Tag Archive | technology

Behind the Scenes at the Museum


Stories from the Archives: How? Technology and the Garden

Technology has been changing work practices and the way we view the world in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden since the 1950s.  Image: CUBG

Technology has been changing work practices in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden since the 1950s.          Image: CUBG

Since the 1950s the unprecedented expansion in technology has affected all aspects of our lives;  machines and technologies have profoundly changed the way we work and view the world.  Cambridge University Botanic Garden’s annual reports offer interesting insights into how machinery and technology was employed in the daily life and scientific processes of the Garden.  For example, the Annual Report of the Botanic Garden Syndicate 1975-1976 notes the use of several different forms of machines or technology – from grass-cutters to scanning electron microscopes.

Annual Report 1975 – 1976 provides an interesting snap-shot of the mid-1970s as it reflects a period of economic belt-tightening.  In the case of grass-cutting, machines were helping to keep up standards, despite a lack of manpower. The Annual Report begins:  ‘In spite of enforced economies, which are affecting the Botanic Garden like all University institutions, the reduced staff have succeeded in keeping up a high standard throughout the Garden and have even been able to initiate certain agreed developments in and around the Research Area…’  The report states that grass-cutting equipment had been ‘brought into use effectively to offset the inevitable and continuing decline in man-power’.

During this time the Garden initiated one of the first projects for the classification of the genus Geranium using computer-clustering.  In the Annual Report of 1975-1976, the Garden’s taxonomist, Dr Peter Yeo, writes that ‘computer-printed descriptions were obtained’ and stated that it was hoped that Mr R J Pankhurst will soon to produce a ‘computer-generated key’; once ‘minor factual amendments’ are overcome.  Computers were introducing new possibilities of analyzing scientific data.  At the same time they were producing new challenges as to how data was managed and programs prepared.


Peter Yeo, taxonomist (left) in conversation with Peter Orriss, superintendent of the Botanic Garden

In the administration offices, typewriters and ‘Xeroxes’ were being used to prepare and circulate reports and scientific articles.  We learn that draft copies of ‘A taxonomic revision of Euphrasia in Europe’, eventually to be published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society (Volume 77, Issue 4, pages 223-334, December 1978), was being prepared ‘in typescript and is to be made available in ‘Xerox’ form to those interested’.  The articles was published on the Wiley Online Library on 28th June 2008, some thirty years after it first appeared in print.  ‘Xerox’ refers to an early form of photocopying (first introduced in 1959) rather than to laser printing (first introduced in 1969).  In the mid-1970s, desk-top computers were at least a decade away as a common form of office equipment.

At the same time, in the laboratories, plant scientists and taxonomists were using a range of cutting-edge equipment, including scanning electron microscopes (SEM).   Cambridge Instrument Company was a pioneer in the marketing of commercial SEMs in the mid-1960s. Garden research projects also included ‘tracer experiments using 14c and titrium’ and ‘newly discovered clones’ as well as cytological and taxonomic studies.

In 1976, Professor Battersby – Professor Sir Alan Rushton Battersby, Emeritus Professor of Organic Chemistry, Cambridge (1969 – 1992) – concluded a long-term experimental project in the Garden into biosynthesis of natural products.  The Annual Report says:

‘Under this project begun in 1969, the Garden has employed one extra gardener and an experimental glasshouse has been erected. The glasshouse now reverts, as agreed, to the Research Area use as a whole, as the property of the Garden.  Professor Battersby thanked the Syndicate and staff of the Garden warmly for their cooperation, and was assured of the availability of limited facilities in the Research Area for any continuing or future work.’  

Professor Battersby went on the receive a wide-range of honours including a Royal Medal in 1984, the Wolf Prize in Chemistry in 1989, the Robert Alonzo Welch Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award – the Welch Award in Chemistry – and the Royal Society Copley Medal in 2000 for his work in plant genetics and biosynthetic pathways.  He was knighted for his lifetime contributions to science in 1992.

Pippa Lacey

University of Cambridge Museums

Archive of projects, events and news from 2012 to May 2017