Technical assistance in the world of London science, 1850–1900

Hannah Gay


Examples of technical assistance in a range of London settings are discussed in this paper. Skilled trades people, apprentices, lab boys and girls, family members, research students, research assistants, and laboratory technicians were, in different ways, all important to the organization of scientific work in this period. To illustrate this point, examples of work performed in trades shops, academic laboratories, entrepreneurial businesses and private laboratories are given. The examples demonstrate not only the complex and collective nature of scientific work, but also something of the social interactions of scientists and their assistants. Of especial note is the dependence of scientists on people who worked in the skilled trades.

I have been fortunate in my chemical assistants for some years past. The true secret is to secure a man of the handy assistant type and pay him well. I begin with £10 per month, second year £11 and so on. I venture to impress this upon you for I was long myself of learning the full value of a good assistant.Letter from Thomas Graham to Thomas Andrews, 1868.1


The ‘invisible technician’ has become more visible since Steven Shapin drew the attention of historians to the role played by technically skilled servants in the scientific work of seventeenth-century gentleman-philosophers.2 Robert Boyle, for example, had several assistants, one of the better known being Denis Papin.3 According to Shapin, not only was Papin responsible for designing and constructing apparatus and for carrying out experiments, he also had some responsibility for ‘the composition of the experimental narratives’.4 Shapin was interested in scientific authority, and in how Boyle's position in society gave him ownership of Papin's work and of that done by others who worked for him. It was Boyle's rank in society that allowed work performed under him, including the construction of scientific narrative, to be trusted and accepted as true. This paper will focus on a later period when, with a few exceptions, the nature of assistantship was much changed. Scientific authority was less tied to rank, and a period of assistantship was often a prelude to gaining voice in scientific debates. Indeed, in academic settings some types of assistantship anticipated later modes of postgraduate study.

That Shapin wrote about technical assistance when he did has much to do with scholarly fashion, which during the 1980s turned increasingly towards the practice of science, experiment, and laboratory organization. Work in this area, begun largely by sociologists of science, has become more historical in recent years,5 but finding evidence for what actually went on in laboratories in the past, figuring out who did what, and gaining an understanding of the working lives of little-recorded technical assistants, has proven difficult. Common sense suggests that highly productive scientists are likely to have had some help, but generalization on assistantship remains problematic. According to Shapin, Boyle did not shrink from laboratory tasks, even lowly ones, and performed experiments of his own. However, as Boyle himself stated, because he had the means ‘to make experiments by other hands’, his productivity was high.6 The same can be said of many major nineteenth-century scientists, a few of whom will be discussed below. Leading scientists achieve their positions by the demonstration of certain intellectual and organizational skills, but technical and other forms of support are essential to their overall success, and worthy of further study.

By the nineteenth century the role of ‘gentleman scientist’ and that of ‘his assistant’, while still extant, were no longer commonplace. Like Boyle, many scientists had several assistants who were trusted to perform much of the work, although not without a measure of control.7 However, by this later period, the master–servant relationship was much changed, and assistants with ambition were able to view what they were doing as a rite of passage and could expect to make independent careers after a period of learning in servitude. The social distinction between master or employer and assistant was, as a rule, not very pronounced and, in some cases, assistants came from socially more elevated backgrounds than their employers. Whatever the case, people from a wide range of family backgrounds acquired voice in the major scientific discussions of the period. Among chemists, some of the more eminent later nineteenth-century figures came from poorish families and began their working lives as assistants. A few received a good chemical education before their first jobs, whereas others educated themselves on the job. However, as one would expect, there were grades of assistantship and although some people later had successful careers, others remained subservient all their working lives.

Sociologists interested in scientific practice have studied several laboratories at first hand, something historians are largely unable to do. One historical approach to understanding the laboratory has been to reproduce classical experiments so as to discover how they were conducted, and what technical skills and equipment were necessary for their success. Knowledge thus gained also allows a more informed guess as to who did what.8 Another approach has been to focus on a specific underclass and see what can be said about its contribution. Notable has been work on women in science. Women scientists are now far more visible than they once were, although it is probably fair to state that women's work as assistants, even to major scientists (often to close relatives), remains largely hidden.9

The socio-cultural situation of aspiring scientists and technically skilled people in the period covered here was closely connected to the changing role of science and technology in the economy. There were still a few gentlemen scientists who operated as Boyle had done earlier and who, like him, had voice in the Royal Society and other prestigious venues. However, industrialization and the expanding economy demanded new types of expertise and new forms of social inclusion. Gentlemen scientists were far outnumbered by those holding jobs in schools, colleges and universities, in government or industrial laboratories and in small workshops, and by those working independently as technical entrepreneurs.

The heavy emphasis on practical methods in the teaching of both chemistry and physics, something pioneered in Germany early in the century, had reached Britain by the 1840s.10 Technical skills became highly valued in the decades that followed. People such as Michael Faraday, who so skilfully used models and demonstration to display physical principles, were much admired, and stimulated others to attempt the same. Material analogy became a principal teaching and lecture demonstration mode in both chemistry and physics. In such demonstrations it was important to impress others; and considerable technical skill on the part of scientists and their assistants was required for this.11 Such skills were passed on to students and to junior assistants and were not limited to any one class of worker, although they were often best found in someone such as Faraday, who had begun work as a technical assistant before himself becoming a professor.12 Faraday's successors at the Royal Institution (RI), Edward Frankland and James Dewar, were both highly skilled technicians and innovative scientists. They, too, had several assistants with varied technical skills. Indeed, the sheer volume and nature of the work conducted in their names would have been impossible without assistance. As will be discussed, there are difficulties in associating specific work with specific individuals. However, since major work in modern science is largely a team activity, successful scientists should be viewed as good team leaders and their work as the product of that team. Thomas Graham, quoted in the epigraph, claimed to have taken time to learn the value of a good assistant, but assistants were essential to lively research programmes, and ambitious scientists were continually on the lookout for good people.13 By and large the scientists that I have studied seem to have looked after their assistants well, although Dewar may have been an exception.

