American Basic Science Club: Story of a Successful Small Business

By Jim Kerr

Imagine the excitement kids felt back in the 1950s and 60s receiving a box of scientific gizmos in the mail they could assemble into a “mystery shock box,”  a strobe light and then a radio.   American Basic Science Club delivered that excitement.

The club was a small business my dad dreamed up which manufactured and sold science kits through mail order. The kits were sold mainly to young people in the 10 to 16 year-old range, and were advertised in Boys Life, Popular Electronics, Popular Science,  other magazines and various comic books.

The business was created and operated by my father, James S. Kerr, and ran from 1957 until the early 1980s. In later years, my father would often hear from past customers who said his kits had sparked an interest in science for them, and influenced their decision to pursue careers in science, engineering and medicine. 

The American Basic Science Club kits were unique in that:

• They were comprehensive, covering a variety of subjects including magnetism, electronics, optics, photography, atomic energy, land surveying, analog computers, and weather forecasting.
• They were sold as a kit-a-month club, with each monthly kit including multiple projects and experiments. There were initially eight monthly kits, but it eventually grew to 10 monthly kits in all. Each month the customer would receive a new kit until all 10 were received.
• The instruction manuals included were educational. You not only learned how to assemble each project, you also learned how they worked and the function of each part. For instance, when a new part was introduced, such as a capacitor or vacuum tube, you would have to perform several experiments to learn how that part behaved.
• The kits were affordable, with the price for each monthly kit being less than $5. To keep the price low, the projects included with each kit often made use of parts obtained in previous kits. For instance, the radio that was built in Kit 4 used parts from Kits 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Here are just a few of the projects that were included with the  kits:

Kit 1: Electrical Lab with Safety Power Transformer, Electro-Chemical Projects, Neon Lamp, “Mystery Shock Box”, Relay, Solenoid, Magnetizer/Demagnetizer
Kit 2: DC Power Supply, Voltmeter, Wheatstone Bridge, Low Speed Strobe Light
Kit 3: Amplifier, Oscillator, High Speed Strobe Light, Sound Experiments, Ripple Tank
Kit 4: Shortwave and Broadcast Radio, Audio Amplifier, Microphone, Transmitter
Kit 5: Telescope, Microscope, Lamp Housing, Optical Lab, Camera Lucida
Kit 6: 35 mm Slide Projector, Microscope Projector, Spectroscope, Ultraviolet Lamp
Kit 7: Analog Computer, Weather Station, Wind Vane and Indicator Board
Kit 8: Atomic Energy Lab, Thermal Energy Lab, Barometer, Anemometer, Sling Psychrometer
Kit 9: Photography Lab, Photomicrography Camera, Photo Cell Projects
Kit 10: Surveyor’s Transit, Telescope Mount, Talking on a Light Beam, Photoelectric Relay

During the 1960s, my father began expanding the business by selling a few of the kits through Sears Roebuck, Edmund Scientific and

Typical Ad for the American Basic Science Club kits.

other companies. The Weather Station, Photography Lab, and Atomic Energy Lab were available as individual kits. You can occasionally find these kits on Ebay.

By the late 1970s, the business was slowing down. Part of the problem was that people seemed less interested in building things, plus the electronics portion of the kits had become somewhat dated since it still used vacuum tubes. My father felt that it would be too expensive to bring the kits up to date, particularly since the demand for such kits didn’t seem to be there anymore. By the early 1980s, the business was closed.

My father was very proud of what he had done.   It was a great idea, well-executed, that inspired a lot of young people.

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