Getting Started - Make: The Annotated Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory (2015)

Make: The Annotated Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory (2015)

Getting Started

On the Nature of This Annotated Edition

This edition of Build-it-yourself Science Laboratory has been adapted from the 1960s original in order to make it more accessible and useful to modern readership, while at the same time preserving its general character and set of experiments.

We have left the original text uncensored and “as-is” to the extent that it is practical. Rather than directly editing the text, we have in most cases added footnotes1 or extended notes in a new Appendix E where appropriate.

Exceptions to this rule include:

§ Minor technical and typographical errors.

§ Minor wording and punctuation changes for clarity.

§ Specific postal addresses for mail-order supplies, which have been removed.

§ Specific dollar price estimates, which have been updated to current values.

§ Chemical formulas for minerals, which have been updated with current notation.

§ The wind chill table, which has been updated with current values.

§ The original illustrations, which have been cleaned up and retouched for clarity and layout reasons.

§ One missing illustration referred to in the text, which has been synthesized.

§ One project, based around a (now) particularly rare neon bulb, has been replaced with a modern LED-based apparatus that serves the same function. The text describing the original apparatus is preserved in the appendix.

§ The foreword and new prefaces that have been added: this section and the others up through and including “Conventions Used in This Book”.

§ Appendix A, which describes sources for chemicals and other materials, has been rewritten with modern sources.

§ The data table appendices (Appendix B, Appendix C, and Appendix D), which have been replaced with new versions.

Finding Materials

The supplies and chemicals specified within the experiments were, of course, intended to be a set of “easily obtainable” materials. However, the set of materials that might be described that way has changed greatly over the last half century. You might understand if a few of them are simply (or practically) unavailable in the modern era. One of the motivations for this annotated edition is to make the book more usable by filling in these gaps with modern sources and (in some cases) modern substitutes.

We might broadly group the hard-to-find materials into a few categories:

§ Materials that were once in widespread use, but have fallen out of favor for technological reasons. For example, ditto fluid (once used as widely for school handouts as laser printers are today) or the chemicals used for developing photographic film. By and large, these chemicals are still available from specialty sources or on the Internet—just no longer from your corner drugstore.

§ Materials that are genuinely hazardous and rarely used (by individuals) for reasons of safety. Substances such as mercury and asbestos are still legal and in widespread industrial use, but have either been banned or fallen out of favor in many of their former applications. Kitchen potholders are no longer lined with asbestos, and oral thermometers are more likely to be digital than mercury-filled. And that is not a bad thing. In the one place where asbestos actually comes up—an asbestos tile to protect your desk from hot glassware—we’ll suggest that you use a regular kitchen trivet instead.

§ Materials that are no longer produced, for example, vacuum tubes for radios.

§ Materials that are hard to purchase without appropriate credentials. Many chemical supply companies will only sell to institutions or approved companies. As an independent or amateur scientist, nothing could be more frustrating. We will endeavor to provide alternate sources or substitutes when barriers like these might become issues.

For all of these and additional material needs, please see the annotations throughout the text and in Appendix A. You may also want to look on our website,, for an online list of sources for materials, complete with purchasing links.

Making Versus Buying Versus Printing

There are many places in this book where you might reasonably judge it to be more prudent, quick, or cost-effective to simply purchase a given piece of equipment, rather than fabricating it from the given instructions. And, if you have the resources and inclination to do so, there is no shame whatsoever in doing exactly that.

But acknowledging that fact, why should you even consider making such basic things as your own directional compass or thermometer, when you could simply buy them—and shiny new digital versions, at that? The answer, of course, is that there is often great value both in learning how to make things and in learning how things work. In making something, you learn about its principles of operation, about mechanisms and fabrication, and you develop your own physical intuition. As an experimental scientist, you will inevitably need to make some new kind of apparatus in your work; something that you can’t simply purchase because it has never existed before. Experience with making things and developing that physical intuition—your sense of what will and will not work when you build things—can give you a tremendous head start.

There are also any number of cases where it may be helpful (or just fun!) to take advantage of computerized tools, such as 3D printers or laser cutters, to help fabricate your equipment. Doing so may save you time, improve the quality of your output, or allow customization that isn’t otherwise straightforward. You might have your own 3D printer or laser at home, or access to one at your school, local library, hackerspace, or makerspace. If not, online services such as Shapeways and Ponoko offer easy access to 3D printing and laser cutting (respectively) at a modest price.

If you do have easy access to a 3D printer, it may be tempting to just print every piece of apparatus that you might need. However, some consideration should be given to what materials things actually need to be made out of. Most common, low-cost 3D printers make objects out of plastic, either by melting filament or polymerizing a resin. Thus, as compared with laboratory glassware, 3D printed objects will typically have a low maximum service temperature (because of melting), be flammable (because they are plastic), and be more chemically reactive. For general-purpose applications, like making models and mounting optics, almost any material may be used, but there are cases where more robust or inert materials like glass or metal are required. This can be a little trickier than it sounds. For example, a test tube rack—one of those “obvious” things that people like to print in 3D—really needs to be able to handle hot test tubes, right from an alcohol burner.


There are both era-appropriate and updated safety tips throughout the text, but it is important for you to understand that modern safety practice demands additional attention beyond simply reading a few lines of warning text. It is not so much the case that a given experiment is “safe” or “unsafe”—rather, it is the human element, you, the experimenter, that renders a situation safe or unsafe. Some of the experiments and fabrication procedures explained in this book carry a risk of serious injury, death, or severe property damage. And yet all of them can be performed safely when carried out with diligence and care.