Although London's scientific and technical world had expanded rapidly over the nineteenth century, at the century's end it was still small enough for people working within it to know a sizeable fraction of their peers, including those working in the scientific instrument and supplies trades. These trades had grown and diversified since the late eighteenth century, and gentlemen scientists, along with professionals, depended more on outside technical work in running their laboratories than had been the case earlier. Having new and interesting scientific instruments in one's laboratory encouraged others to visit, and such visits enhanced the host's status. Trades shops where such instruments were made were lively meeting places for the exchange of ideas. As a result, skilled instrument makers and people with skills in the chemical and other scientific trades were integrated within the social networks of scientists. The social and skill boundaries between leading scientists, their assistants, and trades people were very fluid. Connections, including friendships, were made across these boundaries, and the exchange of knowledge flowed alongside the social exchanges. This paper will seam together some fragmentary evidence on technical assistance that has been gleaned from diaries, correspondence and a few published primary sources, including memoirs. It covers assistants who worked in a range of laboratory settings, and the role of trades people in keeping the laboratories equipped and the equipment in good repair. The paper makes a contribution to what, in the future, should become a larger story on technical assistantship.

The role of the trades in laboratory life

Diaries and correspondence of scientists in this period suggest that they spent much time together with skilled trades people. Scientists visited trades shops to see instruments and equipment being made for others, to order equipment or chemical materials for their own laboratories, to have instruments repaired or modified, to discuss improvements to existing apparatus, and to discuss the construction and sale of their own designs. My principal, though not exclusive, source for these claims is the diary of Herbert McLeod. Entries in the diary suggest that trades shops were both sources of goods and sources of information. They were casual meeting places at which scientists exchanged useful ideas, not only with people in the trades but also with each other. McLeod's diary contains references to more than 80 different trades shops and workplaces in London, some of which he visited with great regularity. He also noted whom he met while there.14

McLeod's network began to build in the 1860s after he became an assistant to A. W. Hofmann, professor at the Royal College of Chemistry (RCC). Several of the skilled trades people mentioned in his diary were themselves former students at the college, or at the Government (later Royal) School of Mines (RSM), which the college joined in 1853. One important example is John Browning (1831–1925), who was a student at the RCC in the late 1840s. On completing his studies he joined his father's scientific instrument business, taking it over in the 1850s.15 Browning was a highly inventive and skilled craftsman, and he and his firm built a reputation for making good barometers, telescopes, cameras, photometers, limelight apparatus and electrical equipment—notably some early electrical lamps. His construction of good spectroscopes strengthened his connections to chemists16 and, by attaching his spectroscopes to telescopic equipment, he came to work closely also with astronomical physicists such as J. Norman Lockyer and William Huggins. Browning exhibited his spectroscopes widely, including one at the Royal Society in April 1872 that drew much attention. He also developed ophthalmic instruments, and his employees tested people's eyesight and made spectacles. McLeod and other scientists purchased their spectacles as well as technical equipment from Browning. McLeod records visiting Browning's frequently during the 1860s and 1870s. Although his chief interest was in spectroscopes and polarizing prisms, he also acted as a go-between for Lockyer, for Lord Salisbury and for Salisbury's half-brother Lord Sackville Cecil,17 who themselves were interested in a range of apparatus including spectroscopes, telescopes and electric lamps. For example, in December 1870 Lord Salisbury purchased three of Browning's electrical lamps for £30, together with six batteries that allowed the lamps to burn for six hours. He wanted illumination for a party at Hatfield House; and although this was not a strictly scientific venture, Salisbury was able to show off the expensive novel lighting to his guests, who included several scientists.18

During the 1860s, when McLeod was an assistant at the RCC and the RSM, he was expected to visit shops such as Browning's on behalf of the professors, notably Hofmann, Frankland and Lockyer. By the 1870s McLeod was himself a professor at the Royal Indian Engineering College (RIEC) at Cooper's Hill near Egham. The visits to Browning's continued, although sometimes McLeod would send his own assistants in his stead. Despite his new situation McLeod continued to assist Lord Salisbury and Lord Sackville Cecil as well as Lockyer in acquiring and maintaining equipment.19 McLeod's diary implies that several hours each month were spent in visiting trades shops. Browning was unusual among the graduates of the RCC in the type of work he performed. Most of the entrepreneurially inclined students went in for more chemically oriented businesses or were already associated with such before entering the college. George Matthey, for example, was an apprentice with metallurgist Percival Norton Johnson in Hatton Garden when he came to the college in the late 1840s for further instruction. He was already knowledgeable in platinum metallurgy, a field in which he was to become a world-renowned expert. Shortly after his period as a student, and with a successful display of platinum at the Great Exhibition to his credit, Matthey became a partner in the firm that was then renamed Johnson Matthey. In the 1860s McLeod made frequent visits to the firm on behalf of Hofmann and Frankland, and he continued to visit later when a professor at the RIEC. Johnson Matthey was a source not only of platinum but also of a range of other purified and milled platinum metals, including iridium.20 Platinum and silver wires and crucibles could be obtained there, as could oxy-hydrogen equipment. The firm was also a source of magnesium and of the then scarce indium and aluminium.21 Also important is the fact that the firm's personnel were a source of expertise, and its Hatton Garden premises were a site where chemists and metallurgists exchanged information. Other businesses serving the scientific community were located nearby, making it convenient to visit several places on the same day.22

