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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
The Royal Institution, London
Even grander and more ambitious in its public and disciplinary scope was the Royal Institution, founded in 1799.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
Science Laboratories to 1900
For more information on this subject, see our publication ‘Introduction to Heritage Assets: Science Laboratories to 1900’.