The Otaru Molecular Model Association

Fructose space-filling model from the Otaru Molecular Model Association

Fructose space-filling model from the Otaru Molecular Model Association

Arguably the most technologically advanced nations on earth, Japan, still loves Yahoo. Once you get your head around that odd fact, feel free to proceed.

Please take a look at this…Geocities page. Once you finish cringing and/or chuckling at the 90s-style web design, take a closer look because this is the most amazing thing I’ve seen. From what I can tell, it’s a club devoted to building molecular models and teaching this skill to others. You’ll see (tiny) photos of schoolkids gluing together their own models, grown men standing proudly with their latest efforts, club members working together in a shared workspace…it’s absolutely fantastic!

And this method of building space-filling models from styrofoam balls appears to be completely unique. It’s attributed to Masao Yamada, whose identity I have not been able to determine. As a model-maker who’s dabbled in space-filling models, I am impressed by how simple tools can produce such elegant models…even by schoolchildren!


So the process uses wood boards with cutouts to define the circles of the overlapping atomic “spheres.”


Using a hand-held hot-wire cutter, the styrofoam is neatly cut across the circle. Easy!


To get angles correctly aligned, alignment jigs are used. Below is a larger photo…


You can see the jigs are simply made using thin wood (balsa?). And they’re affordably priced at 540 yen! (About US$5.00.) The boards with the holes are the same price. Obviously, the goal here is spread this hobby and not to make a profit.


With everything cut, the models are assembled with PVA glue.

The pages of the Otaru Molecular Model Association have examples of models that range from diatomic molecules to some segments of DNA. One group used the method to build the 7x7 reconstruction of the Si(111) surface:


Amazing work!

I really wish I knew how to read Japanese.

And I wish something like the Otaru Molecular Model Association existed outside of Japan!

Addendum to the previous post

I previously discussed Leybold’s excellent models, past and present. Steve, who is a gentleman and a scholar in addition to being a model enthusiast, sent a list of Leybold models from a book chapter written by Anne Walton [1].

For the sake of future readers, I’ll include that list from 1969 here. (I’ll apologize in advance for the lack of subscripts.)

Crystal systems:

crystal system set, Bravais lattices


NaCl, CsCl, zinc blende, wurtzite, CaF2, CdI2, CdCl2, Al2O3, Cu2O, ice I, PbO, NiAs, rutile, perovskite, spinel

Metals and alloys:

Cu, Mg, Sn, U, W, autenite, martensite

Silica and silicates:

quartz, cristobalite, tridymite, topaz, zircon, beryl, diopside, kaolinite, set of 6 partial silicate models


protein α- and γ-spiral

Either this was an incomplete list or Leybold’s offerings exploded during the 70’s; Walton’s 1978 book[2] states Leybold had around 100 models for sale! Unfortunately, that list has shrunk to the 14-or-so now available.

[1] Progess in Stereochemistry. Vol. 4, B. J. Aylett and M. M. Harris, eds. (Butterworths, London) 1969.

[2] A. Walton, Molecular & Crystal Structural Models (Ellis Horwood, Chichester, UK, 1978) p. 73.

Is Leybold still a thing?

I recently came across a vintage item on Etsy: a beautiful crystal structure model of two fcc unit cells.  However, the description claims that the German manufacturer, Leybold, is no longer around.


To which I said to myself, "Huh?"

There were a few other details in the description that are wrong as well, but the fact that Leybold is no longer around was news to me.

In my professional life, I'm well acquainted with Leybold vacuum pumps and was aware that the company that owned the brand recently sold the division to a Swedish conglomerate. However, I've always been fuzzy about how Leybold Vacuum fits with the Leybold that makes crystal structure models. I obviously needed to take a dive into the history of Leybold...

Leybold's roots start all the way back to 1850 when it was started to distribute pharmaceutical and other technical equipment.  Ernst Leybold was actually serving as manager for the founder who died a year after starting the company, and E. Leybold sold it in 1870. The company started producing vacuum pumps in 1906 when they also got out of pharmaceutical equipment.

So Leybold wasn't started by a Leybold.  It also didn't start selling its core product until 50 years after its founding when Mr. Leybold had been gone for over 30 years. OK. Now hold onto your hats for some merger madness...

In 1948, the Metallgesellschaft conglomerate invested in Leybold, and Degussa did so in 1955.  In 1967, Leybold merged with Heraeus Hochvakuum, and thus was born Leybold Heraeus GmbH, a scientific and technical equipment juggernaut that was around for the next 20 years.  Metallgesellschaft and W.C. Heraeus sold their shares in 1987, and the new company, solely owned by Degussa, was renamed Leybold AG.  In 1994, Degussa sold Leybold to Oerlikon, which merged it with Balzers AG. (I always wondered why my process pump in grad school was a Balzers-branded Leybold!)  In 2006, Leybold Vacuum was renamed to Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum.  And then in 2015, Oerlikon sold the unit to Atlas Copco, who renamed it to Leybold GmbH.

