Imperial College London

Imperial’s scientific glassblower talks about his life’s work before retirement

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Man holding a small glass tube over a flame in a lab

Steve Ramsey, who has worked with glass for 50 years, retires this month from creating bespoke scientific equipment.

For those not in the know, what is scientific glassblowing?

As a scientific glassblowing we work with glass tubes and rods and we create all the science equipment you would have used in your science lab when you were at school. But in the chemistry department, I tend to make bespoke pieces of equipment that people can't buy off the shelf.

Man blowing into a thin tube of glass, which is molten and expanding in the middle

You are retiring on the 28 June, and I hear that is 50 years to the day that you got your first glassblowing job. Tell me more about that.

I left school at 15. My top things at school were woodwork and metalwork, and that's what I wanted to do, I wanted to be an engineer. But having left school at 15 and not stayed on for the extra qualifications, even back in 1968 it was quite difficult to get an apprenticeship, and I ended up working as a machine setter in a glass factory. I had this fascination with glass and soon began to make the glassware.

I know you had quite a journey from there to Imperial - how did you end up here?

I was working in this glass factory, and it's quite monotonous when you're making thousands of the same item. My Mum noticed an advertisement for an apprentice glassblower in May & Baker, a big pharmaceutical company that employed about 5000 people in the town at the time. With my limited knowledge of glass from my short time in the factory I went along and got the offer of apprenticeship. I spent the next 17 years there.

To my surprise they closed the research, and I was about the give up glassblowing and go and work in a factory as I had two young children, but someone came in and mentioned they were looking for a glassblower at Imperial. So I made a quick phone call, came along and had an interview and that was my first time here, in 1986.

I was working in chemical engineering for 12 years, and in that time there were five glassblowers at Imperial, but it ended up just me and my colleague Colin Smith, so I could see that I could be the last glassblower left. An opportunity to work for SmithKline Beecham in a nice workshop with other glassblowers came up and I took it. I was there for 10 years in various roles and moved around different sites until I got made redundant again in 2007 following the big merger with Glaxo.

So I came back here and rebuilt glassblowing at Imperial, which had been lost. I was fortunate to gain some space. Space is very hard to come by in this chemistry building at the moment, that's why obviously the move to White City is needed for the expansion.

What is one of the most complicated pieces you've ever made?

I tend to like making miniature cells with electrodes and platinum wires in and things. I've made some of these for a chemistry researcher, Alastair McIntosh, which have gone on to have some fantastic results and later papers being written, which is quite nice when you see your piece of glassware go on to be successful in the experiments.

A lot of your glasswork is quite delicate, how long does it take you to make such delicate pieces?

It can vary, it's a case of ‘how long is a piece of string’. But you can spend hours on a piece and then obviously it can crack at the end and you have to start all over again; that's the wonder of glass I'm afraid!

For our retiring Provost you've made a very beautiful small glass sculpture of a hand holding a mortarboard. Do you often make things like this in your spare time?

Yes, when I left school I wanted to work with my hands so I just think it's a nice thing to make, a miniature replica of hands. I've made various ones over the years, for example for wedding gifts - men's hands putting a ring on the ladies' finger.

Close-up of a small glass hand holding a mortarboard
Steve presenting his gift to the Provost

I worked with Professor Kneebone on one of his symposiums he did here entitled 'Thinking with your Hands’. So as a gift for the symposium I made a pair of hands holding a brain. I like to make a one-off piece that you can honestly say at the time is the only one in the world.

What do you plan to do in your retirement?

Fishing is one of my passions. I spend four hours a day travelling now because I moved to Rayleigh near Southend-on-Sea, so I don't really feel like I have much time at weekends with all the other things I have to do. So it would be great so get back into my fishing again.

What are some of the highlights of your career?

Back in the early 90s I worked with an artist called Hamad Butt. He came in with the maddest idea - he wanted a glass ladder filled with iodine that went through a hole in the ceiling and he wanted three giant Newton's cradles made out of giant vessels - 10-litre flasks - filled with chlorine gas, and a bromine arch, which had infrared heaters so that it went from gas to crystals instantly as it fired up.

A glass ladder, a set of large baubles and a three-pronged arch
The art in the Tate Gallery in 1995

I worked for over 2-3 years with this artist and he kept disappearing, even though he was pressurising to get this piece made. I found that quite frustrating, but I didn't know he was actually dying of AIDS. He was only 32 when he died. Sadly, after his death the piece was shown in the Tate Gallery. That was back in the 90s, and just a few months ago his brother phoned me to say the Tate Gallery has bought it as part of the national heritage. So now I know a piece I worked on is going to be shown forever.

Recently, you've actually become a Registered Scientist. Tell me about that journey.

Back in 2012 I was working with some scientists here and their work was quite successful so they nominated me for Technician of the Year, which is a global award. Unfortunately I didn't win, but as runner up I was awarded affiliated membership of the Royal Society of Chemistry, which I'd never dreamt of applying for before.

When I looked into what was to be gained from the membership, I saw professional registration and I started the process. It was quite a lengthy process and in 2015 I was the first technician at Imperial to get professional registration - I got RSciTech.

Group of people with framed certificates
Steve receiving his Registered Scientist certification

Having gained that I thought that maybe before I retired I'd try and join as a full member of the Royal Society of Chemistry rather than as an affiliated member. They suggested that to show that I have more involvement in science rather than just the glass, I could apply for RSci. This I did over the last 18 months, and last month I was awarded as a registered scientist, just before I retired, so I'm quite proud of that.

Reporter

Hayley Dunning

Hayley Dunning
Communications and Public Affairs

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Contact details

Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 2412
Email: h.dunning@imperial.ac.uk

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