January 17, 2014
Dream Job: Scientific glass-blower
Anyone who has ever worked in a lab knows that a lot of scientific equipment is made of glass – the penny usually drops when the first test tube hits the floor. When expensive lab equipment breaks, the stakes are higher. That’s where scientific glass-blowers come in. Stephen Ramsey, the scientific glass-blower at Imperial College London, is on hand to save experiments by repairing equipment as well as designing and creating custom-made tools.
But Steve isn’t confined to the lab. His long and varied career in glass-blowing has led him to the vaults of the Natural History Museum, a film studio next door to Phil Collins shooting a music video and the Tate Britain, one of London’s premier art galleries.
Steve’s workshop is tucked away on the top floor of Imperial’s chemistry building. Here, he uses a “lamp” – a device that looks like a Bunsen burner but reaches higher temperatures – to melt and mould glass.
Before he joined Imperial, students had to wait up to eight weeks for equipment to be fixed by an external company. “If you’ve got a student doing a master’s, for example, six weeks lost is no good to them,” says Steve. “I can repair it and get it back the next day.”
Art of glass
But Steve also gets to flex his creative muscles. Often, scientists come to him for unique designs, such as twisting glass tubes or unusually shaped beakers. As a festive treat, Steve whipped us up a bauble to hang on New Scientist‘s Christmas tree (see video).
Although he has specialised in scientific glass-blowing, Steve’s career has been peppered with artistic projects. “I worked with one artist called Hamad Butt, who was building a glass ladder through the ceiling,” Steve recalls. “He was dying of AIDs – he was building his own stairway to heaven.” The work was eventually installed at the Tate Britain.
Steve worked with a host of other artists during a teaching stint at London’s Royal College of Art. Another memorable collaborator was Annie Cattrell, who created an intricate glass representation of a set of human lungs. “She did the [alveoli] in the lungs and I did the parts in the middle,” says Steve.
Disco next door
While at the Royal College of Art, Steve received an unusual request. An American film company wanted him to play the part of a glass-blower in a documentary about Philo Farnsworth – the man credited with inventing the first electronic television set in the 1920s. “The film crew went to all these antique shops to buy furniture, and I found an old brown lab coat,” says Steve. “The highlight for me was when I stuck my head through the door to the next studio, and saw Phil Collins making a disco music video – all these people were dressed up like they were going clubbing at 11 o’clock in the morning.”
The Natural History Museum is one of many organisations to have taken note of Steve’s work. Recently, he was invited to the museum’s vaults for a special viewing of the beautiful and incredibly delicate Blaschka models – intricate glass sea creatures created by a father and son duo in the 1860s.
Getting into glass
“I left school with dreams of being an engineer, and ended up working as an engineer in a glass factory,” Steve recalls. But it was the glass itself that blew him away. “It’s a unique product,” he says. When he spotted a job advert for an apprentice glass-blower at a chemical company, he went for it.
His role included designing and creating glass lab equipment for specific experiments. That was after a lengthy training process, however. “It took ten years to become a senior glass-blower,” he says. “You spend five years learning the basic skills and then five years focusing on design.”
Trained scientific glass-blowers aren’t confined to labs. In a role at GlaxoSmithKline, Steve commissioned glasswork from external companies and monitored quality. “But that wasn’t as satisfying as making the things,” he says.
Employers continue to offer on-the-job training as part of apprenticeships. There is also a range of training courses on offer, including diplomas and university degrees. There are more opportunities elsewhere in Europe, including France, Belgium and the Netherlands, which have dedicated glass-blowing schools.
Throughout the twists and turns of Steve’s career, it is the glass-blowing itself that is his greatest pleasure. “It’s almost therapeutic,” he says.