A technician’s eye view of the history of science

This is the written up notes of a talk given at the IST conference 2018. Appologies to any classics scholars reading this for my treatment of Plato – I have taken a slightly  tongue in cheek approach to parts of this history.


Technicians are the forgotten people, the invisible members of the scientific community who almost never appear in the science text books. This is a journey through the history of science and of technicians; from pre-history right through to now. On this journey I will show who technicians were and what role they played in the history of science. I will try to show what has changed for technicians over the years and how being a technician became a profession.

The main thing I have discovered from all the lives I have explored while writing this is that if you take any two technicians from any discipline, institution, country, or even century there will always be similarities in their stories, shared experiences linking them together. I hope that you will see similarities; links between your experiences, good and bad, and those of some of the technicians I am going to highlight.


In this history I have concentrated on western European science and technicians. There is a lot that could be said about technicians from all over the world but that will have to wait for another blog post.


Dug and Hognob in the Early Man movie, 2018 (StudioCanal)
The first technicians? Dug and Hognob in the Early Man movie, 2018 (StudioCanal)

Obviously, the first technician wasn’t Dug pictured above (or Hognob – his pet boar). However, the first technicians may well have lived well before modern man took their first steps on earth 50,000 years ago. The first evidence of the manufacture of stone tools comes from 2.5 million years ago (Conner 2005). Stone tool manufacture became an industry and any industry that requires people with technical skills, practical knowledge, and inquisitive minds would have had to have technicians.

As new industries developed they must also have had technicians. Be it textile dyeing, hide tanning, metallurgy, ceramics, soap-boiling, beer-making, the list goes on. We obviously know almost nothing about these first technicians. Even in early civilizations such as Egypt, Ancient Greece, etc., where there is written documentary it is difficult to talk about what technicians were doing. That is because it was the elites who wrote the documents and why would they record what their slaves were doing? For that is what most early technicians would have been, slaves, with no status and certainly no voice (Conner 2005).

Despite this it seems likely that there is a direct line between these early technicians and those that followed – even to the present day. A link formed because they, like modern day technician, would have worked between the mental and the manual worlds. They worked with both their heads and their hands. For example, a ceramic technician – then or now might take the chief potter’s idea, a perfume bottle, a bowl. They would use their hard-earned knowledge of clay, temperature, and of forming to make that idea into a hard-physical reality. In this way, those slave technicians used their heads and their hands to transform the messy world of ideas into physical, practical reality. Many modern-day technicians do exactly the same thing. Technicians take an idea for a new piece of equipment or new method and make it real.

That role, between mental and manual is where I see myself as a laboratory technician. I generally don’t make physical objects but I do something similar. As a laboratory technician I take the messy physical world (a sample) and turn it into data, into images, or into analysis using a combination of manual dexterity in operating machines and knowledge of the equipment and the science. My head and my hands working together– it is why I enjoy my job so much, the varied nature of it. Unfortunately, as I am going to show you, it is also part of the reason that we, as technicians, have been forgotten in the history of science.

Early civilizations

This is Plato, philosopher of ancient Greece… and a git.

Plato (c.425 – c.347 BCE), (photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen)
Plato (c.425 – c.347 BCE), (photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen)

Plato was a rich man in a slave culture. He developed an ideology that we might today call scientific elitism. One of the key parts of this philosophy can be put thus:

“It is not the man who makes a thing, but the man who uses it, who has true scientific knowledge about it.” (Farrington 1953)

In other words, if you produce physical objects or work with your hands – that is technicians – then you cannot be seen as possessing superior scientific knowledge and you certainly can’t create it. So, while I, as a technician, work between mental and manual worlds it is the manual work I do that means I am, in Plato’s mind, inferior.

Worse, because he was also a bit of a snob, he extended this philosophy to anyone who needed to earn money from their work. This makes technicians doubly inferior (Conner 2005)

Plato started a school, The Academy, and spread this nonsense all over ancient Greece and eventually all over Western Europe and it stuck, hard, so hard that it remains even today – the UK in particular I think has a real snobbery about manual work.

