We’ve Come a Long Way: A Look at the World’s First Laboratory

When the Lightbulbs Came On

When we think of the first ever laboratory, our brain might bring us to images of mad scientists from medieval times creating concoctions and carrying out experiments. Actually the world’s first research and development facility was born in Cenmed’s own backyard – Menlo Park, NJ. In 1876, Thomas Edison used his Menlo Park laboratory to invent the creation of an incandescent lightbulb.

“Genius is 1 percent perfect inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” – Thomas Edison

(Thomas A. Edison, in his West Orange, New Jersey laboratory, ca. 1901)

Thomas Edison was known as, “The Wizard of Menlo Park”, nicknamed by a local newspaper reporter after his phonograph invention was revealed. From the time Edison formed the first research laboratory, he had applied for over 400 patents for inventions made there.

Early Medieval Experiments

There has been other recording in history that date chemical laboratories to the late sixteenth century. The word “laboratory” The initially arose in Latin for an alchemist’s workspace in the 1580s. Before there were any laboratories, alchemists, like other trade workers, had workshops, with the Latin word laboratorium means “workshop.” Although there was no set design for an alchemical workshop, they often included a furnace, distillation equipment, and sometimes some space for more gentle heating methods like the sand bath or fermenting dung.

(The assaying workspace, from Ercker’s Beschreibung of 1574. Photo Credit: Wellcome Library, London)

Andreas Libavius, a German physician, was one of the earliest chymists, publishing Alchymia in 1597 with the goal of distinguishing chymistry from the more disputed alchemy. He included an appendix to the second version nine years later that detailed the notion of a chemical house.

Libavius created a well-designed chemical laboratory building masterplan, which up to the twentieth century, it was common in German academic chemistry. The building included several rooms, including storage for chemicals, preparation room for making medicines, furnaces, and distillation apparatus, and whatever else was needed at the time.

By the mid-seventeenth century, laboratory areas may be found in apothecaries, instrument manufacturers’ workplaces, metallurgical facilities, and anatomical theatres. The most extensive of these labs was built in London, at the Society of Apothecaries in 1672. This laboratory, like practically other early laboratories, was relocated and remodeled several times throughout the years, and the original chambers are no longer extant.

Heating Up the Lab

Heat was a crucial operation in alchemy and early chemistry, used to break down materials, distill liquids, and accelerate reactions. The furnace not only heated the laboratory but also provided heat for chemical processes. The condition of the furnace in a laboratory might rapidly tell a visitor how effectively the laboratory was handled. The glassware was likewise similar to that used in the alchemist workshop, with retorts and alembics for distillation.

With the introduction of pneumatic (gas) chemistry in the eighteenth century, laboratory equipment began to evolve. Instead of a big furnace and alembics, the chemist now needs a water-filled trough to collect gases as well as a location to house the glass apparatus used to prepare and manipulate gases. Because of the lower size of this new form of chemistry, experiments could be carried out in a household environment, even on a tea tray.

(Chemical furnaces, vessels, and other utensils ca. 1740)

Teaching Laboratories

Even if teaching is one of the primary tasks of the chemical laboratory nowadays, we must remember the roots of the teaching laboratory, which were lecture demonstrations by a teacher, generally with the assistance of an assistant. In one of the first pictures of a lecture demonstration, the French medical alchemist Annibal Barlet is shown teaching in mid-seventeenth-century Paris. These images depict three crucial parts of the lecture-demonstration: the use of a large table for demonstrations, an assistant to help with the  demonstration, and the use of specialized equipment. Equipment for lecture-demonstrations must be of sufficient scale to be used on the table. While Barlet is delivering the lecture-demonstration in a dedicated lecture hall, the supplies for the presentation were probably carried from the laboratory area by the assistant.

Up until the mid-twentieth century, lecture-demonstrations were very important in chemistry education. Professors such as the Scottish physician Joseph Black were famous for their immaculate lecture-demonstrations more than their research during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As a result, the laboratory was also part of the lecture-hall.

In the 1830s, American chemist Robert Hare’s lecture hall at the University of Pennsylvania medical school had a lengthy lecture bench for demonstrations, as well as a fully equipped laboratory backstage behind the bench. This laboratory was crucially utilized for experimental work in between courses.

(Robert Hare’s laboratory and lecture hall at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, ca. 1830. Photo Credit: Oesper Collections, University of Cincinnati)

Laboratories that are Out of This World

Laboratories don’t have to only stay indoors, there are some research and scientific laboratories that are exciting.

One of the most extreme (and expensive) manmade science laboratories is the International Space Station. It travels at 17,227 mph across space, 200 miles above the Earth’s surface. The first module of the International Space Station (ISS) was launched in 1998; it presently consists of 14 major pressurized modules. The International orbit Station (ISS) is a research laboratory in orbit that conducts studies in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, and meteorology. The International Space Station is also regarded to be the most-costly single thing ever built, costing $150 billion in 2010.

The Pyramid Laboratory in Nepal’s Sagarmatha National Park is the world’s tallest research lab. It is located at the base of Mount Everest, 16,568 feet above sea level. The research station is a three-story pyramid-shaped laboratory that may house geologists, climate scientists, environmental scientists, and human physiologists. The objective is to enhance the lives of Nepalese and other peoples while also protecting the world’s endangered high-altitude ecosystems.

(Photo Credit: The Ev-K2-CNR Project)

The DUSEL (Deep Underground Science & Engineering Laboratory) is an 8,000-foot-deep mine in South Dakota. The study of exceedingly uncommon nuclear physics events such as neutrino scattering, and dark matter interactions was the driving force behind the construction of DUSEL. Because it is so far underground, interference from cosmic rays is much less likely, resulting in more accurate readings.

The Large Hadron Collider, located under the France-Switzerland border, is one of the most famous and major research labs. CERN has a diameter of roughly 16.5 miles and was built by 10,000 scientists from 100 nations. CERN has been in the works for more than 30 years. Its primary goal is to find the Higgs-Boson particle, which it found in 2013. All of this, however, came at a cost. Initial budget projections were $4.79 billion. This does not include the $42 million in operating expenses.

The Future and Beyond

While digital technology is fast transforming many businesses, research laboratories, like the academic cultures that typically pervade them, have been sluggish to evolve. Paper-intensive procedures, inconsistencies in human workflows, changes in experimental settings, uneven equipment calibration, and disparities in quality control are all issues.

(Photo Credit: Canva Pro)

The laboratory of the future will most likely be a data-generating machine that significantly relies on an intelligent laboratory instrument management system (ILIMS), which is a digital extension of the old laboratory information management system (LIMS). The ILIMS ecosystem takes use of these laboratories’ increasingly common networked equipment and gadgets, bringing data, compute, and algorithms together for scientific inquiry at scale and speed.

An ILIMS allows for continuous automated instrument monitoring. Furthermore, if calibration wanders, resulting in temperature, pH, or other parameter measurement changes, the system can provide automatic alarms. Edge AI technology allows for algorithm placement directly on these devices, enabling sophisticated analytics at the point of data production.

Creating the lab of the future will require a different workforce. Many scientists are proficient in laboratory and research methodologies but lack the quantitative and computational abilities necessary to interpret the large volumes of data generated by digital science. This will necessitate tighter engagement with data scientists as well as the integration of data science and life science training for individuals in the early phases of their careers.

For more information on laboratory supplies, stains and reagents, and more – give us a call at (732) 447-1100 or email us at info@cenmed.com.

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