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Narratives

Laboratories and Experiment

The history of the laboratory is an important, though neglected subject. It is associated with a change in scientific ideas and practice; a new focus on experiment, observation and direct experience to test new ideas. The word 'laboratory' first began to take on some of its modern meaning in the sixteenth century but was not in common usage even by the mid seventeenth century (when Francis Bacon described the ideal experiment site in New Atlantis but did not mention the term). The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'laboratory' as Â?Originally: a room or building for the practice of alchemy and the preparation of medicines. Later: one equipped for carrying out scientific experiments or procedures, esp. for the purposes of research, teaching, or analysis; (also) one in which chemicals or drugs are manufactured.Â?


Processes like distillation and other laboratory techniques were pioneered through alchemy and its refining and mixing substances, but it also involved supernatural and superstitious elements. The practice was satirized in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, 1610. Until the emergence of printing, alchemical knowledge was disseminated in secret with cryptic text or under a pseudonym.


Early laboratories were often largely apothecary shops and artisan workshops, and this tradition of laboratory space associated with other activities extended into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with laboratories connected to private residences. Experimental knowledge was not 'secret' in the same way that the alchemist's had been, but the nature of private residences risked restricting access to the laboratory and the distribution of knowledge.


Robert Boyle had laboratories at all three of his major residences; 1645-55 at a manor house in Stalbridge in Dorset; c1655/1656 in Oxford in rooms in the house of John Crosse, an apothecary, whose chemical facilities Boyle made use of, as well as having his own pneumatic laboratory where, with the assistance of Robert Hooke, he built the first version of the air pump. He stayed in Oxford until 1668 when he moved to Pall Mall with his sister, creating a laboratory in his basement.


Robert Hooke, as curator of experiments for the Royal Society required laboratory space to test run his experiments before performing them for members of the Society. Pneumatic, mechanical and optical workshops were attached to his lodgings in Gresham College, where he was also Professor of Geometry.


Despite the inherent private nature of laboratories associated with domestic space, access was seen as an important right. Many curious minds visited Boyle and Hooke, and John Aubrey stated that Boyle 's laboratory was 'constantly open to the Curious, whom he permitted to see most of his Processes '. The Royal Society believed that the legitimacy of experimental knowledge depended on it's being public at some point. Similarly, Hooke's residence was in theory private, but he lived a public life, with much activity taking place at taverns and coffee-houses as well as his own accommodation.


Two other examples of laboratory design in the debate surrounding public and private knowledge are often cited; Tycho Brahe 's Uraniborg castle observatory and laboratory, and Libavius's ideal laboratory described in his second Chemistry text-book, the Chemical House. Brahe's isolated and almost fortress-like home, observatory and laboratory is implicitly criticised by Libavius who condemns those who use laboratories as a kind of private study 'in order that his practice will be more distinguished than anyone else's '. Libavius's laboratory is similarly associated with private residence, but is based in a town house with an ideal of open access to shared information. This reflects an ideological difference in approach from a withdrawn contemplative study of eternal truths to a more active engagement pursued for a more socially useful purpose.


However, both examples of laboratories exemplify a new kind of scientific inquiry; a new focus on observation and experiment to test hypotheses, requiring manual skills as well as theoretical knowledge. In other words 'science' became a process rather than just knowledge base. The work of scientists and natural philosophers began to include experiment as part of their argument; Galileo is often identified as an early 'experimenter' but there are debates about how many of the experiments described in his published works were actually carried out rather than just theoretical. William Gilbert's 1600 De Magnete was the first work to systematically relate theory to practical experiment.


The development of the laboratory as a designated space for the conducting of experiments, and its association with replicable demonstration and distribution of knowledge is testament to the strength of the shift in the ideology and practice of science in the seventeenth century.

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