Now we have the vacuum part of the story straight.  (Well, as straight as 168 years of mergers and acquisitions can possibly be.)  How about the models?

Well, Leybold had been making equipment intended for education/demonstrations all along. (While I'm not sure when they began selling crystal and molecular models, I've noted that Deane Smith's monograph in 1959 makes no mention of commercial sources and Arnold Beevers started his company in 1961.)  Anyway, around 1985 (during the Leybold Heraeus years), Leybold Didactic GmbH was started.  In 2000, they sold the division to private investors.  The company unfortunately went bankrupt in 2008.  However, they were bought by an investor consortium in 2009 and now operate under the name LD Didactic, which maintains the Leybold brand name in scientific teaching supplies.

So is Leybold still making crystal structure models?  Yes!  Besides the all-plastic models that are now ubiquitous on the internet, they still sell some of the wooden ball and steel spoke models that aficionados still seek out. However, their product line is shrinking compared to just a few years ago.

Rock salt

Rock salt

Diamond cubic

Diamond cubic



Bravais lattices

Bravais lattices

Rock salt, wurtzite, cesium chloride, calcite, graphite, diamond, generic triclinic, magnesium, and copper.

Rock salt, wurtzite, cesium chloride, calcite, graphite, diamond, generic triclinic, magnesium, and copper.

Diamond cubic

Diamond cubic

Rock salt

Rock salt



Klinger Educational, who have their own line of crystal structural models, are also the U.S. distributor for LD Didactic.  If interested in anything from Leybold (besides vacuum pumps), you should contact them for a quote.  Who knows when this line of classic models will be gone?


I ran across an interesting piece of history while doing some research on molecular models.  From the business section of the November 2nd, 1961, edition of Jet magazine...

A Boston firm, Metaloglass, Inc., turned down an order from Limestone College in South Carolina because of its ‘segregationist policy,’ said Dr. Alexander S. Szagedy, a Hungarian refugee who heads the firm. He wrote the college that although Metaloglass was a ‘very small, new outfit’ which needed business badly, he would not do business with a Jim Crow institution. ‘I...experienced both Nazi and Communist dictatorships, where the common basis was hate, the same hate on which is based your segregationist policy,’ he added.”

I wasn't able to find much else on Metaloglass or Dr. Szagedy, but a collector has posted some photos of his ball-and-stick crystal structure models.  They had plastic (phenolic resin?) balls and featured some interestingly sparse rods (steel).

Cesium Chloride (Metaloglass)

Cesium Chloride (Metaloglass)

Sodium Chloride (Metaloglass)

Sodium Chloride (Metaloglass)

Diamond (Metaloglass)

Diamond (Metaloglass)

Magnesium (Metaloglass)

Magnesium (Metaloglass)

Cementite (Metaloglass)

Cementite (Metaloglass)

An antiques dealer also had posted a collagen model built by Metaloglass, which looks absolutely beautiful.

Collagen segment (Metaloglass)

Collagen segment (Metaloglass)

It's good to remember that what usually remains after we're gone is the work we've done and the stands we've made.

Klinger crystal models

I noticed that Klinger is now selling their crystal models on Amazon. I've included a few samples below.

You can see these are some rather intricate models.  I unfortunately have never seen one in person, but I get the impression that their product photos aren’t doing them any favors.  (I'm one to talk!)

Klinger Educational is also the U.S. distributor for Leybold's line of models.  I’m not sure how that arrangement works, but I’ve noticed that Klinger has a wider range without much overlap with Leybold.  Happily, there seem to be plenty of crystal structures for everyone…myself included.







Alpha quartz

Einstein's molecular model kit

Einstein's molecular model kit.  Photo by Jennifer Tisdale (from the  Ransom Center Newsletter )

Einstein's molecular model kit.  Photo by Jennifer Tisdale (from the Ransom Center Newsletter)

The wooden ball-and-spoke models that I've written about before seem to have had a fan in Albert Einstein.

A couple years back, writer Jenn Shapland recounted her experience[1] as an archivist encountering the kit made by the Fisher Scientific Company.  It was acquired at an auction in Atlanta by a Dallas woman who donated it to the Harry Ransom Center's Einstein collection at UT-Austin after learning about a theft of a page of Einstein's notes. It's a rather interesting essay about possession.

By the way, apparently Einstein's kit included custom parts that included atoms with flattened sides in addition to the usual spheres. Also, the colors included some unusual ones: blue, orange, yellow, black, green, dark blue, beige, and brown.

