Two female archaeologists in a science lab looking at animal bones.
A brief introduction to Architecture Listed places

The History of the English Science Lab

The modern laboratory emerged in the 1680s when the University of Oxford built the first Ashmolean Museum.

It’s hard to conceive of science without laboratories, yet they are a relatively recent phenomenon.

It was only in the 19th century that many specific disciplines like physics, physiology and botany became the ‘laboratory sciences’ we would recognise today.

Historic England's scientists Polydora Baker and  Fay Worley examining archaeological animal bones in the Zooarchaeology Laboratory at Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth
Historic England’s scientists Polydora Baker and Fay Worley examining archaeological animal bones in the Zooarchaeology Laboratory at Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth. This kind of specialist laboratory first emerged in the 19th century. © Historic England Archive DP184462.

When was the science lab invented?

The laboratory has a history rooted in alchemy, metallurgy and pharmacy. Since ancient times, spaces have been set aside for specific activities involving heating, treating and separating substances.

An engraving of a metallurgical laboratory.
A metallurgical laboratory, depicted by Lazarus Ercker, 1574. © Wellcome Collection.

The earliest laboratory is often considered the home of Greek philosopher and scientist, Pythagoras, who conducted experiments on tones of sound and vibration of string.

An illustration of the Greek scientist Pythagoras experimenting with musical instruments.
The Greek philosopher and scientist Pythagoras lived around 560-480 BC. He recognised the mathematical relationship between the length of vibrating string, column of air, or size of percussion instrument, and notes of musical scale. Image from ‘Theoricum opus musicae disciplinae’, 1480.

Another example is in the 14th-century Middle East, where advanced zinc production techniques were developed. This allowed the production of high-quality brass, unmatched in the west until the 18th century.

But with a few exceptions, these early sites were focused on practical ends: the preparation of dyes, the mixing of medicines, the creation of alloys, and so on.

We can think of these early laboratories as specialized workshops, closer to forges, foundries and kitchens than our new scientific establishments.

A photo of a blacksmith's workshop.
The Old Blacksmith’s Shop in Broad Chalke, Wiltshire. Pre-modern laboratories may have been closer to a workshop than the pristine environments we think of today. © Historic England Archive DP276761.

The modern idea of the laboratory is of a building used for teaching and experimental investigation, designed to minimise interference with whatever procedures are being conducted.

Which was the first science lab in England?

The modern laboratory emerged in the 1680s when the University of Oxford built the Ashmolean Museum.

A black and white photo of the old Ashmolean building in Oxford, built in a neo-Greek style in Bath stone on a plinth of Permian sandstone with the columns, pilasters and entablatures of Portland stone and decorations in terra-cotta.
The old Ashmolean building in Oxford, built in 1678-83 to house Elias Ashmole’s collection of natural curiosities that he presented to the university in 1677. It was built and designed by architect Thomas Wood. © Historic England Archive AA98/04791.

The museum combined the collection of rarities and curiosities brought together by Elias Ashmole with a lecture theatre and a chemical laboratory in the basement.

The old Ashmolean building still survives today as the History of Science Museum.

17th-century laboratories

Before the construction of the Ashmolean Museum, scientific inquiries took place in private residences or other practical spaces.

We know of activity at manor houses like Ragley House in Warwickshire and Towneley House in Lancashire and residences like Samuel Hartlib’s house in Charing Cross.

A black and white photo of Ragley Hall, a large country house with hipped roofs and flats of slate, lead and concrete tiles, with stone chimneys.
Ragley Hall, Arrow, Warwickshire. The house was built in 1680-83 for the Earl of Conway. When the Earl died in 1683 the house remained unfinished until the 1750s. © Historic England Archive AA98/05462.

King Charles II even had a laboratory built at Whitehall for the use of the physician and alchemist Edmund Dickinson.

However, beyond those located within larger houses, the only exceptional survival from the period is Buckley Hall in Oxford, where the ‘Experimental Philosophy Club’ met between 1649 and 1651. This group went on to found the Royal Society in 1660.

A photo of for former Buckley Hall in Oxford. The modern rebuilt 19th century fronts consists of three storeyed stuccoed timber-framing. The 1st and 2nd floors have two sets of three sash windows in plain frames with glazing bars.
107 High Street, Oxford (formerly Buckley Hall). © Mr Sean Bergin. Source: Historic England Archive.

The building had a long and complex history before and after the mid-17th century when it was occupied by scientist William Petty and an apothecary’s shop below him.

The 18th-century ‘Scientific Revolution’

By the end of the 18th century, the sciences, especially chemistry, underwent rapid transformation.

In France, a new kind of laboratory had been set up, at enormous expense, by chemist Antoine Lavoisier.

Lavoisier in his laboratory.
Lavoisier in his laboratory. Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier was a French chemist who is considered the founder of modern chemistry. © Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo.

