Oral histories of science and technology

Photograph of Charles Swithinbank surveying stakes in an ice shelf
Charles Swithinbank surveying stakes in ice shelf. Image courtesy of Charles Swithinbank

We hold a large number of oral history collections relating to medicine, science and technology.

About the collection

The British Library Sound Archive holds many oral history collections concentrating on science and technology. Collections range from interviews with distinguished physicists, chemists and biologists, to those involved in the design of groundbreaking technological innovations.

What is available online?

An Oral History of British Science, a National Life Stories project initiated in November 2009 with funding from Arcadia, has created a major archive for the study and public understanding of contemporary science in Britain through over 100 in-depth interviews with British scientists and technologists. The audio life story interviews, averaging 10-15 hours in length, are complemented by a selection of shorter video recordings reflecting key events or locations.  Interviewees include space scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock, climate historian Mike Baillie, and aeronautical engineer Roy Dommett.

The Award winning Voices of Science website presents audio and video clips from the oral history collections at the British Library, primarily the Oral History of British Science initiative.  Voices of Science tells the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century. Scientists talk candidly about their motivations, frustrations and triumphs, as well as their colleagues, families and childhoods. They reflect on how new instruments and techniques have changed the way they work and how fluctuations in government policy and media interest have reshaped how they spend their time. 
Other recordings were made for other National Life Stories projects, including Inspiring Scientists: Diversity in British Science, a project in partnership with the Royal Society Diversity Programme. 'Inspiring Scientists' has recorded the life stories of British scientists with minority ethnic heritage.  Interviewees range from Professors to PhD students and the focus on science is wide, covering academia, big industry and individual entrepreneurship. 

Interviews with physicist Brian Flowers and molecular biologist Maurice Wilkins are included in the National Life Stories project,  Leaders of National Life. Interviews with chemist Aaron Klug, physicist Joseph Rotblat, molecular biologist Max Perutz, and biologist Zhores Medvedev are included in the National Life Story Collection: General Interviews.

An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK  contributes to National Life Stories' documentation of the utilities in the UK.  All of the recordings without access restrictions are available online at British Library Sounds. The collection captures the memories and experiences of those who worked in the industry at various levels and exploring themes such as nationalisation in the 1940s, privatisation in 1990-5, the increase in scale of coal-fired power stations, the shift to gas during the 1990s and the development of renewable energy sources since the 1970s.

The Common Cold Unit recordings  comprise 34 recordings conducted between 1994 and 1997 by Dr David Tyrrell who was Director of the Common Cold Unit between 1982 and 1990. The interviews record the memories of those who worked at the Common Cold Unit during its lifespan from 1946 to 1990, and include the testimonies of office workers, laboratory technicians, bacteriologists, microbiologists, dermatologists and virologists.

Oral History of Recorded Sound is a collection of 111 interviews with people involved in all areas of the recording industry: artists, engineers, managers, technicians, legal experts, teachers, producers, musicians, record company personnel, wildlife recordists, writers and journalists. Interviewees involved in science and technology include Simon Blumlein, son of electronic scientist Alan Blumlein; Cyril Crowhurst, Chief Sound Engineer of Rank Film Laboratories; Bob Gooch, former balance engineer with EMI; Arthur Haddy, former Engineer and Technical Director for Decca Records; Duncan McEwan, former BBC Radio Controller of Operations and Engineering; John Mosely, former Chief Engineer at Pye Records; Martin Pulling, former BBC Deputy Director of Engineering; Harvey Schwarz, engineer and inventor of the 'Decola' radiogram; Otto Wohlert, quality controller of Deutsche Grammophon's classical music output.

Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum is a collaboration between National Life Stories at the British Library, York University, Toronto and the Centre for Science, Knowledge and Belief in Society, Newman University, Birmingham. It is a multidisciplinary research project funded by the Templeton Religion Trust investigating the social and cultural contexts of public perceptions of relations between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ across all faiths and none. Fifteen of the project interviews are available online at BL Sounds.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

The Fellows of the Royal Society interviews comprises video interviews with Lord George Porter of Luddenham (British chemist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1967); Sir Francis Graham-Smith (Astronomer Royal 1982 - 1990); Professor Nicholas Kurti, (physicist at Oxford who worked atomic bomb project between 1940-1945), and The Reverend Dr John Polkinghorne (theologian, mathematician and physicist).

The Science Museum Cable Company interviews is a collection of three interviews with those involved in the cable service industry which was carried out to provide background material for the telecommunications gallery at the Science Museum. 

Calvin Laboratory Interviews, 1945 – 1963 is a collection of interviews recorded with Melvin Calvin and scientists who worked with him in the Bio-Organic Chemistry Group which he set up in 1945, in order to discover the path of carbon in photosynthesis. Calvin was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1961 for this work. This oral history project was set up in the late 1990s by Professor Vivian Moses who was a postdoctoral student with the Calvin group during the 1950s and 1960s.

Edinburgh University Science Studies Unit, 1969 – 1971: Distinguished British Scientists is a collection of eight interviews with distinguished British scientists, recorded for the Science Studies Unit, University of Edinburgh, between 1969 and 1971, including Sir Lawrence Bragg and Sir Bernard Lovell.

Edinburgh University Science Studies Unit, 1969 – 1971: Institute of Animal Genetics is a collection of eleven interviews with members of staff of the Institute of Animal Genetics, University of Edinburgh, recorded for the Science Studies Unit, University of Edinburgh, between 1969 and 1971.

Cotgrove Industrial Scientists (Qualidata) is a collection of eleven interviews with research scientists, particularly in the field of chemistry.

Royal Society of Chemistry interviews is a collection of interviews with Professors Dorothy Hodgkin, George Porter and Harry Julius Emeleus about their lives and work, recorded by Moira Donnelly of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

The BBC World Service 'Discovery' tapes is a collection of over 360 open reels of 'insert' tapes recorded for the BBC World Service Discovery programme between 1971 and 1981. There are around 700 individual interviews within the collection, covering subjects within natural science, applied science, physical science and cognitive science.

Other collections relating to medical science include the Penicillin recordings; two audio letters and an interview with Dr C .W. Morley.

Technology

Herbert Smart's history of printing processes is a collection of self-recorded talks by Herbert Smart about printing production techniques, in particular electrotyping and stereotyping. The collections covers: nickeloid, the impact of the Second World War, Eyre and Spottiswoode, Dalziel process, London College of Printing, newspaper production (including the Daily Telegraph), Overseers Association, laminated plates, litho.  The Kenneth Owen Concorde interviews  is a collection of interviews with people involved in the design, building and operation of the Concorde supersonic airliner, recorded in three sequences in 1979, 1992-4 and 2001, with a number of other items relating to the history and future of supersonic passenger transport recorded between 1979 and 1991.

The Rodney Giesler Oral History Interviews comprises of interviews with test pilots for Hawker Aircraft, Westland Aircraft, Supermarine and Concorde. The collection also includes interviews with airline pilots, as well as flight deck recordings and assorted sound effects.

For collections relating to other aspects of medicine, see oral histories of personal health, mental health and disability and medicine. Many of the collections dealing with the oil, steel and food industries feature technologists. See industry, agriculture and employment and oral histories of food production and consumption.

Further information

See the collection guide to Oral History and webpages for National Life Stories: the oral history charitable trust based at the British Library.

Search the online Sound and Moving Image catalogue to retrieve detailed information for every oral history interview.  For more information on how to search the catalogue and listen to oral history recordings see our 'How to' guide. 

Contact us

Oral History
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom
oralhistory@bl.uk

How to guides

Search the catalogues for oral history recordings

A guide to seaching the catalogues for oral history recordings

Get a Reader Pass

Access over 170 million collection items for free with a Reader Pass.