16 October 2013


No new posts will be added to the Oral History of British Science blog; further updates about the project, and the forthcoming 'Voices of Science' website, will be posted to the British Library's Untold Lives blog.  

But fear not! None of the content from this blog will be lost as it has been archived by the UK Web Archive.



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04 October 2013

RIP George Hockham (1938-2013)

Electronics engineer George Hockham, who died recently, was one of the fathers of optic fibre communications. After education at Regent Street Polytechnic, George joined Standard Telecommunications Laboratory (STL) at Harlow where he worked on long distance trunk communication systems. In the mid 1960s, working with Charles Kao, George began research on the use of optic fibres to carry signals from a laser over long distance. Their 1966 joint paper "Dielectric-fibre surface waveguides for optical frequencies" established that long distance fibre optic communications were a realistic possibility and laid the groundwork for many of the systems that carry our telephone, internet and television. In the following clip George recalls some of that early research at STL in the 1960s.

George Hockham recalls his early research at STL


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05 August 2013

Who's going to use it anyway?

Last week we did some user testing for our prototype Voices of Science website. It's been a fascinatingly Big Brother experience - sitting in a darkened room watching a user click through our website from the other side of a one-way mirror, their mouse clicking and eye movements are tracked, as a tester asks them questions about what they think of it and how they interact with it. It's about use, and one of the things I hear most often from interviewees once we've completed an interview is "who do you think will ever use it?"

More and more over the course of this project, I've found myself realising that historians and scientists see things a bit differently - an interviewee's description of a typical day in the laboratory might be a fascinating glimpse, laden with multi-layered levels of meaning, to the historian, but to the interviewee it might just be a normal, unremarkable day at the office, and who would be interested in that? Moreover, with a background in the history of technology, I know that users always do things that designers don't expect. I've always taken the view that whatever uses I expect people to find for this collection, there will no doubt be more. I sometimes remind interviewees that their interviews will be archived at the British Library, next to a few Magna Cartas and a stack of Gutenberg Bibles. Not because I'm trying to impress them, but because it's a useful way of getting across how the meaning and uses of things change over long periods of time. Whilst the Magna Carta are today considered to be amongst the most celebrated documents in history, the people producing them in the thirteenth century can have had little notion of the documents' future significance - at the time they were simply a practical solution to a political crisis. In regards to oral history interviewing, our task is to ask a wide range of questions and elicit as much useful detail as possible, so that there's data for a wide range of potential audiences to do with what they will in the future.

But then there's the website...

For the last year or so, we've all been mighty busy building the curated project website Voices of Science, assembled from hundreds of audio clips, video clips, images, and text boxes. It's effectively a mini history of recent British science told through a mosaic of the words of the people involved. We've gone through the interviews looking for clips that cover recurring themes, or touch on history of science topics or issues that we think people will find interesting.  We spent hours editing little sound bites of a few minutes from hundreds of hours of recordings, then coming up metadata 'tags' to index the information in the content, so that people will be able to find related material. We sat down and planned website hierarchies, worked out page layouts, thought about user pathways, and I don't even want to think about the endless discussions over what we would name sections of the website - the terms we quite happily use to refer to different sorts of material between ourselves don't always have a huge amount of meaning to other people.  In short it's been a massive process of selection, collection, naming, and arrangement. All based on assumptions of the sorts of material we think users will find useful and interesting and how they will best access it. We have become designers, ones who now get to see what our users make of our grand designs...

View this photo


Tom Lean

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17 May 2013

Joseph Farman and the ‘ozone hole’

Joseph Farman, CBE, who died recently, was the British Antarctic Survey scientist who discovered the ‘ozone hole’ using instruments called Dobson Spectrometers pointed at the sky above Antarctica. I interviewed Joe for An Oral History of British Science over six long sessions in 2010 and 2011. I felt sad to hear that he had died; he was interesting, warm and extraordinarily funny on and off the recording. I would like to use this blog to allow Joe to comment on his Telegraph obituary in which we learn that ‘In 1990 Mrs Thatcher paid generous tribute to Farman for sounding the alarm at an international conference on the ozone layer.’ Here is Joe’s account of the conference:

Joseph Farman recalls the 1990 Saving the Ozone Layer conference

The Telegraph Obituary also emphasises the importance and success of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Joe, himself, was less impressed:

Joseph Farman comments on the Montreal Protocol

We find in these two clips a striking feature of what we might call Joe’s ‘character’ or ‘personality’: the tendency to stand irritated and amused alongside an absurd political and media culture in which ‘scientific knowledge’ can float away from its context in muddled and exaggerated claims. Darkly funny throughout, Joe’s life story interview captures the exasperation of someone who refused to stray from reporting what his instruments had recorded – low ozone concentrations in the peculiar environment of the Antarctic stratosphere – even if that meant covering his face in television interviews:

Joseph Farman remembers a television interview on the ozone hole

For a clip of our video of Joe with one of his Dobson Spectrometers at the British Antarctic Survey, see

For the full interview, go to


Paul Merchant

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20 March 2013

Ideas in the bath?