A chemical supply company with RCC connections, much frequented by McLeod, was Simpson, Maule and Nicholson. It was founded by two of Hofmann's students and a paint manufacturer (Simpson). Later its assets were taken over by Brooke, Simpson and Spiller.23 One of Hofmann's students, and later assistant, was John Spiller, who, on leaving Hofmann, became assistant to metallurgist John Percy at the RSM, where he worked on iron ores.24 This experience led to work at Woolwich Arsenal with another of Hofmann's former student assistants, Frederick Abel. Spiller worked at Woolwich for 12 years before joining his brother's company as chief chemist.25 He had close connections to many government and academic scientists and was a valuable source of technical information not only on iron but also in the field of colours and also in photography, for which he developed many new techniques. The earlier company and then Brooke, Simpson and Spiller were sources of chemical reagents for London scientists, as well as of raw materials for chemical manufacturers; both companies were also involved in the manufacture of dyes and pigments. The later company also manufactured and sold some chemical equipment. During the 1850s another of Hofmann's assistants, Charles Bloxam, made frequent visits to the earlier firm and, like McLeod later, noted whom he met there.26 It was a site of considerable expertise, and people went there not only to purchase chemicals but also to seek information. Much of this was freely shared but, on one of his earlier visits, McLeod claimed to have been (metaphorically) ‘tarred and feathered’ when trying to extract information on Perkin's process for the manufacture of his mauve dye.27 Other specialist trades shops mentioned frequently in McLeod's diary, and at which he notes meeting other scientists, include the chemical suppliers Hopkin and Williams, and Thomas Whiffen. The former sold standard chemicals, but Whiffen's, a family business located in Battersea, specialized in the extraction, refining and relatively large-scale production of alkaloids such as strychnine and of other natural products such as salicin.28 Becker's on St Martin's Lane was another popular meeting place and a supplier of custom-made thermopiles, galvanometers and electrical generators.29 Good weights and balances were made by Oertling's on Moorgate Street, who supplied them to many scientists in this period.30

Glass grinding and polishing skills had long been important to scientific instrument-making, and firms such as Browning's kept the skills alive. However, by the late nineteenth century there had been an overall decline in the number of British firms specializing in technical optics, and much optical equipment was imported. Silvanus Phillips Thompson, Principal and Professor of Physics at Finsbury Technical College, made several visits to the Carl Zeiss works in Jena and promoted new approaches to technical optics both at his college and among the London trades.31 In 1905, at his urging, the London County Council set up an Institute of Technical Optics, and the Northampton Polytechnic in Clerkenwell began offering courses. The start of World War I and the shortage of good military telescopes and rangefinders brought home the need for further improvements in the manufacture of optical-grade glass and in the making of lenses and prisms. However, there was another area of glass technology that grew significantly in the later nineteenth century, namely glassblowing. The demand for thermometers, barometers and other glass-based instruments was increasing. Glassware was becoming standard for much chemical laboratory work, and glass vacuum lines were increasingly used for the manipulation of gases. Glassblowing and vacuum skills were essential also in the construction of discharge tubes such as those used by William Crookes, and in the manufacture of Dewar's vacuum flasks. Much of the new vacuum technology depended on Sprengel pumps, which were also made of glass.32 Sprengel pumps were also used in industry, most importantly in the manufacture of light bulbs by Edison and Swan.33 Much experimentation went into the blowing of light bulbs.

Glassblowing was already being taught at the RCC in the early 1850s, and both Crookes and McLeod had learned some basic skills there.34 Crookes passed on his knowledge to his assistant, Charles Gimingham (see below), who became an expert glassblower able to construct good radiometers, gold-leaf electroscopes, and discharge tubes. He made these not only for Crookes but also for several other people. McLeod, too, made apparatus for others. When broken, such apparatus had to be returned to London for repair because specialist glassblowers were rare outside the capital. By the early twentieth century, however, glassblowing was routinely taught in academic settings; most chemical research students learned at least the rudiments, and many universities opened glassblowing workshops.

In the nineteenth century much standard laboratory glassware was purchased at Whitefriars, as was glass tubing for glassblowing work in the laboratory.35 Some laboratory glassware was imported, and for this J. J. Griffin was a major supplier.36 Cetti's in Holborn was a site where custom glassware, including thermometers, barometers and electrolysis equipment, was made. However, many of the best scientific glassblowers were to be found at Hicks's in Hatton Garden, perhaps the most important maker of thermometers and barometers in this period.37 McLeod purchased several standardized thermometers from Hicks's during the 1880s when he and his assistants undertook daily weather observations for the Meteorological Office.38 The Meteorological Office and scientists working at the Kew Observatory were among Hicks's major customers, and McLeod records meeting people such as G. W. Whipple while at the shop. Whipple became superintendent of the observatory in the late 1880s. Earlier, in the 1850s, scientists at Kew made their own thermometers, using a dividing engine from Perreaux in Paris for the calibration. However, judging from some correspondence of the early 1850s, making good thermometers must have been difficult. Much of this Kew work was given up to Hicks's.39 McLeod later gave his design for a sunshine recorder to Hicks's and the company then manufactured and sold the recorders for about £7. Some were used at the Kew Observatory.

