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 None of the content from this blog will be lost as it has been archived by the UK Web Archive.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...

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Tom Lean

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