Dr Thomas Lean writes:

 From Isaac Newton 'discovering' gravity thanks to a lucky falling apple, to Alexander Fleming finding penicillin in his untidy lab, great scientific discoveries have long been told as stories about lucky chance and serendipity.

But is it really luck?

Or is it just easier to explain complicated science through simple stories? Is it modesty? Or perhaps, as microbiologist Louis Pasteur put it, “in the fields of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind”? Or perhaps something else entirely?

Last Monday saw An Oral History of British Science try to put the matter to rest once and for all, with the first of our evening public events. Four interviewees from the project - Professor Dame Julia Higgins, Professor Chris Rapley, Professor Cyril Hilsum, and Professor Mike Baillie - came together to discuss how serendipity had touched their careers, in areas as diverse as electronics engineering and dendrochronology, with historian of science Dr Charlotte Sleigh to add a historical perspective.

The results of our experiment certainly made for an entertaining evening... and you can see what we came up with on this video.

And if you want to know more about scientists and luck, check out Charlotte Sleigh's blog on the subject of luck and science - Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, Newton?

Or Douglas Heaven's reflection of the evening at the New Scientist blog

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07 December 2012

Keeping The Lights On: Introducing An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry

Tom Lean, interviewer for Made in Britain and An Oral History of the Electrical Supply Industry, writes:

2012 has seen the start of a new National Life Stories project on the history of technology.  An Oral History of the Electrical Supply Industry will create a national collection of interviews with the people who shaped and operated the electricity industry in Britain. Expected to comprise around 45 life story interviews, the project will document the development of an industry which has become part of the fabric of life in Britain, but whose operations remains largely hidden to those outside it.

The industry itself has changed dramatically over the years. Before the 1940s, Britain's electricity industry was a patchwork of local independent electricity companies and corporations linked, to some extent, by a centrally controlled National Gridiron of high power cables. In 1947 it was nationalised into the British Electricity Authority. In 1955 it was reorganised into the Central Electricity Authority. Then reorganised again in 1957 to create the Central Electricity Generating Board and Electricity Council. And in the 1990s it was split up into various parts and privatised.

In the same period, electricity use in the home went from being a relatively uncommon novelty to being utterly essential. To feed this need for electricity the means of its production developed too. Small local power stations were replaced by enormous facilities, built atop mines to satisfy their hunger for coal. Nuclear power promised to generate electricity too cheap to meter, before its risks and costs became clear. As environmental concerns have built, renewable energy sources, wind and hydro-electric power, have become more important. Along the way, through postwar fuel shortages and consumer demands for one-bar electric fires, long hard winters, oil crises, miners' strikes, political dithering, technical troubles and other events, tens of thousands of people worked every hour of every day, to keep the lights on, no matter what.

An Oral History of the Electrical Supply Industry will document the development of the industry, and its day-to-day operation, through the life stories of those involved. Further information on the project can be found on through the National Life Stories webpages.

F Rayner - father electric stand_cropped

Electrical appliance stand at Lincolnshire show c.1938.  Courtesy of Frank Raynor.

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26 October 2012

BBC World Service 'Discovery' tapes

The British Library's Oral History collections include a number of collections relating to science and technology which compliment the Oral History of British Science project.  An overview of the collections can be found on the oral history collection webpages.

One recently catalogued collection is the BBC World Service 'Discovery' tapes. The collection comprises over 360 open reels of 'insert' tapes recorded for the BBC World Service "Discovery" programme between 1971 and 1981; there are around 700 individual interviews within the collection, covering subjects within natural science, applied science, physical science and cognitive science, and include interviews with some of the scientists recorded for An Oral History of British Science.  The collection can be browsed by visiting the collection entry on the Sound & Moving Image Catalogue, and by clicking on the collection name, or alternatively by searching the catalogue using the reference number C540.

The collection was catalogued by Dean Annison during an internship between May and September (2012) which he undertook whilst completing an MA in Archives & Records Management at UCL.

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17 October 2012

Splits, moves and mergers

Paul Merchant, interviewer for A Changing Planet, writes:

We read in newspapers that the British Antarctic Survey [BAS], based in Cambridge, may merge with the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton [NOCS].  Unsettling and, many argue, damaging for science.  But not historically unusual.  Oceanographers and Antarctic scientists interviewed for An Oral History of British Science tell stories of previous moves, changes and mergers. 

Until 1962 BAS was called the Falklands Islands Dependency Survey [FIDS] and until the mid 1970s it wasn’t based in Cambridge; it had a headquarters in London and worked out of university departments.  Interviewee Janet Thomson began her career as BAS geologist in the Department of Geology, University of Birmingham.  From 1957, interviewee Joseph Farman oversaw the long-term measurement of ozone over Antarctica from an office in the University of Edinburgh. 