Middle ages

For all I am calling Plato a git, he and ancient Greeks and Roman civilizations created an incredible wealth of knowledge. However, this knowledge was so revered that right through the middle ages their version of the truth about the world was guarded, protected, and believed, for the most part without question. In some cases, Western European scholars disbelieved the evidence of their own eyes just to avoid going against what the Greeks had written. This held back progress in all the sciences for hundreds of years. However, I do not believe that all people in the Middle Ages would have been so myopic and I think this can be beautifully demonstrated with my first image of a technician.

A woodcut illustration from Fasciculus medicinae, 1491 (Ghosh 2015)
A woodcut illustration from Fasciculus medicinae, 1491 (Ghosh 2015)

Above is an image of a public dissection from the 14th century. Here we see the anatomist in the chair (known as a Lector) probably reading from a Latin translation of an ancient Greek text book. Notice how he is keeping well away from getting his hands dirty. There is an Ostensor (who seems to have been a bit like a post-doc) pointing at the correct part of the body with a stick, while our technician (known as a Sector) cut the appropriate part.

The text book the anatomist is reading from would likely have been written by Galen, a Greek who was writing about human anatomy in the 2nd century BCE. However, human dissection was illegal at the time and so he had never actually dissected a human. He’d had to make do with dissections of dead dogs, pigs, monkeys, etc. This led him to make some serious mistakes. For example, he wrote about tiny holes in the heart which allowed blood to flow, these do not exist but that didn’t stop even the great Leonardo Da Vinci including them in his anatomical diagrams.

One of Galen’s biggest mistakes was saying that humans had two jaw bones as this is what he saw in dogs. This suggests a beautiful moment which I have no evidence for, but I can well imagine happening.

To set the scene. The anatomist is intoning about the two bones of the jaw, the Ostensor (post-doc) points to the jaw. The technician would then make the cut exposing the jaw. The anatomist from his chair then asks the technician to hold the two bones up for everyone to see. Technician and post-doc look at each other, there is only one. The technician, being a practical person, grabs the single jaw bone, cracks it over his knee and holds two bones up triumphantly saving the anatomists blushes.

I’ve heard more recent stories like that; where a technician’s practical approach sees something different, the reality. A colleague was listening as two academics studied some data on a screen saying it exactly supported their theories. She had to tell them that they were not looking at data but electronic noise as the sensor wasn’t actually on.

Those academics were not behaving like true scientists. They were letting their beliefs about what was going on to overrule reality. In a similar way, scholars of the middle ages were not scientists because they allowed their Greek inspired ideas about what was happening to overcome the hard-practical reality. The craftspeople and technicians had a practical knowledge hard won with their hands so would likely often have been more clued up of the reality that the scholars. Certainly, more willing to see the truth than the scholars themselves. This makes them, in some ways, more like true scientists than those early scholars.

The alchemists

Another group of early technicians – possibly the first laboratory technicians – were those who supported the alchemists, the chemists of their day.

An Alchemist in His Laboratory Balthasar van den Bossche, 1681–1715. (Wellcome Collection)
An Alchemist in His Laboratory Balthasar van den Bossche, 1681–1715. (Wellcome Collection)

Alchemy probably came from ancient Egypt around 300 BCE and was focused on a search for the key to immortality and a method for turning base-metal into gold. Their workshops were the prototype for chemical laboratories right up to the 19th century (Morris 2015).

The rich ones would have made use of assistants, technicians, to keep their furnaces alight, to monitor their complex distillations. According to one author on the subject (Quoted in Maxwell-Stuart 2012):

“at least one female assistant is necessary, a menstruating woman with whom he will have sexual congress, since both male and female fluids are essential to the work”

Again, we know very little about who these technicians were.