[1] J. Shapland, "Finders Keepers," Tin House, Fall 2015. [link]

Old-school wooden ball-and-stick models

At one time or another, several American companies offered wooden ball-and-stick model kits that were nearly identical.  Industrial and Scientific Instrument Co. (ISI) out of Philadelphia, LaPine Scientific in Chicago, Macalaster Scientific in Nashua, NH, and Sargent-Welch (Chicago), each had 1-1/4 inch (3.2 cm) diameter C atoms with 1/4 inch (64 mm) holes.  The sticks were wooden pegs 2-1/8 inches or 1-1/4 inches long, and for strained or multiple bonds, there were tension springs that were 2 inches long.  Hydrogen atoms were characteristically yellow (a color usually reserved for sulfur in most schemes instead of the usual white.)

Sargent-Welch's model. You can buy this particular set for $296.25 at  Urban Remains .

Sargent-Welch's model. You can buy this particular set for $296.25 at Urban Remains.

These models were intended for rudimentary organic chemistry. They're inaccurately dimensioned for structural studies, and the pegs aren't tight enough to support large molecules.  However, they are certainly beautiful and have attained a fan base attracted to their "mid-century modern" aesthetic.  Assorted parts gathered from flea markets and other vintage sources are often available on Etsy (for example, see here, here, and here.)  

Sargent Kit resold by Stansi Scientific (purchased by Fisher Scientific in 1967).

Sargent Kit resold by Stansi Scientific (purchased by Fisher Scientific in 1967).

A few years ago, a Danish company called Ferm Living began selling a molecular model kit as a design product.  Sadly, they were discontinued, but as you can see below, the color scheme was gorgeously mid-century. Obviously, the pegs were chosen for artistic purposes, but I find it interesting that the kit included trigonal bipyramidal (black and white balls) and T-shaped (blue) geometries. Is a tetrahedron that difficult?  Anyway, there seemed to have been some manufacturing problems, which is inexcusable for a product that retailed for $80.

Molecular Building Set from Ferm Living.  Discontinued.

Molecular Building Set from Ferm Living.  Discontinued.

Today, if you want the classic wooden ball-and-stick aesthetic, you can, of course, contact me.  Also, there's still one manufacturer who's continuing to build large quantities of these kits and components.  There's also the DIY method, but holy cow, clamping a ball in a cardboard-lined vice seems like a very bad idea!

The 2017 Christmas gift guide for science nerds

What to get the scientist or science teacher who has everything?  This gift guide is here to help.  Below you'll find plenty of ideas for the chemist, physicist, biologist, or engineer in your life.  Let's get started...

Helium cookie.jpg

Let's be honest: Spelling with elements has officially broken bad. However, blocks from the periodic table remain iconic, and any scientist with a sweet tooth would still love to see this in their stocking.  $6.50 from BoeTech LLC on Etsy


Truth in advertising here: I'm responsible for the unspeakable geekery necessary to put electron diffraction patterns on a coffee mug. If you have a scientist on your gift list that works in materials science, they're sure to appreciate the Kikuchi lines from a diamond as they sip their favorite beverage each morning.  (I know I do.) $24.99 on Society6.


This keychain featuring ethanol (the kind of alcohol we can drink without going blind) has a lip that that allows it to be used as a bottle opener.  Not cool enough?  It's also 3-D printed!  Available in a number of metals from Shapeways.

planet glasses.jpg

This set of glasses is stunning.  Each represents a different planet in our solar system plus the sun and Pluto. (Sorry, Pluto.) Available from Think Geek for $50.

element clock.jpg

The ol' clock on the wall says it's neon, so I guess...wait a minute! This laser engraved wooden clock features elements one (hydrogen) to 12 (magnesium). Did I mention it's LASER engraved? From miniFab on Etsy ($44.99).

microscope lamp.jpg

A repurposed microscope will brighten any scientists Christmas morning!  Available from NorthernElectric on Etsy for $85.


For those whose interests in "paleo" extends beyond what they eat, there's a whole store devoted to realistic, museum-quality models of dinosaur bones and other prehistoric beasties.  They're definitely only for good boys and girls.  Available on Amazon.


Help someone pass the time watching magnetic "sand"....and then spend even more time trying to explain what's going on.  Available on Amazon.

CS - journal.png

If you're like me, you're always looking for a new notebook to capture all my good ideas.  Well, to capture ideas in general. Cognitive Surplus has made some beautiful notebooks with covers that any chemist, physicist, biologist, or engineer would love.

CS - glass.jpg

Another one from Cognitive Surplus.  (I love those guys.)  They have an entire line of glassware etched with appropriate chemical structures (wine, beer, whisky), with physics-y Feynman diagrams, and lots of other brainy motifs.  Prices range from $15 for a pint glass to $50 for a set of stemless wine glasses.


Based on an old-fashioned brass ring stand and a newfangled glass pour-over, this would be the perfect gift for your coffee-loving chemist or chemistry teacher.  Available for $179 from the Coffee Registry on Etsy.