Book:The Laboratories of Our Lives: Labs, Labs Everywhere!/Laboratories: A historical perspective/What is a laboratory?

From LIMSWiki
Jump to navigationJump to search
-----Return to the beginning of this guide-----

1. Laboratories: A historical perspective

What laboratory-based research went into the development of this iPhone?

Take note of your surroundings. If you're indoors, what objects are nearby? If you're outdoors, what objects are on your person? Are you in a vehicle such as an automobile, bus, or airplane? Are you using a mobile phone, desktop computer, tablet, or laptop? What of the clothes you wear, the food you eat, and the water you drink?

What do all these things have in common? A laboratory was likely involved at some point beforehand.

For some this will be an obvious but uninteresting point. "Why should I care that a laboratory was somehow involved in a product's creation?" some may ask. For others the association isn't as obvious. "How is a laboratory involved with the ink pen on my desk or water I drink?"

Both of these questions are valid and productive, particularly to the inquisitive mind. To the first, we could simply reply with something about quality assurance, safety, and more efficient design regarding the items we interact with on a daily basis. But it's a bit more complicated than that. And so is the reply to the second question: it's more than just research and design (R&D) or quality control.

Laboratories play an integral role in modern life, ubiquitous and often unseen by the average person. They improve quality of life, act as hotbeds of discovery, and help us make sense of our universe, particularly in the capable hands of the tens of thousands of professionals who work in them. But the laboratory as we know it today is actually a relatively new concept. It wasn't always as sectionally organized, well-staffed, and well-equipped. To gain a better sense of how common the laboratory is to our lives, we must first briefly look at the past history of laboratory research and how it developed from a philosophical and more selfish endeavor to one more focused on analysis and the benefits to society. This will help give perspective about why laboratories are important to modern life.

1.1 What is a laboratory?

Even when we go back in time nearly two centuries, we discover that the "essentials and requisites of a laboratory"[1]—i.e., what makes a laboratory a laboratory—today practically mirror those of long ago. (This history is discussed later in this chapter.) These "essentials and requisites," as notable scientist Michel Faraday referred to them in the 1831 second edition of his book Chemical Manipulation (though note that the word "scientist" didn't appear until three years later, when Cambridge philosopher William Whewell coined it as "the name for a new way of earning a living"[2]), can under a modern context be broken down into five categories:

  1. skilled, knowledgeable people
  2. facilities
  3. equipment and instrumentation
  4. consumables
  5. experiment/test data and its management

Let's examine these five categories through both the eyes of Faraday and of what we know today about how a laboratory functions.

1.1.1 Skilled, knowledgeable people

The idea of having multiple people assisting with lab experiments was still in its infancy during Faraday’s early work life; in his book Chemical Manipulation he refers to having help in the lab as "[t]hose persons whose fortunes enable them to have an assistant operator, on whose accuracy and intelligence they can depend." (p. 580)[1] Regardless, he fully recognized the importance of proper instruction for the people who worked in a laboratory, emphasizing it not only in the preface but throughout the book. In essence, he was saying knowledgeable people were necessary, without which the march of scientific discovery wouldn't move forward. It wasn't until decades later, following by example of Germany, that the belief "[a] laboratory without this working force cannot do much for the promotion of science"[3] gained broader recognition.

Today we see how having skilled, knowledgeable people in the laboratory setting proves vital. Secondary and higher education institutions still act as important disseminators of scientific knowledge for those who will go on to work within the confines of laboratories of all types. And when gaps are identified in the professional knowledge base, professional organizations and standards developers help pick up the slack with draft guidance, standards, and educational outreach. In the end, we quickly realize that no amount of fancy instruments and exotic experiments will move the intangible bar of scientific progress forward without the properly trained people to use and conduct them.

1.1.2 Facilities

What is a laboratory if not a location, specially designed to perform experiments and analysis? Faraday noted the following about the laboratory as a facility in 1831 (p. 17)[1]:

As the Laboratory is a spot where every chemist will pass a great portion of his time, it is natural that its arrangement and furniture should at first claim much of his attention; for being the place peculiarly fitted up for the performance of chemical experiments, fitness for that purpose must have material influence over the facilities required for those practical exercises, which by their results are so important in the formation and correction of his opinions.

Faraday shortly after described the placement and design needs of a laboratory, emphasizing sufficient space and lighting, though from a nineteenth-century point-of-view. From a modern viewpoint, these same aspects are emphasized, plus many more factors buttressed by nearly 200 more years of design experience. In fact, design considerations for laboratory facilities are so important that in the next chapter we discuss how modern design theory for laboratories plays an important role in creating a framework to better understand where labs fit into our lives. Funny that: by way of study of a lab's architectural design we arrive at both the practical activities of a laboratory and the semi-abstract placement it holds within society.

1.1.3 Equipment and instrumentation

In his book, Faraday pays reverence to the instrument and the vital nature of "the clear comprehension of the manner of using it" (p. 31)[1] while noting in passing that the "correction and construction of an instrument" should be left to the "workman." (This was a way of saying "I'm focusing more on explaining to the reader how to use the instrument; I'll leave the construction and calibration of it to the experts.")

In his day, the balance was essential to the laboratory, as were hydrometers, thermometers, and graduated cylinders. The "electrical revolution" of the second half of the nineteenth century brought even more instrumentation that "changed the whole way of life of western Europe and North America by universalizing a science-based technology."[2] Today those same instruments are in use in laboratories, plus a multitude more that he likely could never have imagined, including DNA sequencers and high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) instruments. And just like people, instrumentation and equipment is just as vital to the laboratory; skilled laboratory scientists won't be able to analyze samples/specimens or conduct experiments in an empty facility. Like any job, the appropriate tools make it easier to do.

