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The Banned 4. Toys that we’ve seen banned or recalled in the past 10 years.

Spectrum Scientifics opened in 2007 with a load of great science toys for our customers. Since then we have seen many toys come, some toys go, and some toys get pulled from the shelves for one reason or another. Here is a list of the toys we have seen get removed from the toy list.

Note that this list does not include anything recalled due to potential ‘pieces break off and cause choking hazards’ and similar issues. We are discusing products that inherently had an issue that made them unsafe, or were used in an unsafe manner. This in no way claims to be a complete list.Merely the ones we have observed.

Not all of these things were permanently banned, either, as you will see:

Battat Magnetic Construction Toy, 2008

It seemed awesome, metal rods and magnetic balls would be used to put together nifty shapes! Great! Sadly the shiny metal magnetic balls were too tempting to swallow and they were powerful enough that two of them could ‘pinch’ in a kids intestine.

Battat and other companies rereleased this toy design with more secured magnets and non-magnetic steel balls.

Water Balz: 2012


Similar to popular Water Marbles, Slippery Spheres, Orbeez, etc, except these Water Balz were big! Much bigger than the little marbles that were Orbeez & Co:



Sound great? It was! But then an abusive parent shoved one down a child’s throat and it expanded with the moisture,  causing about what you would expect to happen. Toy suppliers volutarily removed the product from the market. You can still get them, but they are sold as chemistry equipment/gardening items, or whatever is needed to not have children as the primary target market.

CSI Fingerprint Kit: 2007-2008

We never carried this item, because we tend to avoid premium show-based kits which often just cost twice the price of better science kits.  But here it was in all its glory: A fingerprint kit with a chemical that was 7% asbestos. Ooops!

This incident, along with several other famous cases (such as the Thomas the Tank Engine Lead Paint incident) showed there were many problems with sourcing products in China. Too many times corners were being cut, and dangerous products being substituted, and other safety issues. Toy companies that imported had to start doing local testing of the products for safety, and quite a few gave up mass-importation. In China, things got very ugly with at least one head of a factory traced back to the safety issues first imprisoning an investigating journalist then hanging himself.

BuckyBalls: 2011

Incredibly popular when they were out, now these have almost been forgotten. Buckyballs were technically never sold as a toy for children, and the manufacturer took pains to try to keep them out of the hands of kids. But the Consumer Product Safety Commission, after adding on multiple sales conditions restrictions,  finally demanded the magnet sets be banned. The reasoning was the same as happened with Battat’s construction toy: kids swallowing the magnets would have them ‘pinch’ in the intestines. The company pretty much disappeared after this ban, but returned this year with a smaller, complient tiny magnetic ball kit.

But the magnet ban? It sent shockwaves through the toy indutry as toy sellers scrambled to remove the powerful rare-earth magnets from various toys.

Eventually, another manufacturer of the magnetic balls sets won a lawsuit against the CPSC and the magnetic balls sets are once again legal. But still cannot be sold to children.




John Dobson, developer of the Dobson Telescope and tireless advocate of amateur astronomy, R.I.P. 1/15/14

We were saddened to hear that John Dobson passed away on Saturday, January 15th, 2014 at the age of 98.



Dobson is most famous for building, developing and promoting a design of reflector telescope that still bears his name: The Dobsonian Reflector Telescope, one of the most popular telescope mounts on the market today. Dobson never laid any claim to the design that bears his name and never made a dime from them.


Helium – A crisis or not?

Helium is the second lightest element on the periodic table.


It is most famous for filling up balloons that float, making your voice sound funny, and other tricks. But Helium is also used in industry for welding, for computers (supercomputers need liquid helium to run properly).

And over the last year there was something of a supply problem.

Very recently we heard a local morning program complaining that they could not get helium for a balloon that wanted to fill. This lead to a long bit about how part stores were rationing what helium they had and not doing any reservations for balloons at all.

How did this crisis come about, and will it end? For the former, you have to understand how helium is obtained and stored.

Helium, oddly enough is not produced, despite being the second most common element in the universe. In effect it is mined. It is a byproduct of natural gas and its purity can vary a lot. For a long time, most commercial companies were not interested in producing Helium, so it was left to the government to pick up the slack.

