an AC power cord with a single wire cut and passed through and an open glass jar containing salt water! Fishing sinkers prevent the wire from moving (you hoped), and I guess the chlorine gas it probably emits hasn’t done me any lasting harm.

I was happy to see that [Windell Oskay] has reworked and reworked this great old book new edition. There is still as much of the original as possible, but with notes on how to get around the material you can’t get more or safety notes.

The book still doesn’t pull any punches. In the section on salt water rheostat, the author notes that it is important in the construction of the device to learn about it, but if you want to use it for projects such as the arc furnace, you must use an insulated variant. In fact, he suggests that you really need to use insulation when building the rheostat. He even tells you about a specific eye protection I had to have with the arc furnace (unfortunately, about 40 plus years too late; fortunately, I was lucky and had no serious problems).

microThere are many interesting projects and techniques in the book. Need to break glass? Use a file and turpentine. Want to build a vacuum pump or vacuum pressure gauge? ([Oskay] warns of the use of mercury for the latter.) Want to build a microscope like the Leeuwenhoek used? While it would be a pleasure to get an old copy of the original, you will spend a lot of time researching modern sources and substitutes.

Although the book is aimed at children and possible use in school, it is still fun for adults and most modern schools would ban much more interesting subjects in it anyway. You can always say that you are buying it for your children. Or you can claim to be a prep and want to know how to build your own lab after a collapse. Either way, we won’t say.

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