Although the professors at the RCC and RSM had several assistants over the years, many of them drawn from among the students, few of the assistants had the technical skills to build complex apparatus—although McLeod, a good glassblower, was one of the exceptions. The college largely purchased custom apparatus and instruments from trades shops and used outside people to construct cheaper apparatus not readily available from the more specialized shops. In this connection, one person mentioned many times in McLeod's diary during the 1860s and 1870s is James Blakeman.40 Blakeman constructed a wide range of metal apparatus, which he also cleaned and maintained. The apparatus ranged from simple retort stands and gas holders to more complicated furnaces and Bunsen burners. McLeod viewed Blakeman as very useful and, when he was about to set up his own laboratories, persuaded the authorities at the RIEC to offer Blakeman a permanent technician's job. However, Blakeman refused the offer, being unwilling to move and give up his modest London business.

Assistance in academic laboratories

In an earlier paper I discussed the working and social life of assistants at the RCC. The career of one of the professors, Edward Frankland, provides further interest in this connection.41 In 1845 he was hired as an assistant to Lyon Playfair, who at that time was working part-time at the Museum of Economic Geology in Jermyn Street and had a laboratory located in an underground scullery and kitchen in a house on Duke Street.42 When Frankland began this work, Playfair was largely absent because he had been asked by Robert Peel to examine the potato famine in Ireland, and to find out more about the cause and spread of the blight. It was Playfair's chief assistant at Duke Street, Thomas Ransome, who taught Frankland the basis of analytical chemistry.43 Frankland was a quick learner and shortly after was offered the position of lecture assistant when Playfair was appointed to the chemistry professorship at the Civil Engineering College in Putney. Frankland was paid £50 per year for this work, which entailed preparing the lecture demonstrations for Playfair and the teaching of elementary analytical chemistry to the students. The work would have been a good stepping-stone for anyone entertaining a future career in academic chemistry, but what determined Frankland's future path was his friendship with Hermann Kolbe, who was also working with Playfair at that time. Kolbe had earlier studied with Friedrich Wöhler in Göttingen and with Robert Bunsen in Marburg and when, in 1847, Bunsen invited him to become his assistant, Kolbe persuaded his new friend to return to Marburg with him.44 After two periods of working in Bunsen's laboratory, Frankland returned to Putney, where he conducted his own research.45 His budding reputation, based both on his work in organic chemistry and on a major contribution to what was to become known as the theory of valence, was enough to win him the professorship at Owens College in Manchester, but the college's financial and other difficulties, together with Manchester's remoteness from the centres of scientific and professional life in London, resulted in Frankland's return to the metropolis after just six years. In London he put together a living teaching at various colleges, including St Bartholomew's medical school, and working as a chemical consultant until, in 1863, he was appointed to succeed Faraday at the RI, where he set up work in yet another subterranean laboratory.

It was Frankland's expertise in gas analysis that drew one of Hofmann's students, Frank Baldwin Duppa, to work with him. For 10 years, until Duppa's death in 1873, this was a very fruitful and collegial professor–assistant relationship.46 Together they laid the foundation for work on the analysis of organic matter and gases dissolved in water, essential to the provision of safe water supplies.47 They also furthered the work in organic and organometallic chemistry for which Frankland was becoming famous. In 1868 Frankland was appointed to the Royal Commission on the Pollution of Rivers and Domestic Water Supply of Great Britain and ran the Commission's laboratory on Victoria Street. This appointment came a little over two years after Hofmann's departure for Berlin and after Frankland's appointment as his temporary replacement at the RCC (it was hoped that Hofmann would return to London). Frankland wisely maintained his research laboratory and position at the RI until Hofmann's formal resignation in 1877. His appointment at the RCC allowed him to select good students as assistants to work both at the RI and at the water laboratory.48 It is probably fair to say that while some of the water analysis equipment used in Victoria Street was made by the specialist trades, much was made by his assistants. Notable in this regard during the 1860s and early 1870s were Duppa and also McLeod, whom Frankland inherited from Hofmann as RCC lecture assistant; and it was student assistants who performed much of the routine analysis work.49 Frankland made good use of his many assistants, putting them to work at the RI, the laboratory on Victoria Street, at the RCC on Oxford Street and, later, in South Kensington.

One of Frankland's student assistants was Raphael Meldola, who was to become an eminent organic chemist. During the 1860s Meldola worked at the water laboratory and later, after a stint working as assistant to John Stenhouse (see below), moved to South Kensington in 1873 as an assistant in Frankland's new research laboratory there. At the time Frankland and Lockyer were working closely together on solar spectroscopy, and it seems that Meldola was increasingly taking instructions from Lockyer. Lockyer was another who had several very skilled assistants over the years, although according to Meldola he could be frustrating to work for.50 Meldola was Lockyer's representative on the Royal Society's solar eclipse expedition to the Nicobar Islands in 1875 and then returned to work in Lockyer's South Kensington laboratory. He and the other assistants seem to have conducted many spectroscopic experiments with only rough guidance from Lockyer, and sometimes they disputed his directions. On one occasion when Lockyer was determined that they find evidence for lithium in the solar spectrum, Meldola wrote in his diary that the evidence for lithium in the Sun ‘is in my opinion not sufficiently strong at present to warrant publication’. However, Lockyer was insistent on publishing anyway. Later they found good evidence for manganese before also looking for cobalt, nickel and some other elements. The work involved manipulating different cameras and prisms, silvering mirrors, maintaining the spectrograph and telescopic instruments in the observatory, taking many plates of solar spectra, varnishing the negatives, inking in, then mapping the spectra, and so on. Reading Meldola's diary, one has the impression that Lockyer was rarely present. Meldola mentions travelling back and forth between South Kensington and Lockyer's home in St John's Wood, delivering and collecting various bits of equipment.51 He also travelled with Lockyer, setting up equipment for various lecture demonstrations around the country. Frustrated by this mode of work, and at not being paid everything he was owed, it is not surprising that, in 1877, Meldola left his work in South Kensington to join the chemical industry.52 However, Lockyer continued to be lucky with his assistants. Later he employed A. F. Fowler, who was to succeed him in the chair of astrophysics at Imperial College. According to Fowler's student, Herbert Dingle, Lockyer treated Fowler as ‘an able and faithful servant’ and, like Boyle, he considered the work of his assistants to be his own.53 Lockyer's assistants did not share in publication and were expected to wait their turn before gaining voice in the scientific community.