This resulted in something of an issue with the government, especially in a time where expenses are being watched carefully. The US government was storing helium at hideous cost for the benefit of a handful of industries. In 1996, after some media attention was spotlighted on the expense of this program Congress decided to sell off the helium and set things up so that the US government was out of the Helium business by 2015. The idea was that reserves would be sold off so that private industry could take over.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

What happened instead was a glut in the Helium market as the USA tried to sell off the reserves as fast as they could. This dropped the price so low that private industry had little reason to go 3474into the Helium market – there was no money in it to be made.

Congress made some motions to act – the Helium Stewardship act of 2012 was designed to stretch out the resources, give extra time to the private industry, and other features. But the bill went to committee and has not passed.

Eventually, the glut ended with the excess supply being reined in. The result was shortages in various spots throughout the country. But the shortages may have just been local.

While at this years New York Toy Fair we asked a couple of companies whose lines include Helium based toys (such as the Remote Control Shark Blimp pictured). Both of them said pretty much the same thing: Things were tight for a while, but the industry will eventually kick in without too much more problems. Both companies expected that things would settle down once the US moved out of the industry. Prices were expected to get higher, but not extremely problematic.

Of course, both of these companies had a financial interested in saying ‘everything will be fine!!!!’. One of the companies sold only Helium based toys while the other had at least other products to fall back on. Nevertheless, it would seem that a company that was in the ‘late buggy whip’ stage of their existence would be hard pressed to justify the expense of displaying their toys at the Toy Fair.

The future of Helium seems a bit disheveled at the moment, but hopefully it will correct itself shortly.

Interested in Flying Toys?


Why The Delaware Valley Can’t Pronounce ‘Orion’ Properly.

Ever since we opened the Spectrum Scientifics store in the Manayunk neighborhood of Philadelphia, we have carried Orion Telescopes. They are good quality telescopes and they stand behind their products. But in the Philadelphia region, we have noticed something rather odd. Say the word ‘Orion’ out loud. You probably said it  ‘Oh-Rye-on’ if you are like 98% of the US population.
But in the Philadelphia region, you might not pronounce it that way. It was something we noticed in the store almost from day one. For some odd reason people in this region prefer to pronounce it “Ore-ee-on”.  The reason for this, we could not understand.
Philadelphians certainly have their accent. We pronounce ‘Water’ as ‘wudder’ and the PA region is sometimes fond of pronouncing “creek” as “crick”. Accent quirks are certainly not unknown to us.  But there is no follow through here. Changing water to wudder, of saying ‘jeet’ in place of ‘Did you eat?’ doesn’t make Orion turn into a different word.

Now Orion, despite being one of the most recognizable constellations in the sky (and one of the few that looks like what it is supposed to be) is not a familiar word to most people. But a sample survey of Facebook friends found that most who knew about the constellation (or should know about it) pronounced it normally. But still whenever we were called by a perspective local telescope buyer they would ask “Do you carry the…Ore-ee-un Observer 70?’.  This pronunciation seems to happen anywhere else in the country. We could not figure out why this happened.

Then it struck us. The problem lies with Philly media culture. In fact, the ‘blame’ may lie with this woman:

What this woman is talking about is not relevant to this blog post. What is important is who she is. She is Orien Reid Nix, a prominent consumer reporter for channel 10 news for many years. Here name, at least in the Philadelphia region, is pretty much a household name.  She has been a reporter in the Philadelphia region for decades, her first name, Orien, is actually pronounced “Ore-eeh-un”, and it is unusual enough that it wuold stick with most people’s memory So with that in mind an average person in the Delaware Valley would probably default to the pronunciation of her name based on their cultural memory as there is but one letter difference between Orien Reid Nix and Orion Telescopes.

So there you have it. Thanks to the fame of  a local reporter an entire region has trouble pronouncing the name of a constellation and telescope company!



BuckyBalls – No longer sold in stores!