Use a consistent approach to every experiment and step of fabrication: onsider the safety implications of what you will be doing, make sure that you are (along with anyone else in the vicinity) aware of the potential hazards, and take appropriate precautions. If you aren’t certain that you understand the safety implications, then it is your unwavering obligation to seek and obtain outside assistance before proceeding.

Although we cannot anticipate every situation, here are some of the types of things that you will need to think about: If something could potentially fly out at you, make sure that you’re wearing approved safety glasses with side protection. If there’s fire or extreme heat, have a charged fire extinguisher on hand and a working phone—just in case you need to call the fire department. If there’s exposed line (wall/mains) voltage, make sure that you have access to a circuit breaker to shut it off. If you’re working with a knife or scissors, be careful not to cut yourself. And so on.

Electrical safety is a topic of particular concern, since there are projects that involve exposed electric wiring. A common rule of thumb is that electronics are safe to touch below 25 V AC or 60 V DC. However, there is credible evidence to suggest that there is no level of voltage that it is 100% safe to touch. You can minimize risk when working with line voltage by using a fused isolation transformer and having an easily accessible power switch (such as a wall switch or power strip) that is upstream and separate from any power switch on your project.

If you are a young person, some of the projects will require adult supervision. Discuss your projects with an adult to figure out which projects. Regardless of your age, good safety practice requires that you have another responsible human being nearby when working with power tools or any project that could produce potentially lethal hazards such as fire or exposed line voltage.

If we could give one “soundbite” of advice for staying safe, it would be this: Pay careful attention to what you are doing, and approach every new situation with patience and above all, common sense.

International Power and Units

The projects in this book that involve line voltage are designed for use with the power grid in the US, 117 V AC, at 60 Hz. If you live in an area with different wall power, do not assume that a project involving line voltage can be built without accounting for the change.

Most projects in this book use inches and other US units, rather than metric units. Please see Appendix B for a list of unit conversions.

On Independent Thinking

The many projects and questions in this book are designed to improve your critical thinking skills and provide less hand holding than you may be used to in other contexts. Here are some things that you may want to consider as you approach new problems.

§ Questions do not always have answers.

§ Some questions that the book asks will require research to answer, and not just of the experimental sort. (Who was von Jolly, and what was his method for measuring the mass of the earth? You’ll need to find that out first, before trying to reproduce his results.)

§ Some ingenuity will occasionally be required. If a procedure calls for rubber tubing and glass tubing that will be connected together, the author has assumed that you can make it work, even if the parts don’t fit together precisely when you first sit down and try. (Do you need to get different size tubing? Make an adapter? Shim it with tape?)

§ Some degree of responsibility is always required. In terms of safety practice, care with chemicals, care with animals, and so on. If something could potentially go terribly wrong, stop and re-evaluate the situation and your approach. You are not yet properly prepared.

Cultural Influences

Little shows the age of the original book better than two places where the author tacitly assumed that a scientist or the director of a research laboratory would be male. That may have been culturally acceptable in the 1960s, but it has no place any longer. Today, the director of the National Science Foundation is an astrophysicist, Dr. France A. Córdova. She is not the first woman to direct the NSF. Anyone with the drive to do so can be a scientist; assumptions to the contrary are universally harmful to our society.

Cigar boxes and cigarettes find their way into a few of the projects. Much like asbestos and mercury, the health risks of tobacco are better understood today. While there is little good that might be said about cigarettes, cigar boxes are an excellent class of project box that there isn’t really a good replacement for today. Fortunately, it’s possible to purchase “cigar boxes” that never had cigars in them—just a box for the sake of being a box.

Casual experiments with animals—like putting a rat through a maze—were once commonplace, but (for good reason) are now heavily scrutinized. Some other experiments with animals that appear in this book would be very unlikely to pass muster from a review committee in the present age. I urge you to think twice before involving animals, and to follow international “science fair” guidelines (including the use of a review committee) when doing so. See Note 1 for further discussion.


Thanks to Steven Herzberg for extensive assistance in the preparation of this book. In particular, for his many long hours proofreading and formatting the text and cleaning up the illustrations.

Thanks to Alan Yates for allowing us to use his LED electroscope project.

Thanks to Jonathan Foote ( for help with the neon bulb “oscilloscope” project.

Thanks to Stephen Barrett for reviewing the Foreword and his kind words of encouragement.

Thanks to Eric Bulmer and Brian Jepson for many helpful comments on the annotations.

Thanks to my partner Lenore Edman for patience, encouragement, and many helpful suggestions.

Additional Image and Data Sources

The periodic table in Appendix D is a work of the US government (NIST), and is in the public domain.

The graphic for the Morse code table (“International Code”) was adapted from a public domain source at

Conventions Used in This Book

The following conventions are used in this book:

Safety Tips

The “Safety Tips” sections throughout the text are the author’s original guidance on safety practice. These tend to be a little understated, and should be taken quite seriously. When the safety tips say something like “Don’t touch the bare wires,” that may be because a potentially lethal(!) shock could result. (So really don’t touch the bare wires!)

Modern Safety Practice

The “Modern Safety Practice” sections throughout the text are new notes about contemporary safety practice, added where necessary in the annotated edition. These notes frequently refer to extended documentation in the appendix.