Lavoisier pioneered a standard vocabulary for chemistry, which was integral to the shift in chemistry from the production of substances to their analysis.

In England, this new confidence in chemistry led to the opening of laboratories such as scientist Thomas Beddoes’ Pneumatic Institution at his residency in Bristol.

Here, Beddoes studied the medical effects of gases, including examining the effects of laughing gas on himself and others.

A photo of a three-storey building with large sash windows and climbing plant covering much of the first two floors.
6 Dowry Square, Bristol, the site of the former Pneumatic Institution. © Mr Sean Bergin. Source: Historic England Archive.

However, the main product of these laboratories was not specific knowledge or a new product or material. Instead, they produced a certain kind of person, with a new title: the scientist.

An illustration of an 18th-century laboratory.
William Lewis’ laboratory, Kingston, Surrey, 1763. © Wellcome Collection.

The Royal Institution, London

Even grander and more ambitious in its public and disciplinary scope was the Royal Institution, founded in 1799.

A photo of the Royal Institution in London.
The Royal Institution, 21 Albemarle Street, London. © Mr Anthony Rau. Source: Historic England Archive.

The Royal Institution was primarily intended as a place of public education, but it has also contained various research laboratories over the years.

It’s famous as the site of research by scientists including Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday and many others. However, the Royal Institution did not provide a model that could easily be imitated.

An illustration of the laboratory at the Royal Institution.
The laboratory of the Royal Institution. Note that this laboratory – famous for the research conducted there – was in fact not solely dedicated to that function: on the right can be seen the podium-end of one of the Institution’s lecture rooms, for which the laboratory served as a preparatory space. © Wellcome Collection.

Of more significant influence on future laboratories were those at University College, London, completed in 1846, and the labs designed by Wilhelm Hofmann at the Universities of Bonn and Berlin, Germany, in 1864 – the latter known as ‘chemical palaces’.

An illustration of the Birkbeck laboratory at University College, London.
The ‘Birkbeck Laboratory’ at University College, London, 1846.

The 19th-century emergence of medical specialization

Specialization continued throughout the 1870s and 1880s. These decades saw the development of labs for disciplines including geology, zoology, botany and physiology.

Separate laboratories for various disciplines were often contained in a single building. This was the model followed in the new technical schools, such as Finsbury Technical School, the first and most significant.

A photo of a three-storey light brick and stone building with round-arched windows and a portico entrance.
Shoreditch County Court, 19 Leonard Street, London (formerly the Finsbury Technical School). Photo by Charles Watson via Enrich the List.

Finished in 1883, the Finsbury School incorporated every possible innovation of the time.

However, despite advances in laboratory design, other new laboratories like those at Leeds (1874) and Reading (1902) were built within older buildings.

Laboratories in this period often outgrew themselves, with work being carried on in other buildings or rooms borrowed from other university departments. This phenomenon continues to this day.

A photo of Bushey House in London.
Bushy House, Teddington, London. © Mr Barry Akid. Source: Historic England Archive.

For example, the National Physical Laboratory was founded in 1900 at the 18th-century Bushy House. It first occupied the 22-acre grounds of the house and then, by 1970, some 60 more acres in Teddington.

Labs in the 20th and 21st century

By the turn of the 20th century, the major scientific disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology and geology had been subdivided further, with the new specialities increasingly demanding bespoke lab equipment.

Funding began to flow into ‘research institutes’ – not only academic but also state and industry-sponsored. An entirely new kind of laboratory started to appear, specially designed for a single research programme.

A photo of the exterior of the Royal Society Mond Laboratory.
The Royal Society Mond Laboratory, Cambridge. © Michael Behrend via Geograph.

Known as ‘The Mond’, the Royal Society Mond Laboratory was built in 1932-33. It specialized in low-temperature physics and was initially designed to house one experimental set-up. An electro-magnet was paired with a generator that could send vast amounts of electricity through a deeply-frozen metal sample.

Eventually, the Mond was repurposed and expanded beyond its original confines, but the principle was established: no research was too specialized for its own kind of building.

We can see the extension of this idea in places like CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which stretches the concept of a ‘building’.

An aerial photo of the area under which the runnel for CERN's Large Hadron Collider can be found.
The area under which the tunnel for CERN’s Large Hadron Collider can be found is shown near to Geneva and lac Leman. The French Alps with Mont Blanc can be seen in the background. © 2001 CERN.

Science Laboratories to 1900
For more information on this subject, see our publication ‘Introduction to Heritage Assets: Science Laboratories to 1900’.

1 comment on “The History of the English Science Lab

  1. Richard Adam

    It’s very disappointing not to see the Grade II*-listed Kirkaldy Testing Works at 99 Southwark Street, London, SE1 0JF referenced. As it says over the front door: “Facts not opinions”, the very foundation of scientific testing.

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