LII:The Laboratories of Our Lives: Labs, Labs Everywhere!/Laboratories: A historical perspective

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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.

1.2 Origins of the laboratory

Among the earliest known organized scientific study was that under the rule of the early Ptolomies of Alexandria in the third century B.C. While little to no evidence seems to exist for public or organized laboratories during this time period, researchers and historians widely accept the idea that at least organized and individual research (meaning "direct personal contact with the objects of study, and by the aid of such appliances as were then available"[13]) into anatomy, physiology, and medicine occurred.[14][15][13][16] Dissections and experiments took place, but certainly not in an organized teaching or research laboratory setting like today. Early twentieth-century philosopher of science Edgar Zilsel suggested that scientific endeavor was non-collaborative in this early era, and the laboratory as a collaborative environment simply didn't exist[14]:

No publications, no astronomical or geographical investigation which are the work of several collaborating scientists are known. Even the learned compendia of the Roman period (Varro, Pliny, Celsus) and the encyclopedias of late antiquity (Boëthius) were composed by single polyhistors. There is no evidence that the Alexandrian Museum conjointly carried out investigations. Laboratories, the birth places of scientific co-operation in the modern era, existed neither in the Alexandrian Museum, nor in the Academy, nor in the Lyceum. As far as the fellow scholars of the museum did not work each for himself they might have contented themselves with dinners and debates. And of course, there were in antiquity no scientific periodicals in which new findings could have been discussed.

With scientific advancement and discovery still largely a personal (i.e., prestigious) goal, even through to the Renaissance humanists of the fourteenth through sixteenth century A.D.[14], it took quite some time for both the private and public laboratory to evolve. To be certain, private laboratories surely existed, from Aristotle[13] (third century B.C.) to the anatomical laboratory—"the first scientific laboratory"—that began to take hold in the late thirteenth to early fourteenth century[13][17], all the way to the "zenith" of the alchemical research laboratory in the second half of the sixteenth century.[18] But it wouldn't be until the late sixteenth to early seventeenth century that collaboratory science and the first university-affiliated labs would appear.

Zilsel claimed that Italian polymath Galileo Galilei, while teaching at the University of Padua from 1592 to 1610, founded the first university-affiliated laboratory in his own home, with help from craftsmen who aided in researching architectural and mechanical concepts.[19] As Galileo was nearing completion of his professorship at Padua, chemist Johannes Hartmann opened up a university laboratory for students at the University of Marburg in 1609, albeit for "instruction not in [chemical] analysis—still in a very rudimentary state—but in pharmaceutical preparations."[20] One of the first actual public laboratories dedicated to chemical instruction was founded later that century, in 1683, hosted at the University of Altdorf, created and directed by physician and professor Johan Moritz Hofmann.[20][21][22] That same year the (Old) Ashmolean played host to Britain's first university laboratory, directed by chemistry chair Robert Plot.[23][24]

By the end of the seventeenth century, textbooks on various subjects such as anatomy[25] and chemistry[21] had become more notable, and numerous vital scientific measurement and observation devices—including astronomy equipment—had been created.[26] And most importantly, as early twentieth century political science researcher Martha Ornstein put it, after much build-up, finally "the [public] chemical and physical laboratory existed in embryonic form."[26]

1.3 Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century laboratories

Friedrich Strohmeyer played an important role in chemical and mineralogical analysis; he was also one of the first professors to promote and enact hands-on chemical analysis for students in a laboratory setting.

The eighteenth century saw the "embryonic" laboratories develop further, but in truth in wasn't until the nineteenth century that the age of the laboratory in academic, hospital, and—particularly in the latter half of the century[13][27][28][29]—physician settings began to bloom. Some historians have described the changes that took place during these centuries as a transition from natural philosophy—sometimes referred to as "experimental philosophy"—and its "philosophical instruments" to natural or empirical science (or "physics," but not in the modern sense[30]) and the laboratory instruments used to better analyze and describe the physical and life sciences.[30][31][32]

Even by the late eighteenth century, the laboratory was still viewed as a "workshop," a place for material (chemicals, colored glass, etc.) production.[33] However, instances of scientists beginning to view laboratory teaching and hands-on analysis as vital slowly began to spring forth. For example, the laboratory teaching of practical or "physical chemistry"—separating itself even further by several decades from alchemical study—first took place in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1751 under the professorship of Mikhail Lomonosov. Two years prior he had built for him a small 15 x 9 meter brick structure where he developed colored glasses for mosaics, but he quickly turned his focus towards using the laboratory to teach students in physical chemistry, "a science which must explain by means of physical laws and experiments the cause of changes produced by chemical operations in composite bodies."[34] Three years later in Berlin, the Prussian Academy of Sciences' academic laboratory was founded with materials from a previously associated artisanal lab, signaling a shift "from commercial production to systematic observation and experimental exploration of the properties and chemical transformations of material substances."[32]