Alchemists were not true scientists as they were too wrapped up in the mysticism of their work to be objective, to reject their ideas when experimental evidence said they were wrong.


The Renaissance had to happen before the people we refer to as the first true scientists could emerge. The Renaissance saw western Europe lose its inferiority complex to the Greeks and Romans, in part due to the invention of the printing press in 1440 – and so the invention of the first printing technicians – but that’s another story!

16th century

During the Renaissance we see early proto-scientists like Copernicus who moved the sun to the centre of the universe and Vesalius who kicked Galen’s ideas out of the dissecting room. However, it was not until the 17th century that we see a group of scholars who started to embrace experiment as part of science – the scientific method.

17th century

William Gilbert (1544–1603), 16th century (unknown author)
William Gilbert (1544–1603), 16th century (unknown author)

Scholars had been discussing early forms of a scientific method since the 13th century, people like Roger Bacon, but it took an Englishman called William Gilbert and his book ‘De Magnete’ published in 1600 to show just how important experiment was to science. Gilbert made – or helped to make – experimental work respectable for the gentleman scientist. Galileo and others soon followed suit and so formal experimental science was born and where there is experimental science there are science technicians.

First true science technicians

Unfortunately, 17th century technicians were mostly servants – well it is one step up from being slaves. Their low status meant we know almost nothing about them. This invisibility was also deliberate. This new experimental movement expected even highborn scientists, like Gilbert, Robert Boyle, and others to carry out experiments personally. However, in reality, many of them, especially the rich ones like Boyle, had assistants who did a lot of the practical work.

Portrait of Robert Boyle, c.1689 (Johann Kerseboom)
Portrait of Robert Boyle, c.1689 (Johann Kerseboom)

Obviously, this is not how people like Boyle would record the work in their published books and articles. After all, how can a scientist’s discoveries be seen as ‘miraculous’, similar to a magicians’ illusions if the audience can see the assistants pulling the strings in the background. So the assistants were written out of the stories, hidden from sight.

These assistants were not called technicians, the word did not exist yet, but had a variety of names including “laborant”, “operators”, or “chemical servants” (Shapin 1989). Much of the work carried out by these assistants was manual: shifting heavy instruments, chopping wood for the furnaces, drawing water for experiments. These tasks and others such as tending distillations would be little different to those the assistants of the alchemists were doing hundreds of years before. However, new technology such as Boyle’s high-tech vacuum pump and the recently invented microscope meant new, more technical roles for some assistants; although, few would have the opportunity develop beyond the basic skills.

While technicians would have had little formal opportunity to develop. They did build up a wealth of practical knowledge and observations from their work and this was certainly used, and recorded, by these early scientists (Conner 2005). Unfortunately, these useful contributions were generally not properly acknowledged and it was only the mistakes that were. In fact, a lot of the evidence we do have about technicians at this time comprises scientists complaining about their assistants’ mistakes! (Shapin 1989)

For example, one of Boyle’s most important set of experiments involved that high-tech vacuum pump. He wrote that one of his trials ruined (Shapin 1989):

“in our absence… by the negligence or mistake of those we appointed to attend it.”

Was this a useful excuse for an ill-conceived experiment? Or a genuine complaint? We will never know.

That is not saying that all technicians were servants. However, in general the only ones who were not – and so whose names we know – were those from higher-born families and were using their role as technician to move upwards.

One surprising example of an early technician was Robert Hooke. Hooke would later become one of the greatest experimental scientists of all time; rivaling, and hated by, Isaac Newton. However, Hooke started out working as an assistant to Boyle building equipment and carrying out experiments for him. Boyle also got him a job as a demonstrator or Curator of Experiments at the newly formed Royal Society. Hooke’s role was to set up and demonstrate experiments proposed by the members. This was paid work (if poorly – basically a servant’s wages) and because he was paid – this made him inferior and certainly not properly valued. So, despite the fact that he and other Curators of Experiment made the Royal Societies early reputation. They were overworked and treated with little respect.