We’ve recently reported on how the Consumer Product Safety Commission has been suing BuckyBalls to try and force them to stop selling their product due to a handful of swallowing incidents. The lawsuit has not gone any further and BuckyBalls has been fighting back hard . But at the same time they have had to take steps to get more control over their product. The result? As of last week, BuckyBalls told its sales reps that it would no longer be selling BuckyBalls to stores and other vendors.
You can still get BuckyBalls from their website, but it is exclusively available from them. We have reverted to 2008.  This will be a blow, not only to stores that enjoyed good sales of the BuckyBalls, but also to the BuckyBalls company which has probably sold the majority of units through vendors like us.
This turn of events was a sad decision in our opinion. We understand why the company had to do it, but are upset that we will not be able to sell this wonderful magnet product.


BuckyBalls To Be Banned?

BuckyBalls have been a best selling desktop toy since we added them over three years ago.  A bunch of spherical high-power magnets the stick together well, but can be manipulated like silly putty or made into all kinds of cool shapes.

BuckyBalls have had their struggles over that time: The biggest issue it seemed was the skyrocketing price of rare-earth neodymium used to make the Buckyballs. But it seems they were causing injuries to children too. Not the very young kids you might expect, but kids in their tween/early teen years. It seems that some kids were using the BuckyBalls to make fake tongue stud or other piercings and swallowing them. Now this might be dumb already, but then you have to consider that swallowing just one BuckyBall isn’t going to be a problem (as long as you stay away from MRI machines. You have to swallow two or more. Then they attract each other in different parts of your intestinal tract and pinch them together the intestines and cause health problems.  To date, 2 million sets of BuckyBalls have been sold, with approximately 1 dozen incidents (another dozen have been attributed to other magnets toys) that required surgery. No deaths have been caused by BuckyBalls.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission moved yesterday to ban BuckyBalls due to these cases. Despite BuckyBalls’ makers Maxfield & Oberon making efforts to prevent young  children from being sold BuckyBalls (extra packaging, voluntary recall). CEO Craig Zucker has blasted to arbitrary and unfair nature of the suit, stating “”I don’t understand how and why they did this without following their own rules before allowing us to make our case. It almost seems like they simply wanted to put our products and industry out of business.”

It should be noted that CPSC has asked M&O to cease selling BuckyBalls, which is a bit like asking Ford to stop selling cars. CPSC has also targeted BuckyCubes, a product with a cube shape instead of spherical for the same reasons as BuckyBalls, despite there being no incidents with BuckyCubes and a much lower likelihood of any such incidents due to them not resembling tongue studs. In essence, the CPSC has asked M&O to go out of business.

Stay tuned to see how this turns out.

UPDATE: Maxfield & Oberon has struck back with this reply: https://www.getbuckyballs.com/buckyballs-only-marketed-to-adults-cpsc-press-release/

Norman Edmund, Founder of Edmund Scientific, RIP

We have just heard that Norman Edmund, the founder of the famous Edmund Scientific, passed away on January 16th.

Norman Edmund started a company by selling surplus lenses during WW2. When he couldn’t get a lens for his camera he purchased 10 in a bulk surplus order. Since he now had 9 lenses he did not need he placed a small ad and sold them all quickly. He repeated this with another batch of lenses and soon a business was born. At first it was known as the Edmund Salvage Company, but later on as Norman’s interest in science education made its way into the catalog (at first with products built using more surplus lenses) the company became known as Edmund Scientific. It soon had a catalog that was famous in science circles. Norman would run Edmund Scientific until the 70’s when health issues led him to turn over the reigns to his son, Robert Edmund. Soon after, Edmund Scientific split into two divisions – the ‘Scientifics’ division and the Industrial Optics Division. The former was sold to science supply company VWR in 2001, while the latter continues to exist in Barrington, NJ.

Edmund Scientific was a great inspiration to Spectrum Scientifics. Without it this store and website would have never come into being. It is our hope that we follow the legacy of Norman Edmund’s scientific company (a little less so of what VWR made it into). That is our dream. We think we have done a pretty good job, and many folks who remember the Edmund Scientific store in Barrington, NJ remark that our store reminds them of it.

Norman Edmund

For more information. Please visit Edmund Optics press release.