Speaking of German kingdoms, universities and associated laboratories in the region continued to build a renowned reputation on into the early and mid-nineteenth century.[33][3] In 1806, Friedrich Stromeyer, fresh from being named "extraordinary professor" after the death of Johann Friedrich Gmelin, took over as director of University of Göttingen's chemical laboratory. Stromeyer's strong opinion that students could only learn chemistry best through practice and self-analysis led to a subtle but significant change: the development of one of the first university laboratories in Germany to offer students hands-on chemical analysis.[22][20] Following a similar path, Czech physiologist Johannes Evangelista Purkinje, upon being appointed a professor at the University of Breslau (then a part of Germany), set up a private physiology laboratory in 1824 within his own house and taught students from it. Impressed by his work, the government eventually helped Purkinje set up the world's first professional physiology laboratory in 1842, known as the Physiological Institute.[35][3] And in 1826, at the University of Giessen, influential chemist Justus Liebig began perhaps not the first but definitely one of the more influential teaching and analysis laboratories, his work influencing the future direction of German as well as international universities and institutes.[36][20] That carried over to Wilhelm Weber's physics lab at Göttingen University (1833), Franz Neumann's physics lab in Königsberg (1847), Robert Bunsen's chemical teaching and research laboratory in Heidelberg (c. 1850), and Johann N. Czermak's spectatorium for physiology teaching in Leipzig (c. 1870).[33]

By the late eighteenth century, other countries marveled at the laboratories of the German-speaking countries.[33][3] Industrial labs began to pop up around the world, including the United States, with researchers "interested in getting patents recognized so as to have commercial control of the processes and products involved in their research."[33] Even physician laboratories began to take shape at the turn of the century as instruments such as centrifuges, microscopes, and microtomes became slightly easier to acquire.[29][37] The role-based division of responsibilities within laboratories was also becoming entrenched into labs by the end of the century.[33][3]

1.4 Modern laboratories and their importance

The twentieth century saw laboratories of all kinds grow, develop, and mature, though not without their share of difficulties. In the 1920s, for example, some U.S. physicians, specialists, and dentists complained heavily of the lack of quality standards, regulations, and ethics inherent in for-profit clinical, chemical, and radiological laboratories.[38][39][40][41] Other changes took place there too, particularly after World War II, when a fundamental transition took place, shifting many perceptions of what was the "Western" world from Europe to the U.S. This post-war shift also saw focus from the philosophical and theoretical laboratorian to the experimental and practical lab researcher, according to Pestre[42]:

Fundamental theorists were still essential, and they were highly respected, but they no longer had that mythical status which was accorded to the founders of quantum mechanics. They were also in minority with those (the "phenomenologists") whose job it was to deal with the mass of experimental results produced in the laboratories. Seeking theories which were locally coherent and which could be immediately useful and produce numbers, their role was to display a practical efficiency. They thus participated in the development of a science which was increasingly integrated into its economic and political environment, and contributed to the multiplications of the sites where knowledge was produced. These were now the universities and the technical institutes, the national laboratories and the industrial laboratories (Siemens or General Electric), but also the myriad of small firms established as a result of government contracts.

This transition carried on to other parts of the world, where the Industrial Revolution gave way to the Scientific-Technical Revolution of the '50s and '60s, and that to the Information Age in roughly the late '70s to early '80s. Through all of these time periods to present day, we've seen the amount of information moving in and out of laboratories multiply drastically as well, particularly with the advent of data-producing analytical devices and data management tools, including genomics equipment such as DNA sequencers.[43]

Most importantly, however, is the transition to a time when the ubiquity of the laboratory in our way of life becomes apparent. The previous quote from Pestre is important to note when thinking about this concept; today we see labs in all the places he mentioned as well as in other unexpected locations and fields of research, including the expanding cannabis industry.[44] Like the idea of the ubiquitous transistor and how easy it is to take for granted[45], the laboratory is also found everywhere, sometimes obvious (e.g., when you need to have blood drawn for a medical test) and other times not at all obvious (e.g., the U.S. Navy's Arctic Submarine Laboratory[46]).

And these labs are important, positively impacting industry, government, and the public. Take for example the United States' Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, which claimed in 2020 to employ more than 3,400 people and have approximately $144 million total economic impact for the state.[47] Looking to the past, we find that Bell Telephone Laboratories at its peak employed some 1,200 PhDs and was responsible for the creation of vital technologies such as solid state components, wireless telephony technology, the C programming language, and the Unix operating system (thanks to Bell researchers like Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie).[48] In fact, laboratories are often at the heart of a company's R&D efforts towards bringing people new products. Vehicle[49] and makeup[50] users alike are affected by manufacturing laboratories that research, design, test, and quality control their products. Clinical labs help keep current and future generations healthy, and forensic labs help bring justice to the wronged. Of course, calibration laboratories are vital to ensuring the precise measurement and production values of any equipment those other laboratories strongly depend on.

In a quest to further put the prevalence of laboratories into perspective, we use examples similar to above to describe 20 common industries that find laboratories vital to their activities. But before we can do that, we need to first build a framework for better visualizing and understanding how labs intersect our lives, which we do in the next section.

Further reading

  • Klein, U. (2008). "The Laboratory Challenge: Some Revisions of the Standard View of Early Modern Experimentation". Isis 99 (4): 769-782. doi:10.1086/595771. 


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Citation information for this chapter

Chapter: 1. Laboratories: A historical perspective

Title: The Laboratories of Our Lives: Labs, Labs Everywhere!

Edition: Second edition

Author for citation: Shawn E. Douglas

License for content: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International

Publication date: July 2022