Memorial portrait of Robert Hooke at Alum Bay, Isle of Wight, his birthplace, 2012 (Rita Greer)
Memorial portrait of Robert Hooke at Alum Bay, Isle of Wight, his birthplace, 2012 (Rita Greer)

The person who took over the role from Hooke was a technician you may have heard of – French man Denis Papin after whom the Papin awards are named. He followed a similar route to Hooke working for Boyle then becoming Curator of Experiments. In the image below Papin holds his design for the first ever pressure cooker.

Portrait of Denis Papin, 1689 (author unknown)
Portrait of Denis Papin, 1689 (author unknown)

Both Hooke and Papin used their role as technician as a stepping stones to other careers. As such, I do not see them as professional technicians. I believe there is another person who deserves the title of the first true professional science technician. That is Christopher White. White was a technician, that was his job.

Laboratory at Altdorf University, 1720 (Johann Georg Puschner)
Laboratory at Altdorf University, 1720 (Johann Georg Puschner)

We don’t have an image of White. We don’t even have an image of the laboratory where he worked. We know it was under the Ashmolean museum in Oxford and that it would have looked similar to the laboratory pictured above that existed at the same time in Altdorf University, Germany (Morris 2015). Note the furnaces, distillation apparatus, it could almost be an alchemist’s laboratory from hundreds of years before.

This was the first purpose built university laboratory in the country and White was chosen to run the laboratory its apparatus and furnaces. He was born in Oxford in 1650. His father was assistant to a German alchemist who gave an experimental chemistry course in Oxford. White helped his father on that course and then remained working as a trainee assistant. He later moved to London to work for various scientists and setting up a business making chemical preparations and medicines. He returned to Oxford and started working in this brand new laboratory (ODNB 2004).

White’s main duty was demonstrating experiments as part of lecture courses run by two academics. He also supported their research and generally acted as… a technician. At that time universities did not even pay their scholars living wages – they were expected to be basically independently wealthy. Similarly, White only received a small wage for his work. However, he was allowed to keep his business making and selling chemicals going from the laboratory. As far as I known he stayed at the laboratory as technician until he retired.

White was given the title chemist – he was one of the first. However, he was often referred to as ‘the operator’ in writings from the time. I have no evidence but I bet that really annoyed him off. White was not an operator but a professional chemist.

Instrument makers

Christopher White’s story shows that it was possible to be a professional technician in the 17th century – just difficult. There was another way of being a technician without being a servant. That was to be an instrument maker; building and repairing equipment for scientists.

Many different craftsmen would have been pulled into this new scientific world depending on what skills were required: from clock makers, to makers of navigation equipment, glass blowers, lens grinders, etc. In the early days these makers were unmistakably tradesman rather than gentlemen – they worked with their hands after all. But they were generally not servants.

As instrument makers became more important for the new science so their status rose and by the end of the 17th century instrument makers were becoming fellows of the Royal Society which was as high as it got in science at the time (Morus 2016).

18th century

By the 18th century becoming an instrument maker was a way of gaining respect as a technician. It might even allow you to gain status as a gentleman – although you still had to have the right person backing you to get that far.

The 18th and 19th century was a time of massive change in science as this quote from Gribbin (2002) shows.

“In the 1760s there were probably 300 people who would be classed as scientists in the entire world. By 1800 there were around 1000, by the 1840s there were about 10,000 and by 1900 there were 100,000.”

19th Century

So, the 19th century should have been a great time to be an instrument maker as the number of scientists were expanding rapidly. Unfortunately, the status of instrument makers actually started going backwards during that time.

Why? Well, the Victorians loved anything from Ancient Greece and so there was a return to… Plato’s ideas that scientific knowledge should be abstract, of the mind not the hand. As such, people who made instruments, or who were involved in the physical work of science, struggled, again, for recognition.

The story of Michael Faraday’s brief time as a technician, before he became one of the most famous scientists of all time, demonstrates some of the issues faced by technicians in this era.