The Happy Drinking Bird – What happened to you?

The Happy Drinking Bird is probably one of the most recognizable science

112toys. It has been around for decades, it has appeared in The Simpsons (twice!). Its familiar ‘bob-and-drink’ action is memorable to all who see it and at Spectrum it is one of the most requested toys! But lately, something with the Drinking Bird supply has gotten a bit odd.

First of all, let’s talk about how the Drinking Bird works. The idea is simple thermodynamics and the fact that gas shrinks when cooled. When the spongy head of the Bird is wetted and that water evaporates it cools the gas inside the bird’s glass body. That gas contracts when it cools and the liquid insides (a very thin liquid) gets drawn up to fill in the space vacated by the contracting gas. Very soon there is more liquid in the head of the bird that in its base and that causes it to tip over. If you put a glass of water where the bird tips it seems to almost be drinking – and in fact it is re-wetting its head! As long as there is water in its drinking cup it will keep on drinking.

Not all drinking birds work perfectly out of the box. There will almost always need to be some ‘tweaking’ of the bird to get the guy to drink properly. The sides can get hung up, the body can be too high or too low in the frame, the frame can be bent the wrong way. This video shows a couple of the things that can go wrong with the Drinking Bird.

Old Drinking Bird

Old Timey Drinking Bird

In the past, the Drinking Bird was a bit different. The liquid was more effective (and more dangerous!) and the designs much more varied (as this picture shows).  Other designs were made to hang off the sides of the cup it was ‘drinking’ from. In the end the design we know today has been around for a long time with only a few variations out there.

But what has happened to the Happy Drinking Bird of late? When we first started Spectrum Scientifics there were no less than six vendors that we could purchase drinking birds from. They all had different boxes, sure, but the basic model was the same. If you personally wanted a large number of birds and didn’t want to set up a store you could buy them in bulk on eBay for barely a fraction above wholesale cost! The options were plentiful!

Now? Well let’s just say something has gone wrong – perhaps a overloading of the marketplace? All we know is that eBay has only about 40-50 entries for Drinking Birds listed – most of them single birds and often priced higher than retail cost (before shipping). Just a couple of years ago they had hundreds! You can still buy packs of the birds, but they don’t give you anywhere near as much of a discount as in the past. Two of the  four vendors we use that dropped the Drinking Bird dropped them at the beginning of the year (if you are wondering why four vendors instead of six: two went away) and only one of them gave any reason (saying the in warehouse breakage of the glass birds was too much).  The remaining two have respectively a) raised their price way up and b) did not have them in stock this year until the beginning of this month!

So what is going on? It is hard to say. Perhaps it is a thinning out of some kind of fad supply, much like the recent shaped rubber bands that went into fashion with kids and out again in a period of 3 months.  Perhaps more likely is that the main manufacturer changed their rules so that there would be fewer distributors around, or just made it to hard for vendors to get refunded for damaged product. We may never know for certain but one thing is for sure:  We still have them, but there aren’t as many as there were before.


How Warm is my Dinosaur?

Just a bit of fun news: for the first time scientists have been able to measure the temperature of dinosaurs. In the past people considered dinosaurs to be just big lizards and thus cold blooded. In recent decades, evidence showed that dinosaurs were actually the ancestors of birds and probably not cold-blooded. Now they have been able to run some tests that are the next best thing to having a time machine and a thermometer. Turns out the dinos were not as warm as birds, but much warmer than modern lizards!


Dawn Approaches Vesta

We mentioned in our blog entry “What Happened to Pluto” the status of the asteroid Vesta is up in the air: Is it just another asteroid or does it qualify as a dwarf planet? A dwarf planet has to be massive enough to be a sphere (like Ceres & Pluto) and Vesta certainly isn’t a sphere. But this lack of sphere shape might be due to impacts cause while Vista was still molten. If that is the case then it may still be considered a dwarf planet (impacts that effect shape apparently do not count). NASA launched the Dawn probe to check this out and while it will not be close enough for close examination until July, it is getting there. In fact, yesterday they released a video of Vesta taken from Dawn. Take a look…