McLeod's diary tells something of his work as Frankland's assistant.54 Typically, Frankland employed his better students to perform his experiments although, unlike Hofmann, he had the skill if not the time to do them himself. Frankland would have agreed with Boyle that by using ‘other hands’ he was able to increase his productivity. Both Hofmann and Frankland seem to have rewarded good assistants by promoting their careers and helping them to find good positions elsewhere, something that also furthered their own reputations.55 However, some assistants, mainly those without any academic training, remained in subservient positions all their lives. McLeod, too, was to have several assistants of various educational backgrounds. When he left the RCC/RSM he was able to take a young ‘lab boy’, George Scott, with him.56 Scott, who had worked briefly in Frankland's laboratory, moved to the RIEC ahead of McLeod; he was responsible for unpacking all the new equipment when it arrived and for setting things up in the laboratories. He had to make blackboard chalk and other everyday items that today would be purchased, and he was expected to keep the laboratory equipment clean. He also had to make regular trips to London to collect materials and equipment purchased from the various trades shops. He was given meals and accommodation at the new college and was paid 10 shillings per week. He also helped McLeod personally, unpacking his personal belongings and running errands for the McLeod family. In return, McLeod took on some responsibilities. Eight months after Scott had moved to Cooper's Hill, his mother, a widow with two young children still at home, became ill and later died. Scott sold his concertina and watch chain to help her out and McLeod gave him some extra money to help cover expenses. After the mother's death, McLeod employed Scott's sister as a domestic servant and arranged for the schooling of his younger brother.57

McLeod never built a major research laboratory but he conducted some research and usually had two or three assistants who helped both with this and with his teaching.58 One of his early assistants was Vivian Lewes, with whom he did not get on well. Lewes soon left in what seems to have been a very depressed state, but he later made a good career as a chemist.59 It would seem that few of McLeod's assistants had any formal academic training. The exceptions were John Clark, who had studied with Bunsen in Heidelberg and worked for McLeod in the 1870s, and Alfred Campion, a student of Meldola's at Finsbury Technical College, who came to McLeod in the 1890s. McLeod's diary indicates that finding good assistants was not easy and that he both sent and received many letters asking about their availability. By the time Clark arrived at Cooper's Hill, McLeod had become more interested in physical than chemical research and enjoyed inventing and improving physical apparatus. He was very skilled and much admired for his technical ingenuity. Clark was well trained by McLeod and it is therefore not surprising that he drew the attention of Oliver Lodge, who managed to lure him away to Liverpool. Lodge later hired another of McLeod's assistants, Edward Robinson, but had some difficulty in persuading McLeod to let him go.60

Frankland gave up the RI professorship in 1877, becoming a permanent professor at the RCC/RSM (by then in South Kensington) after Hofmann made it clear he would not return to London.61 Frankland was succeeded at the RI by James Dewar, who also retained the Jacksonian chair at Cambridge.62 Although Dewar never had a large team at the RI, he seems to have had a few excellent technical assistants and a competent workshop staff to back them up. The fourth Baron Rayleigh (R. J. Strutt) has given a good account of Dewar's laboratory.63 This and several other sources, together with the Dewar papers at the RI, allow some understanding of working life in this laboratory. Rayleigh explains how Dewar liquefied what had been viewed by Faraday as ‘the permanent’ gases on a scale not previously achieved. He did so by using a succession of more easily liquefiable gases as coolants, by using the eponymous insulating flask and, after 1895, by application of the Joule–Thomson effect. He began this work in the late 1870s after becoming interested in L. P. Cailletet's successful liquefaction of oxygen.64 Dewar was the first to liquefy hydrogen, which he did in 1898, and liquid hydrogen then became a useful but difficult coolant for his work on helium.65 To make liquid hydrogen on a large scale, Dewar needed a well-designed piece of apparatus engineered to make use of the Joule–Thomson effect. The apparatus was very large, weighed more than two tons, and did not always work smoothly. The principal difficulty with the preparation and use of liquid hydrogen was the blocking of tubing by solidified air gases. As Rayleigh put it, ‘this pioneer work on the liquefaction of gases made large demands not only on the skill and persistence of the workers but also on their personal courage’.66 This was true. Two assistants lost eyes in laboratory explosions and there were many minor injuries. According to Rayleigh, the risk of explosions was something to which Dewar appeared somewhat immune, admitting only that his work was ‘a little tricky’. Rayleigh mentions two of Dewar's early assistants, Robert Lennox and John Heath (the two who lost eyes), and notes that Lennox had had some training in engineering from James Thomson in Glasgow but had not taken a degree. Rayleigh states that Lennox designed the cooling equipment, compressors, air pumps and liquefiers, which were made by a Chiswick firm in which he (Lennox) was a partner. Indeed, Rayleigh included a photograph of Lennox in his article ‘as a memorial to one whose services to science have not been sufficiently recorded’. Although full of admiration for Lennox, Rayleigh doubted that he was the original designer of the Dewar flask—correctly, in my view. However, this view was not shared by one of Dewar's later assistants, William J. Green. The draft of a letter that Green sent to Rayleigh, after he had read a letter that Rayleigh had sent to Nature on the origin of the vacuum flask, questions Dewar's role:

I was interested in your letter to Nature on the origin of the vacuum flask. Sir Wm Bragg tells me I am free to say what I feel on this matter…. Mr. Heath told me quite definitely that Lennox made the first vacuum vessels and further that he passed on his methods to outside people who were asked to supply more than the laboratory could make.