Michael Faraday, 1841-1842 (Thomas Phillips)
Michael Faraday, 1841-1842 (Thomas Phillips)

Michael Faraday was born in 1791 into a poor family near London. He received little formal education and, aged 14, was apprenticed to a local book binder and book seller. He spent his spare time trying to educate himself by reading many of the books in the book shop where he worked and attending scientific lectures. When he was 21, he attended a series of lectures given by the charismatic lecturer Humphrey Davy. Faraday was so impressed that he carefully wrote up the lectures and bound his notes into a 300 page volume. He eventually sent the volume to Davy with a note begging for even the most menial job – there were no openings.

But a few months later, Davy’s assistant got in a drunken brawl with an instrument maker, got sacked, and Davy offered Faraday the job and he became Davy’s bottle washer. This is a list of his duties (quoted in Morus 1998):

He was, “To attend and assist the lecturers and professors in preparing for and during lecturers. Where any instrument or apparatus may be required, to attend to their carefully removal from the model room and laboratory to the lecture-room, and to clean and replace them after being used, reporting to the managers such accidents as shall require repair, a constant diary being kept by him for that purpose.”

Remember this is 1813, two hundred years ago and yet this list of tasks could almost come from the job description of a modern day teaching technician.

Alongside this work he was helping Davy with his experiments. It shows how much Faraday impressed Davy that within six months Davy asked Faraday to accompany him and Davy’s wife on a scientific tour of Europe – the trip was to double as the couple’s honeymoon!

Faraday’s official role was that of scientific assistant; however, it says something for Faraday’s status that when Davy’s valet refused to come along at the last-minute Faraday was forced to step in to his place. So, while Davy might have respected Faraday as a scientific assistant he was treated, exactly like a servant during the entire trip.

The trip changed everything for Faraday and from that point on through hard work and determination he developed a reputation as a great scientist. Nine years later, he got elected as to Fellow of the Royal Society. It was an election that Davy, who had become a bit of a snob in his old age, opposed in part because Faraday was not a born a gentleman.

From what I have read it seems that Faraday’s experiences of being a professional technician / servant were not unusual in the 19th century and continued into the early 20th century.

20th century

Before second world war (1901-1938)

During this period technicians were, in general, treated almost as domestic servants. They were often young ‘lab boys’ fresh from school and were paid for personally by the man (and it was almost always a man) for whom they worked.

Dennis Busby, 1969 & 2013 (Archives of the NIMR at Mill Hill and Mr Busby)
Dennis Busby, 1969 & 2013 (Archives of the NIMR at Mill Hill and Mr Busby)

This went on through until with second world war with people like Den Busby who started work aged 15 in 1934. He worked at the National Institute for Medical Research one of the large modern laboratories that was springing up in the early 20th century.

Den was lucky, by 1934 these large laboratories had developed a proper scale not only for pay but also for promotion, and being a technician was becoming seen as a ‘profession’, a career option for bright young school leavers, like Den. Thus, ‘lab boys’ who improved their manual and intellectual skills, either at work or more usually through evening classes, became identified as ‘lab assistants’.

The importance of technicians was increasingly recognized and there was expansion in the number of technical posts and improved terms and conditions of service – they got pensions which they hadn’t had before! Despite the improvements there were still deep divisions. If a senior scientists was in the lift, the technicians weren’t allowed to use the lift. Even 15 years after he first started, Den, then aged 30 years, was referred to as ‘lab-boy’ by his boss Christopher Andrews (Tansey 2008).

Like many people at that time Den was called up for service during the war and in 1944 was serving in the Royal Navy when the laboratory called him back to London. When he returned Den found that many of the pre-war barriers broken down and struggled to adjust to the changes as shown by this quote (quoted in Tansey 2008):

“[Informality] was something I could never really take to. I could never adapt to that, I suppose, having been brought up in this strict regime. I do remember once calling Dr Porterfield ‘James’, and I felt quite staggered at my temerity.”