The NOCS has an extraordinarily complicated genealogy.  Group W of the Admiralty Research Laboratories (recalled by interviewee Norman Smith) was formed in 1944.  In 1951, Group W joined with marine biologists to form the National Institute of Oceanography [NIO], which moved to Wormley in Surrey in 1953 (on life and work in the NIO, see interviews with Sir Anthony Laughton and David Cartwright).  In 1965, the Natural Environment Research Council [NERC] took control of NIO and, in 1973, merged NIO with the Institute of Coastal Oceanography and Tides [ICOT], Bidston, near Liverpool and the Unit of Coastal Sedimentation [ICS], Taunton, to form NERC’s Institute of Oceanographic Sciences [IOS].  In 1987 the Liverpool and Wormley parts of the IOS were un-merged, to form the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory, Bidston and the IOS Deacon Laboratory [IOSDL], Wormley.  As NERC’s Director of Marine and Atmospheric Science (1986-94), interviewee John Woods campaigned successfully for a new purpose-built centre for British oceanography: the Southampton Oceanography Centre [SOC], opened in 1996.  IOSDL moved from Wormley to the SOC, merging with departments of the University of Southampton.  In 2005, SOC was reorganised and renamed the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton [NOCS].         

We wait to see what will happen next.

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10 September 2012

Personal Geographies of Science

Thomas Lean, interviewer for Made in Britain, writes:

I was reading an article by Janet Vertesi a little while ago on how the distinctive London Underground Map, with its differences from a 'real' map of London has affected how travellers think about the representations of urban space (Vertesi, Social Studies of Science, 2008). It got me thinking a little bit on how my own perception of the geography of Britain has been warped somewhat over the last few years by talking so much to scientists about the scientific places they once worked in.

For example, I can't see a train to Malvern any more without instantly thinking “TRE” - the home of Britain's wartime radar research. Place names instantly connect themselves to companies and establishments and technologies in my mind. Farnborough = the RAE = Aeroplanes. Wembley = GEC = All manner of electronics. Warton = English Electric = Aeroplanes. Bristol = Jet engines. The Isle of Wight = Saunders Roe = Hovercraft and Rockets (definitely not sandcastles and beaches). And so on. My whole knowledge of places has been subtly conditioned my learning about the history of science. Fortunately enough, looking at the British Society for the History of Science travel guide, it seems I'm not the only one. But actually trundling across much of this landscape myself, visiting scientists who retired near the places they worked, I get a rather personal take on it.

I wondered for a while why I spent so much time going through Reading on my travels. But a quick look at the place names around it on the map makes it clear, if you know what you are looking for: the old International Computers Limited [ICL] facilities at Reading and Bracknell, the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, the Vickers aircraft factory at Weybridge; to the West, the nuclear research sites of Aldermaston, Harwell and Culham lie within about 30 miles of each other, conveniently close to Oxford, with its university, and Abingdon, home of high-tech manufacturer Oxford Instruments. I could go on, but the clustering of high-tech industries is a well known phenomena. Companies and establishments need to work together, need a supply of trained staff, need each other's services, and often spin-off new organisations in new fields.

The other interesting thing is how much these places themselves have changed. A couple of years ago I strolled hrough the housing estate that had once been the Hawker's aircraft factory in Kingston with aircraft designer Ralph Hooper, marvelling at the way all the road names were named after aeroplanes. One of the pleasing things of our project is how much we've been able to record places that don't exist any more, in the words of those who worked in them, and the great changes in other locations over the years. As the following video, featuring Sir John Charnley discussing the contrast between A-shed in Farnborough in the 1950s and 2011, neatly demonstrates, place can be a powerful focus point for understanding change.


Sir John Charnley's audio and video interview are catalogued on the Sound & Moving Image Catalogue under reference C1379/30.

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04 September 2012

Voices of Science - Building our new website

Thomas Lean, interviewer for Made in Britain, writes:

At the moment we're all pretty busy with developing Voices of Science, the new website for An Oral History of British Science, scheduled for completion next year. One of the things we've always hoped for is to make an archive that is easily accessible to all sorts of people from around the world who want to learn about the history of science in Britain, and we're all really excited by the prospect of Voices of Science. The shear volume of data we've collected has reached the point where it's quite intimidating, especially given the fact we've been recording for less than three years. So far we've recorded over 80 individuals, with more to come, a rather staggering total of over 800 hours so far. That's rather a lot of data for anyone, and helping people to get through it has always been one of our concerns - this is where Voices of Science comes in.

Based on the interviews from the project, the website will be more than just an entry way into the collection of interviews, but a history of British science in itself, told through the voices of the people involved. The website will be built around hundreds of short clips from the interviews, illustrating significant moments and big history of science themes, but also showing aspects of life as a scientist that people outside rarely get to see - hobbies, family life, interactions with colleagues, and day to day work in the lab. We're going to have more video interviews, and unique personal photographs from interviewees to illustrate their lives in science, as well as new ways of helping people navigate their way through the collection. After three years of stalking the land in search of 'victms' (as one or two of them have referred to themselves, hopefully in jest...) and hundreds of hours of sitting chatting to scientists and engineers as individuals, it's going to be really exciting seeing what the aggregate of this all is. More updates on Voices of Science as we get more done!

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