He also mentions that Lennox made the first mercury-mirror vacuum vessel (something not disputed) and that Mr Gimingham of Edison and Swan was one of the early glassblowers who made vacuum vessels for the laboratory.67 Before using plain vacuum flasks, and then silvered ones, Dewar had used a series of glass vessels, one inside the other, as insulators.68 Green had a BSc, and he was paid £17 per month in 1914; it is clear from the records that he had to put up with a lot.69 Dewar was an impatient and difficult man to work for, as can be inferred from the tone of his written instructions to Green. Many of these were hastily written on small scraps of paper and on the backs of envelopes.70 In this his methods fall far short of William Crookes's exemplary handling of instructions to assistants. After Dewar's death, his close friend Henry Armstrong collected some personal memoirs before giving a memorial lecture at the RI. The letters he received, while mainly laudatory, noted Dewar's ‘irascible temper’, his feuds (famously with William Crookes and William Ramsay) and his severity with assistants.71 Dewar's Royal Society obituarist noted that although he was original, he could not get on with students and he always worked through paid assistants. Further, he was ‘violently impatient of failure in manipulation’ and was renowned for the daring (and dangerous) displays that accompanied his lectures.72 Dewar was a relatively wealthy man and was able to supplement the pay that the RI was willing to give assistants, and also to pay for much of his own equipment. It is difficult to come to any definitive conclusion, but it seems that he relied heavily on the expertise of Lennox and later assistants for the design and construction of most of the equipment used in the laboratory. However, he clearly knew what was needed to achieve the results he craved. Although Green was wrong in ascribing the first Dewar flask to Lennox, one can understand his wanting to set the record straight on the important role of assistants in Dewar's work. Further, that Dewar's assistants sustained some serious injuries was probably due to his willingness to cut corners to achieve results. Rayleigh claimed to have heard Dewar being reprimanded on his safety standards by Sir Frederick Bramwell, Secretary of the RI. Bramwell was a civil engineer and probably understood some of the problems. He may also have feared for the safety of the building and its occupants. Further, according to Rayleigh, Dewar's apparatus was rather ad hoc and he never included descriptions of it in his published work. Dewar's excuse was that the engineering was well known, but more likely was the need to be secretive and protective of his work. Perhaps he also wanted to hide the group effort involved. However, it was not then expected that work such as his be seen as belonging also to assistants, even if some of them thought otherwise. Even the highly skilled were not yet fully viewed as co-workers.73

Some private laboratories: gentlemen and entrepreneurs

In an earlier paper I wrote about William Crookes and his assistants in the period 1871–81.74 Charles Gimingham, his principal assistant during that period, left in 1882 to join the electrical lighting industry and was to become head of the Edison and Swan Electric Light Company's factory at Ponders End until his premature death in 1890. Gimingham arrived in Crookes's laboratory as a young apprentice. Under Crookes's tutelage he became an outstanding glassblower and worked with Crookes on vacuum tube and radiometer work.75 His successor as principal assistant, James H. Gardiner, had a BSc in chemistry. Gardiner worked in the laboratory in Crookes's house at Notting Hill until Crookes's death in 1919, at which point he moved to the glass industry.76 He began by assisting Gimingham with finding ways of constructing filaments for electric light bulbs, something in which Crookes then had a business interest. Much time was spent also making incandescent bulbs blown from glass cylinders.77 It was when Crookes decided to relinquish his interest in lighting that Gimingham left his employment. Crookes then turned more to chemical research and Gardiner was asked to work on the separation of rare earth and other elements from the mineral samarskite.78 Later they attempted, unsuccessfully, to make artificial diamonds by using Moissan's process.79 In his work on samarskite, Gardiner used standard inorganic chemistry procedures for the separation of the elemental salts, and standard analysis and spectroscopy techniques for their identification.80 Together with Crookes he spent much time trying to isolate the different elements in the original mineral, and then to identify the various spectral lines associated with them.81 On one occasion Gardiner used sulphuric acid to decompose the samarskite and wrote:

the fumes are enough to choke any delicate person passing outside… it is also dreadfully hot standing over the furnace and the vault soon becomes quickly charged with fumes no matter how much care is taken keeping the lid on. I am afraid it would be bad for the boy or anyone else to have much of it.

Next to this entry Crookes wrote, ‘evidently this plan must be given up’.82 Crookes used the same approach in guiding Gardiner as he had earlier with Gimingham. In addition to face-to-face instruction, he read the laboratory notebook at regular intervals, contributed his own observations to it, and added helpful comments together with suggestions for further work.

Crookes was a highly entrepreneurial businessman. His laboratory was used to perform work that could lead to new patents, work related to his various business interests, and work that allowed him to maintain a high reputation within the scientific community. He achieved much. He made a comfortable income despite some business failures, and received many honours from learned societies including, late in life, the Presidency of the Royal Society. He was a brilliant man with outstanding manipulative ability. However, his many successes were made possible only because he could afford good help and managed to get the best out of the people he employed by training and treating them well.