While this level of informality was a step forward there were still separate dining rooms at the NIMR into the 1960s. Something that seems so alien to me as a modern day technician.

Cold war (1938-1989)

As shown by Den’s experiences, the second world war had a huge impact on social interactions in the laboratory. It also saw enormous state sponsored industrial scale science. In the US there was the Manhattan project which employed thousands of technicians in the race to be the first to produce the atom bomb (Kiernan 2013).

In the UK, at the code cracking centre at Bletchly Park, they employing hundreds of men and women as calculators making manual calculations and technicians operating and maintaining the cutting edge code cracking machines – the first electronic computers. A group of the women who worked on the site are shown in the image below. In the circle is Joanna Chlorley.

Joanna Chorley, circled, and her fellow codebreakers at Bletchley Park in the photograph taken in 1945 (Photo: Geoff Robinson)
Joanna Chorley, circled, and her fellow codebreakers at Bletchley Park in the photograph taken in 1945 (Photo: Geoff Robinson)

Joanna Chlorley (née Stradling) worked at Bletchly Park from age of 19. She had various roles but her dream job was to operate the Colossus code breaking machine and she eventually got there. She worked long hours and it was hard work but she and her colleagues saved millions of lives working on those machines. She was sworn to secrecy about her work and kept silent until 1979 (that is 30 years) when the story of Bletchley Park was made public (Dunlop 2015).

Joanna Chorley is now 88 (Geoff Robinson)
Joanna Chorley at the Bletchley Park museum (Geoff Robinson)

More importantly, the second world war saw women in technical roles! This had happened previously but often the women were family members: daughters, sisters, wifes, not employees. Joanna she was a professional woman in a technical role.

During the Cold War rapid technological change meant a huge increase in the number of skilled technicians required across science and industry. Training schemes started for new entrants into the profession and opportunities for advancement became more common. This was  particularly the case in industry and in large research institutions – like NASA and the NIMR where Den worked.

However, it was not true everywhere. Unfortunately, some places still operated the old system. I get the impression this was particularly an issue in universities and certain research institutions where the technician / servant role was still in place – institutions like Muppet labs.

Beaker and Bunsen

As I am sure you all know, the image above shows Beaker (the technician) and his boss Prof Bunsen Honeydew. Beaker is a great example of technicians continuing fight to be respected as professionals in the 70s and 80s. Like many technicians of the time Beaker worked for one person, his advancement and career was reliant on Professor Bunsen. While many technicians at the time were able to advance and gain new skills. Beaker represents those that should have been able to up-skill, advance, and gain new qualifications but were prevented from doing so.

The Muppet labs section of the Muppets existed because of the excitement in society about new technology at the time. Anything seemed possible and in Bunsen’s lab it really was from an Alchemy Machine (a machine that can turn gold into cottage cheese), an Electronic Pet Converter, a Nuclear-powered shaver, and in what is definitely my favorite episode – 23 years before Dolly the sheep – a copying machine that ends up creating so many clones Beaker that he finally gets his own back on Bunsen.

In the real-world technicians were also living that technology change. In fact, it was changing the very nature of technicians roles with ion chromatography, spectroscopy, x-ray analysis, electron microscopy, digital computers, etc. all having huge impact on working methods. This should have opened up new opportunities for technicians, and sometimes it did, but not for everyone.

That Beaker was on TV shows something about the increasing awareness of technicians as a profession at the time. There was a technician on TV. However, the show also tells us about the perception of technicians at the time, notice that the story is not a knowledgeable technician and a clumsy professor. The technician is definitely shown as the stupid one. Saying that, ask someone for their favorite Muppet and Beaker’s name often comes up, Bunsen’s is much less popular [citation needed].

