Scientific Glassblowing: Professionalisation and Technicians

What’s life like as a glassblower? We met Stephen Ramsay, Scientific Glassblower and member of the British Society of Scientific Glassblowers, to find out more!

‘I make prototypes and specialised equipment for the Chemistry Department at Imperial College London. If you think of the main aspect of a Chemistry Laboratory, what comes to mind are the fume hoods where you have your vacuum lines.

If they get broken the fume hood downtime can be many weeks if you have to send them away for repair by external companies, whereas in-house I can get them fixed within a few days. I also make bespoke items and carry out specialised repairs to keep the research going. That’s the nice part of being a Research Glassblower – the variety.’

Starting Out

Stephen Ramsey is a Scientific Glassblower. He started an apprenticeship at May & Bakers Pharmaceuticals in 1968 having left School at fifteen years old. After 17 years working in the Chemistry Research Department they were taken over by another company and the glass working facility closed. He then went to Imperial College of Science and Technology where he worked in the Glassblowing Laboratory based in Chemical Engineering for twelve years. Stephen’s next role was in the pharmaceutical industry, working for SmithKline Beechams for the next ten years. After being made redundant for the second time in his career in 2007 he returned to Imperial College London as a Chemistry Research Technician in the Chemistry Department. Unfortunately, during his ten year break the only Glassblowing workshop left at Imperial had been closed.

Glassblowing Within Academia

Over the past eight years he has rebuilt a Glassblowing workshop in the Chemistry Department and been actively involved in the design of a new facility to be included in the new Chemistry Building at the College’s White City Campus.  He has been a Member of the British Society of Scientific Glassblowers practically his whole working life. In 2013 he was nominated for ‘Chemistry Technician of the Year’ by College Academics; this is a competition run by Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and is nationwide. For this he was awarded Membership of the RSC and in 2015 completed his Professional Registration being awarded RSciTech. He was the first Technician from Imperial College London to receive this Professional Registration and said, ”…it was a great highlight of my career.”

Apprenticeships: The Future of Glassblowing?

‘A big problem for this country is that we do not train many Scientific Glassblowing apprentices any more. Compared to Germany, France, Belgium, and Holland where they still train glassblowers. When I started my apprenticeship there were probably 400 or 500 glassblowers in the country, and unfortunately this has been in decline over the years.

‘Opportunities for apprentices have certainly declined, too. Four years ago, Imperial College London reinstated Engineering apprenticeships to help replace skills for the future with an ever increasing ageing technical workforce. They have also started employing apprentices for the maintenance staff as well. I am hoping that when the new Chemistry Building opens in 2018 at White City there can be an opportunity to reinstate an apprenticeship for Scientific Glassblowing as well. This would be a fitting end to my fifty years of Scientific Glassblowing, knowing that some young person can be given a chance to learn skills for the future.

Read more 21st Century Professional interviews

2 comments

  1. Wow, this is so neat. I’ve never considered glass blowing from the scientific perspective, only the artistic perspective. Silly me, considering all of the glassware that I used during chemistry classes at University and I can’t imagine the how useful it would be to have someone capable of creating bespoke solutions basically on the fly. Very interesting read. I suppose it’s also scary to think how few people are pursuing this as a career choice!

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