There were other scientist entrepreneurs active in the same period, but Crookes was in a class of his own. Another interesting case is John Stenhouse FRS (1809–80), who was a generation older than Crookes. He had studied chemistry at Glasgow University under Thomas Thomson and Thomas Graham, and at Giessen under Justus Liebig. He then worked as a lecturer at St Bartholomew's Hospital until suffering a stroke and being no longer able to teach. After a period of convalescence he opened a laboratory in an outbuilding of an abandoned factory on Rodney Street, King's Cross. There he conducted research, worked as a consultant, and did assaying and other contract work.83 Stenhouse was interested in medicinal plants, but his consulting work was much more broadly based and included giving advice on deodorization and disinfection by the use of wood charcoal as an absorbent. He held several interesting patents related, among other things, to dyeing processes, waterproofing and methods of sugar refining. Stenhouse had a succession of very good assistants, mainly graduates of the RCC.84 The longest serving of these was Charles E. Groves (1841–1920), with whom Stenhouse published many papers. Groves was later an editor of the Chemical Society journal and, after Stenhouse's death in 1880, he became a lecturer at Guy's Hospital. Because McLeod was a close friend of Groves there are many entries in his diary recounting visits to Stenhouse's laboratory during the 1860s and 1870s.85 Because of his stroke, Stenhouse was unable to manipulate the chemical apparatus himself but he gave good instructions to his assistants and thus managed not only to make a living but to perform the research that gained him much respect within the scientific community.

Warren de la Rue was one of Hofmann's early students as well as a financial supporter of the RCC. He came from a family that ran a successful stationery and printing business.86 De la Rue was very inventive and some of his technical innovations, such as an envelope-making machine, helped the family business to recover from a temporary slump. Like Crookes and Stenhouse, though far wealthier, he was able to combine business interests with scientific research and he, too, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. De la Rue had several technically gifted employees but he worked especially closely with Hugo Müller, a chemist from Leipzig.87 Müller came to the firm on the recommendation of Liebig to help in producing new fiscal stamps for the Board of Trade, and later also stamps for the East India Company, postage stamps and franking ink. Müller was a good organic chemist and investigated several plant dyes as well as the new aniline dyes for these various projects.88 De la Rue's had good laboratories, to which Michael Faraday was given free access. There, Müller also helped de la Rue in his private research. Together they built large batteries that had a dual purpose related first to a business interest in electrotyping and later to scientific interests in the properties of gases in evacuated tubes subjected to electrical discharge. They performed the kind of spectroscopic experiments made fashionable by the earlier work of R. W. E. Bunsen and G. R. Kirchoff and by the vacuum technology developed by Crookes. On one occasion, when de la Rue was at Becker's on St Martin's Lane looking at electrical equipment, he met McLeod and invited him to see his battery pile of 1070 cells then under construction.89 Business success allowed de la Rue to build a fine observatory at his Canonbury home, later moving to Cranford in Middlesex when he needed more space. With help from experts in the trades he built an excellent telescope and took a series of good photographs of the Moon and of the planets. He was also much involved with the Kew Observatory on a voluntary basis and built a heliograph at Kew, which was used to take routine photographs of the Sun over many years.

Having an observatory at home was not unusual among scientists who could afford it. Frankland had one at his home on Haverstock Hill, and William Huggins, a businessman scientist, had one at Tulse Hill. Huggins was very active in Royal Society circles and was elected its President in the early twentieth century.90 McLeod visited his home on a few occasions and described the observatory and associated laboratory in his diary. It seems that Huggins had some very good equipment, and by the 1880s his home was illuminated by electricity. McLeod much admired his Holz and dynamo machines, which ran off a steam engine. The dynamo had a reverser to produce alternating current. Much of the electrical equipment, including an interesting collection of batteries, was on the lower floor. Above it was a laboratory with Sprengel pumps, vacuum equipment, discharge tubes and spectroscopic equipment. On the top floor was an observatory with two telescopes (reflector and refractor) belonging to the Royal Society. On one occasion the two were conjoined for taking photographs of the solar corona but, according to McLeod, Huggins had difficulty in excluding all except the violet light he was interested in.91 McLeod also noted that the house was full of good furniture and fine pictures and that these were to be found also in the laboratories. Huggins made some major contributions to solar spectroscopy and gave many papers at the Royal Society, where he displayed his much-admired solar photographs. However, he also gave papers on a range of other topics, including on the physics of the violin. He had several private assistants and, after a late marriage, was most notably ‘assisted’ by his wife, Margaret Huggins, an astronomer in her own right. The Hugginses presented several joint papers at the Royal Society.92

Huggins is perhaps better described as a gentleman, rather than a businessman, scientist.93 The same is true of William Spottiswoode, whose laboratory McLeod also describes in his diary. Spottiswoode's family owned the printing firm Eyre and Spottiswoode but it seems that he spent much time in voluntary activity and on private scientific research. As Hofmann's assistant, McLeod would regularly take college material to Eyre and Spottiswoode's for printing, and he first met Spottiswoode in this way. Later, Spottiswoode was often present at Physical Society meetings, which McLeod also attended, and at Hatfield House, where McLeod often helped Lord Salisbury in his laboratory.94 Spottiswoode had a private laboratory in his home at 41 Grosvenor Place, and his assistant, Mr Ward, exchanged much information with McLeod, especially in relation to polariscopic work. McLeod also noted attending some scientific soirées at Spottiswoode's home. Another gentleman's laboratory described by McLeod was Lord Rayleigh's situated at the Rayleigh country estate, Terling Place in Essex. From the 1880s, McLeod was often invited to Terling and, from descriptions in the diary, it is clear that the laboratory was well equipped. It was located in an old coach house and loft. However, delicate weighing was performed in a tunnel beneath the conservatory. From McLeod's diary one has the impression that both Lord Rayleigh and Lord Salisbury relied on the assistance of family servants and of members of their own families in their scientific work. It would seem that Rayleigh's scientist son, Robin Strutt, was well trained from an early age. Further technical assistance was offered by competent manipulators such as McLeod who would be invited to visit for scientific and social weekends. McLeod helped Rayleigh with his tuning forks, with work on colour vision, the preparation of pure oxygen and hydrogen, and with several electrical devices. Similarly, he continued to help Spottiswoode and Lord Salisbury until their deaths in 1883 and 1903, respectively.