The negative view of technicians, such as that represented by Beaker, I think comes in part from the word technician. I have been a bit lazy in my use of the word technician in this piece. The word technician actually only came into its modern use after the Second World War. Before that it was not exactly flattering. This is a quote from Marie Curie that highlights this early meaning (quoted in Curie 1937):

“I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician: he is also a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales.”

It is a beautiful statement and Marie Curie was an amazing human being. However, the way Marie Currie uses the word technician here in 1937 gives an idea of that previous meaning. The word suggested someone with technical skill, but who lacked flare or imagination. Funnily enough Curie’s own daughter Irene had worked as an x-ray technician in the First World War.

Irene Curie on a mobile x-ray unit, 1916 (unknown source)
Irene Curie on a mobile x-ray unit, 1916 (unknown source)

After WW2 the word technician gained an additional, and more optimistic (if vague) meaning (Funk and Wagnalls, 1947 – quoted in Barley & Orr 1997):

“One skilled in the handling of instruments or in the performance of tasks requiring specialized training”.

However, the old meaning still exists and I think that its negative connotations have stuck

I am a science technician, but I see beauty in science as I am sure all technicians do. Despite that, I think we should embrace both meanings of technician. I don’t mean see ourselves as “mere” anything. I mean that we should embrace the idea of being skilled and practical as in the second definition but something else from that first definition.

Think of the dissection room technician described above. The technicians ability to see through the ancient Greek “wisdom” and see the single jaw bone. I believe that it is not that technicians lack imagination it is that technicians often see with practical eyes. I look at the story of Vikki Wilson and I see something similar.

Lord Bhattacharyya presents Vicky Wilson with her Lifetime Achievement Award
Lord Bhattacharyya presents Vicky Wilson with her Lifetime Achievement Award http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/researchexchange/2015/07/01/celebrating-the-work-of-technicians-at-the-2015-higher-education-technicians-summit/vicky-wilson/

Vicky played an important part in the discovery of DNA fingerprinting in 1984. She was the departmental technician responsible for keeping Professor Sir Alex Jefferys’ lab in Leicester running. It was his research into DNA that led to the discovery of DNA fingerprinting.

One of Vicky contributions was saving a key ingredient of the technology that Jefferys had thrown into the bin in a fit of annoyance when he thought the process wasn’t working. Alec said about the moment:

“I thought it was of no use and therefore binned it. As it turned out, this clone was the key tool that enabled us to get DNA fingerprinting going. Quite a contribution by Vicky!”

I have not met Vicky but I can imagine her not giving into the excitement and frustration of the moment. That is one of the things technicians bring to the laboratory – practical skill, knowledge and while being passionate about the science an ability to be dispassionate in the laboratory.

Vicky’s name was included on the published papers about the work and in 2015, she was recognised with the prestigious Papin Lifetime Achievement award at the Higher Education Technician Summit for, “her pivotal contribution in the discovery of the technique now known as DNA fingerprinting.” She was acknowledged for what she achieved.

Modern day

This story of technicians moves into the 80s and 90s. It has been a long journey for technicians to this point: from slaves to servants and from servants to professionals – albeit with hints of servant still thrown in. Along the way technicians have slowly gained rights as a group of professionals and, if they were lucky, gained opportunities to develop.

It is during this time that universities and institutions realised that they were struggling to fit technicians into their complex bureaucratic systems (HEFCE 2004). So, alongside various other schemes that came and went the Blue Book seems to have been an attempt to fix this problem.

From 1972 the Blue Book was the document that defined technicians promotion possibilities and standardize the system across institutions. It seems to have been partially successful at helping people progress from the lower to middle grades. However, there was a major issue with getting promoted to the top grades – you had to take on line management or clerical roles. This again showed a lack of understanding or appreciation for the technical, hands on, skills (HEFCE 2004).

The system left many technicians stranded in the middle and as many universities stopped hiring young people so being a technician stopped being a career option.

