Science technicians and the management of trouble

Originally published in Technically Speaking November 2016

The role and status of the science technician has followed many of the twists and turns of the history of science and society. Technicians have historically been both servants and invisible experts, not only understanding but also possessing a ‘feel’ for machine or process; translating and acting on every output, be it the reading on a dial, a sound, or a smell. In more recent years to become a technician has meant joining a profession, a vocation with training and a professional body; however, the characterisation as servant-expert is one I think many would still recognise.

Some of the earliest science technicians, on record, were the servants and spouses of alchemists. These early scientists searched for the key to immortality and a method for turning base-metal into gold. They required assistants to keep their furnaces alight at all times and, according to one author on the subject; “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”1.

V0017661 An alchemist in his laboratory. Oil painting.
An alchemist working in the laboratory with technicians.

Early technicians were generally servants or apprentices and their low status meant that little was recorded about their work, with most of our evidence comprising scientists complaining about their mistakes!2 The invisibility of technicians was also deliberate. There was often a need for scientists’ inventions to be seen as ‘miraculous’, similar to the secrecy surrounding magicians’ illusions. After all, an illusion is difficult to maintain if the audience can see the assistants pulling the strings. As consumers of history we are also responsible for the invisibility of technicians. We prefer dramatic tales of solitary individuals overcoming adversity to make great discoveries, rather than complex and often tedious true life stories.
Greater historical details of technicians start to appear with the emergence of ‘big’ science in the 16th and 17th century as experimentation gained a new status in science. This new experimental movement expected even high born scientists, like Robert Boyle (1627-1691), to carry out experiments personally. However, in reality, Boyle’s personal writings suggest that most of his experiments were carried out by others2.
Many of Boyle’s “chemical servants” were, according to science historian Steven Shapin, seen solely as “muscular extensions of their master’s will” and not reliable or trustworthy observers of scientific processes2. Some were trusted with independent work but these tended to be higher-born than the average technician. One such trusted technician was a qualified medical doctor who became Boyle’s assistant, Denis Papin. Boyle names Papin as the person responsible for planning, carrying out, and writing reports on a set of air pump experiments. Boyle said, “I had cause enough to trust his skill and diligence”2. However, it was Boyle, not Papin, who was named author of this work. It seemed that servants were allowed to build and operate machines, but not to create new knowledge.

boyle-papin-digester
Robert Boyle and Denis Papin inspecting Papin’s digester.

By the end of the 17th century it became possible for certain technicians to advance and become respected scientists in their own right. Instrument makers, who had been turning scientists’ ideas and models into instruments of everyday use, also started to be respected for their own ideas – demonstrating the capacity of technicians and technically-trained workers to be knowledge makers3. However, this type of social mobility was not common and the strict social hierarchies of the 19th century made such mobility even more difficult. By the time the 20th century started, the majority of technicians once again found themselves in master-apprentice relationships, with ‘lab boys’ often being employed straight from school4.

As with many social changes, a marked transition in the technician-scientist relationship occurred during the Second World War. Military and scientific war work, particularly at Bletchley Park, required skilled technicians.

In Bletchley Park, technicians were required to build, repair, and run the giant calculating machines such as “the Bombe”, “Heath Robinson” and “Colossus”. These war time technicians did not generally do the breaking of Germany’s codes but they made the whole process possible.5 The rapid technological change that occurred during, and since, the Second World War has meant a huge increase in the number of technicians across science and industry. These technicians are not servants but professionals; highly skilled workers that play a vital role across science and industry.

colossus
A Colossus Mark 2 computer being operated by technicians.

The status of technicians has changed enormously since the early days; no longer are we needed purely for our brute strength and our menstrual cycles. We are respected for our skill with machine and process, or as Organizational Theorist Stephen Barley puts it, “for our arcane knowledge and our management of trouble.”6

It has been said that science is the search for a black cat in a dark room at midnight. If this is the case, I see technicians as the forgotten men and women who locate, unlock, and hold open the door to the room ushering scientists in and out. As such we are in the privileged position to peer over the scientists’ shoulders and stare into the unknown.

Written by Andy Connelly

Further reading and acknowledgements

In this article I have used the terms “scientist” and “technician” all the way through for simplicity. I acknowledge that for much of the time period covered by this article these terms did not exist or were used differently. I also acknowledge that the majority of science technicians, including myself, think of themselves as scientists. I use scientist here to imply a more academic, or natural philosopher, role.

  1. Maxwell-Stuart, The Chemical Choir: A history of Alchemy, (2012)
  2. Shapin, S. The invisible Technician, American Scientist, 77 (1989)
  3. Morus, I. R. Invisible Technicians. Instrument makers and Artisans, A Companion to the History of Science (2016)
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