The diaries and correspondence of a few successful scientists have been conserved in libraries and archives, but those of less successful people, including technical assistants, are rare. As a consequence we know something of those who began their working lives as assistants to others and who later made successful scientific careers of their own. However, little is known of the many other assistants who contributed to the successes of their employers. Nonetheless it is clear from existing diaries—McLeod's, Bloxam's and Meldola's, for example—that many such people existed and that people of whom we know little worked alongside the diarists as assistants, technicians and lab boys. Also clear is that by the mid-nineteenth century it was not just astronomical observatories but also chemical and physical laboratories that were unable to function well without much input from people working in the specialized trades. Earlier, chemists and natural philosophers were more self-reliant and had their own technically gifted employees, but by the mid-Victorian period many and varied trades shops existed to supply their growing needs. Although larger academic laboratories were supported by workshops of various kinds, equipment was increasingly purchased from outside, much of it custom made. By the early twentieth century there was a degree of amalgamation in the trades such that larger manufacturers replaced many of the smaller trades shops. By then the kind of intimacy between scientists and people working in the trades, typical of the Victorian period, was far less common.

It was not just growth in traditional scientific activity that fuelled the trades. The new industrial economy demanded a range of expertise and specialization not known earlier. It also required new forms of technical education of the kind offered by the RCC. Several examples of assistantship discussed in this paper were associated directly or indirectly with that college, a site where German patterns of professorial assistance were adopted. Professors hired research assistants, and also lecture and teaching assistants whose job was to prepare demonstration experiments and help in practical instruction. In most cases there was a blurring of the lines. Herbert McLeod, for example, helped both with lecture demonstrations and with Hofmann and Frankland's own research. He also ran almost daily errands and dealt with many of the trades. These kinds of assistantship position could lead to good careers for those who, like McLeod, showed ability. In many ways they anticipated the kind of work that postgraduate research students were to conduct in the twentieth century.95 Below these more privileged assistants in the pecking order were many others, including lab boys (and a few girls), who remain largely hidden from view. There is little doubt that, collectively, assistants in academic positions contributed greatly to professors' researches and helped to make their reputation. Frankland, who had been acculturated in chemistry first as an apprentice, then as laboratory and lecture assistant, understood the system well. For a while he ran three laboratories concurrently, spending little more than one day a week in each. He had to rely not only on a technical staff that was capable of following his directions but also on some among his staff who were capable of taking initiative and progressing the work. Academic success such as he enjoyed is the product of well-managed teamwork. It is also true that in mentoring and promoting the careers of good assistants both Hofmann and Frankland contributed to their own reputations. They had many grateful admirers among a younger generation of chemists.

Frankland's successor at the RI illustrates a different pattern. Dewar's assistants were employees with no academic ambition of their own. Dewar did not employ former students but he, too, was highly successful. He chose his principal assistants for their technical and engineering skills, and chose them well. But they were treated simply as employees and without the paternalism common in other academic settings including, earlier, the RI. Interestingly, some of Dewar's assistants contested intellectual ownership of the work, but they were not seriously recognized. Some businessmen, such as John Stenhouse, saw an advantage in hiring people with academic training. In his case it was necessary to have good people because he was wholly dependent on them. His was a collegial workplace, and those working in his laboratory were well treated. Some of his assistants co-published and shared patent rights with him. William Crookes's business shows yet another pattern of assistantship, namely that of apprenticeship. Some of Crookes's best assistants were taken in as young teenagers and were well trained by him. Gardiner, an exception, was a university graduate. There were also several temporary employees, including women glassblowers, to help when needed. Crookes's family was also of great help in the laboratory. Family members, too, were among the principal helpers of Lord Salisbury and Lord Rayleigh. Both also had family servants to help out. However, their status as aristocrats enabled them to call on other scientists to assist when needed. Those chosen, like McLeod, probably felt privileged. McLeod was of great assistance to both men, and his diary entries imply that he was not alone—although in the case of Lord Salisbury there is no one who came close to helping as much.

In the late nineteenth century, people with similar technical skills could be found in academic, workshop, trades and industrial settings. Although this paper has illustrated something of this range it still, perhaps, places too much emphasis on scientists who are already well known. This is unavoidable given the relatively scanty material available on their assistants—they remain largely invisible—and on the trades shops on which work depended. Nonetheless the paper has shown that highly skilled trades people, the semi-skilled, research students, young graduates, still younger apprentices, family members, lab boys and lab girls, all contributed to the work being conducted in laboratories during this period. Scientific research is a team activity. Thomas Graham was right to appreciate the worth of a good assistant, but assistantship came in many more forms than acknowledged in the epigraph.


I would like to thank William Brock for his helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. I also thank Anne Barrett, Patricia Methven and Irena McCabe, archivists at Imperial College, King's College London and the Royal Institution, respectively, and Nicola Best, librarian at the Royal Society of Chemistry, for their help with sources.

  • Received October 2, 2007.
  • Accepted October 2, 2007.


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