When the Blue Book was scrapped around the turn of the millennium we were left in the situation we are in now with an aging and shrinking workforce with the few new entries that are coming in not arriving as apprentices and learning skills on the job but coming in, like myself, directly from undergraduate degrees or even PhDs often with relatively few genuinely practical skills. At the other end as people retired we lost their skills and knowledge, things that are very difficult to replace.

21st century

And so, to the 21st century, there is a great drive to make the 21st century the best time to be a technician.

Tech campaigns

Campaigns like The Technicians Make it Happen campaign and the Technician Commitment gives technicians a chance to be not “mere technicians” or “just technicians” but to “make things happen”.

There is a genuine drive within universities to increase visibility, opportunity, and recognition for technicians. New promotion structure for technicians are being drawn up and actions plans are being published online. This is the best opportunity to make a change technicians have ever had.


There is so much of the history of technicians I have not even touched on here. However, I hope you have seen glimpses of your own technician journey through the lives of the technicians we have looked at. Technicians have had to deal with some rubbish over the years. Technicians have:

  • given of bodily fluids like that female alchemy assistant!
  • Had their skills disrespected like Christopher White
  • Been relegated to the position of servant like Michael Faraday
  • Had to cover up the mistakes of our bosses like that first surgical technician

However, technicians are professionals working in one of the best professions around and as such:

  • They get the opportunity to teach the next generation of scientists like Christopher White
  • They get to work with cutting edge technology like Joanna Chlorley in Bletchley Park and make a real difference
  • They have the opportunity to work with the greatest minds of our generation like Den Busby who worked with Christopher Andrews the scientist who discovered the human influenza virus.
  • They get to rescue great science from an academic’s passion and get acknowledged for it like Vikky Wilson

Technicians have been quietly achieving amazing things for centuries and the 21st century looks like it will be the best century for technicians so far.

References & Acknowledgements

Thank you to Kelly Vere for reading an early draft of this talk and being to enthusiastic about it. A huge thank you to my wife Rebecca Woods for her support and putting up with me coming up with random facts about unknown people from history 24/7.

  • Conner, C.D., (2005) A people’s History of Science, Nation Books.
  • Barley S.R. & Orr J.E., (1997) Between Craft and Science, Cornell University Press.
  • Curie, E., (1937) Madame Curie: A Biography.
  • Dunlop, T., (2015) The Bletchley Girls, Hodder & Stoughton.
  • Farrington, B. (1953) Greek Science, p106.
  • Ghosh, (2015) Human cadaveric dissection, Anat Cell Biol, 48, p.153-169.
  • Gribbin, J. (2002) Science: A History 1543-2001, BCA.
  • HEFCE (2004) Highly Skilled Technicians In Higher Education [PDF], A report to HEFCE by Evidence Ltd, September.
  • Kiernan, D. (2013) The Girls of Atomic City: The untold story of the woman who helped win World War II, Simon & Schuster.
  • Maxwell-Stuart, (2012) The Chemical Choir: A history of Alchemy, Continuum.
  • Morris, P.J.T. (2015) The Matter Factory, Reaktion Books.
  • Morus, I.R. (1998) Frankenstein’s Children: Electricity, Exhibition, and Experiment in Early.
  • Morus, I. R. (2016) Invisible Technicians. Instrument makers and Artisans, A Companion to the History of Science.
  • ODNB (2004) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, White, Christopher, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/38121.
  • Overy, C. & Tansey, E.M. (eds) (2016) Technology, Techniques, and Technicians at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) c.1960–c.2000. Wellcome Witnesses to Contemporary Medicine, vol. 59. London: Queen Mary University of London.
  • Shapin, S. (1989) The invisible Technician, American Scientist, 77.
  • Tansey, E. M. (2008) Keeping the culture alive: the laboratory technician in mid-twentieth-century British medical research, Notes & Records of the Royal Society 62, 77–95.
  • William Gilbert, Translated by P. Fleury Mottelay. De Magnete. Dover Publications Inc. 1958, 1893. pp. 319–20.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s