1.1.4 Consumables

Faraday didn't speak of consumables—items meant to be used up and replaced—broadly in his laboratory treatise, but he recognized certain consumable substances need to be present and well stocked. "Distilled water must be included among the chemist's requisites; and so much advantage is gained by its abundant supply, that any accessible source should be eagerly sought," he noted. (pp. 27–28)[1] He spoke similarly of solvents and other chemicals and test substances, vital in placement and sufficient quantity for conducting chemical experiments.

Today the definition of "laboratory consumables" has most certainly expanded beyond the elements, minerals, solvents, etc. of Faraday's time. Managing consumables can become costly, too. In 2005, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 30-plus labs spent more than $7 million a year on supplies and consumables, utilizing more than 800 vendors, prompting them to put into place high-level oversight to better monitor use and cost.[4] Consumables even pop up in unexpected places, e.g., dry labs such as footwear R&D labs depend on consumables such as rubber, cloth, and fabric.[5]

1.1.5 Experiment/test data and its management

Why does a laboratory exist in the first place? We get into that topic more in the next chapter, where we discuss the functions of a laboratory, which most typically include analysis, calibration, research/design, quality analysis/control (QA/QC), and teaching. But for now know that out of those functions always comes some sort of experimental or test data as well as ancillary information related to it. Historically, these experiment and test results were manually documented in laboratory notebooks. We turn to Faraday in 1831 again for more historical perspective (p. 576)[1]:

The laboratory note-book, intended to receive the account of the results of experiments, should always be at hand, as should also pen and ink. All the results worthy of record should be entered at the time the experiments are made, whilst the things themselves are under the eye, and can be re-examined if doubt or difficulty arise. The practice of delaying to note, until the end of a train of experiments, or to the conclusion of the day, is a bad one, as it then becomes difficult accurately to remember the succession of events. There is a probability also that some important point which may suggest itself during the writing, cannot then be ascertained by reference to experiment, because of its occurrence to the mind at too late a period.

This manual documentation of results has continued as such up until the past few decades, when the information age began to bring computational data analysis, storage, and management to laboratories in the form of electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs)[6][7][8] and laboratory information management systems (LIMS)[9]. The adoption and further development of these and other laboratory informatics systems have made many of the difficulties Faraday mentioned largely forgotten, particularly when good data management practices are put into place.[10] But with these advances come other concerns, including the amount of data being produced in many laboratories (big data)[11] and how research data is being shared (or the lack of sharing thereof).[12]

1.1.6 Summing it up

When we combine what we've noted of these five categories, we better understand what makes up a laboratory. It exists to conduct one or more functions: analysis, calibration, research/design, quality analysis/control (QA/QC), and teaching. In other words, the laboratorians within the facility that houses the laboratory analyze clinical specimens or experimental samples; verify and calibrate laboratory instruments; conduct research and/or design new products; gauge and help enforce quality standards; and train future generations of laboratorians. These functions couldn't be performed effectively without appropriately designed facilities, proper instruments, and sufficient consumables. And of course, these functions (as well as the ancillary business and management activities) of a lab produce raw data, which must be analyzed, stored, and distributed in a secure and efficient manner. The end result? Well, that becomes more obvious when we start looking at laboratories' benefits, where those labs are located, and how they operate.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Faraday, M. (1831). "Chemical Manipulation". In Mitchell, J.K. Carey and Lea. pp. 689. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Turner, G. L'E. (1983). Nineteenth-Century Scientific Instruments. University of California Press. pp. 320. ISBN 9780520051607. 
  3. "The Laboratory in Modern Science". Mechanics (David Williams) 5 (120): 290. 19 April 1884. 
  4. Filosa, A. (15 September 2014). "Managing Laboratory Consumables". Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News. Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. Retrieved 28 June 2022. 
  5. Rose, S. (November 2014). "The critical role of laboratory consumables". SATRA Bulletin. SATRA Technology Centre. p. 44. Retrieved 28 June 2022. 
  6. Matthews, Marge, ed. (1993). "Meeting Program Division of Chemical Education". Chemical Information Bulletin, A Publication of the Division of Chemical Information of the ACS (University of North Texas Digital Library) 45 (3): 64. Retrieved 28 June 2022. 
  7. Matthews, M., ed. (1993). "Meeting Program Division of Chemical Education". Chemical Information Bulletin, A Publication of the Division of Chemical Information of the ACS (University of North Texas Digital Library) 45 (3): 46. Retrieved 28 June 2022. 
  8. Borman, S. (1994). "Electronic Laboratory Notebooks May Revolutionize Research Record Keeping". Chemical Engineering News 72 (21): 10–20. doi:10.1021/cen-v072n021.p010. 
  9. Gibbon, G.A. (1996). "A brief history of LIMS". Laboratory Automation and Information Management 32 (1): 1–5. doi:10.1016/1381-141X(95)00024-K. 
  10. Michener, W.K. (2015). "Ten Simple Rules for Creating a Good Data Management Plan". PLOS Computational Biology 11 (10): e1004525. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004525. PMC PMC4619636. PMID 26492633. 
  11. Tolan, N.V.; Parnas, M.L.; Baudhuin, L.M. et al. (2015). ""Big Data" in Laboratory Medicine". Clinical Chemistry 61 (12): 1433–40. doi:10.1373/clinchem.2015.248591. PMID 26487761. 
  12. Rowhani-Farid, A.; Allen, M.; Barnett, A.G. (2017). "What incentives increase data sharing in health and medical research? A systematic review". Research Integrity and Peer Review 2: 4. doi:10.1186/s41073-017-0028-9.