Paul Merchant, interviewer for A Changing Planet, writes:
Oral histories of the Earth sciences are full of details of practice. Laboratory spaces are described. Experimental equipment is talked about – conversationally taken to bits and put back together again. Glaciers and ancient lakes are revisited in close accounts of fieldwork. Scientific findings and results are not simply ‘got’ or ‘arrived at’. Interviewees are asked to recall the actual, step-by-step, practical doing of things. More often than not, an instrument is involved.
Glaciologists use radio-echo sounders to determine the depth of ice sheets. Geophysicists ask rocks to declare their nature and extent on recorders attached to magnetometers and seismometers. Atmospheric scientists and astrophysicists turn particles and energy into meaningful numbers and lines, by pointing spectrometers and radiometers up and down. Oceanographers encourage the sea to record itself, using wave buoys, spectral analysers and sonar. And so on.
Sometimes these instruments are made by scientists. Often they are made by technicians, working with scientists. An Oral History of British Science is recording the stories of these technicians.
I have recently completed an interview with Norman Smith, technician at various, increasing levels of seniority in the National Institute of Oceanography (formerly Group W of the Admiralty Research Laboratories), from 1946 until retirement in the 1980s. Norman’s interview contains detailed accounts of building oceanographic equipment by combining standard materials, bits and pieces found in the laboratory and components bought from Proops Brothers, a model shop on the Tottenham Court Road, London. In this clip, he talks about the design, construction and testing of the Clover Leaf Buoy, used to measure the direction and height of waves, and their relations with wind:
As an oral historian of science, I am interested in the construction of selves, as well as instruments. Norman’s interview raises questions about relations between childhood model making and a career spent constructing. It also suggests that we should not necessarily look for an experimental or technical self in the obvious places – in the laboratory, by the wave tank, on the research ship. In the following clip, Norman describes the construction of an electric fence at home, to separate deer and runner beans: